Gungho about time lapsing… again.

Every year, with the turning of the calendar to a new year I find myself with a renewed outlook on what I want to do with my approach to photography and storm chasing in the coming year. And since it always seems to be “I need to get back into time lapse photography again this year!” Colin Davis pointed out after I texted him the other afternoon that I had made a yearly routine of this.

But really, 2015 needs to be a return to time lapse for me. I can let myself list off any number of reasons why I’ve fallen into a funk the last couple of years… lack of time, lack of photogenic skies, lack of tornadoes…

If I can find myself giddy wearing 3 layers of clothing time lapsing a damn halo around the sun, there is no excuse.

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RMNP Trip, Sept 27th: Trail Ridge Road Night Sky

After getting settled in for the weekend, grabbing some local tacos, and falling slightly short on our sunset shoot Colin and I decided to continue on up Trail Ridge Road to shoot the night sky. This would be the first of several wardrobe selection fails on my end. Temperatures being in the 70s down at the base, shorts and a t-shirt had served me just fine. I think “well, of course it will be a little bit cooler up there, throw on a sweatshirt”. Lots of altitude gain later I’m feeling 40 degrees for the first time since April on top of a mountain with 25 mph winds and the sun disappearing. Embrace the cold, they say. We were initially in that awkward phase immediately after sunset where you don’t have that magical late day sunlight anymore, but there is also too much twilight remaining for decent night lighting to set in. My general rule of thumb is to hang tight and then go nuts about 30-45 minutes after sunset. When it seems like the perfect time to begin shooting with the naked eye, I usually wait another 15 minutes. That’s when you’re able to get capture the stars popping, but have just enough barely visible to the naked eye twilight on the horizon that with a long exposure on the camera you’ve got some beautiful lighting.

Anyway, we scoped out a location and parked it for a bit while waiting for the post-sunset lighting to adjust. Once it did, I was in absolute sky ecstasy mode. For a deprived sky photographer, moments like these on top of a mountain with your camera and a friend, deafening silence, a vivid night sky, and a cold breeze are soul cleansing. I bounced around the road and tundra trying different angles working in the occasional traffic headed down the mountain, the cliffs, the distant lights of Boulder, Colorado. I had forgotten all about the cold. At one point, all that was audible through the wind was a bull elk somewhere down across the tundra that was bugling loudly. Oh, and don’t forget the distant lightning from far away thunderstorms over the mountains to our west. These moments keep me alive.

We shot for several hours, well into the pitch black night, stopping periodically as we headed back down the mountain. After sleeping about 3 hours out of the last 36 hours (15 of those driving) and 500 photos later, day 1 of our trip was finally in the books.

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Just entering RMNP we shot some of the gorgeous colors as we neared sunset.

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More sunset glow just inside the park.

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Well up Trail Ridge Road now, just getting out of that awkward phase between sunset and night lighting.

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And commence me running all around the side of a mountain.

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Traffic going up and down Trail Ridge Road made for some awesome glowing road scenes. My only bummer is that scale is really lost on this. You’re probably looking half a mile around the side of the mountain here, but the distance and large scale of the mountain side / valley is somewhat lost here.

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Grainy grainy grainy. I still shoot with the same DSLR that I bought in 2008. Why? Because I love it like I love a significant other. But man am I ready to upgrade to a less grainy at night option for these starry skies.

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This scene actually turned out to be cooler in the moment than it did on film. This is looking over the mountainside down at Boulder/Estes Park. The streaks at the bottom of the image are cars driving along the roadways in RMNP. Just did not get a photo that conveyed the scene the way I wish.

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Colorado / RMNP Trip Phase One: Trip Overview

It’s been rough on the ‘Sky Drama’ front as my tornado-drought approaches 2.5 years, likely knocking on the 3 year anniversary if things don’t go well in the early spring of 2015. April 14th, 2012… that was the last time I saw the sky make contact with the ground. Colin Davis and I decided to take a break from our whining and started planning a fail-proof trip to the Rockies for Fall 2014. I think somewhere around June we decided on the last weekend in September. My overall plan is to share the trip in segments based on each location or photo op that we settled on. Each day was a general routine of waking at 6:00 AM, shooting the sunrise at a pre-determined location, and then once that favorable morning light settled we’d grab a bite somewhere in Estes Park before roaming the mountains until that magic hour around sunset approached and we’d settle in on a pre-determined location to finish the day. This led to 500-600 photos per day on average being taken at random locations for a variety of different reasons. It’ll be easiest to go back through the thousand plus photos and keep the story telling simple, doing each shoot its fair justice than dumping them into a single album and sharing all at once. I guess I could keep typing away at this intro paragraph until I wear myself out…

Anyway. I haven’t had the time to sit down and go through each different sitting, but I did want to give the trip a little bit of love so I’m going to just broad brush the entire trip with a little chatter and a few photos that I did process during and immediately following the trip.

We planned the trip over a weekend, spilling into Tuesday of the following week. I stopped by the grocery store to pick up some essentials (coffee, granola bars to eat while watching the elk from a mountain, more coffee) and hit the road around 10:00 PM on Friday night. With a bout of accident related traffic, I pulled in to Colin’s place in Canton, IL around Midnight. A quick transfer of bags into his trunk and we were on the road. Originally we talked about flying out to Colorado, but with the minimal storm chasing we had done in 2014 and lack of Great Plains “road time” we had under our belt for the year I said “this is what we do, let’s drive across the plains and do it right”. It was around 1:00 AM with a 14 hour drive ahead across Iowa and Nebraska ahead of us that we realized we should have flown.

Alternating driving/passenger seat snoozing through some lightning filled thunderstorms in Iowa, we were soon halfway through Nebraska and Saturday morning college football games were finally on the radio to get us through the rest of the journey. We rolled into Colorado shortly after lunch time, and were in Estes Park around 4:00 PM.

We got settled in, grabbed some local tacos, and set out to shoot the first sunset of the trip. The rest of the weekend was a lather, rinse, repeat of sunrise, drive around the mountains, sunset.

Here’s a big dump of photos from random spots throughout the four day trip.


Posing with the sunrise on the final morning of the trip. Winds were howling off the mountains – note the horizontal vortex.


Dinner with an elk.


I was the only one on the peak of this mountain for the longest time, before another lady traipsed up there and asked if I wanted my picture taken up there. Feeling very at home (and very cold) inside the clouds.


Does it get any better than a peaceful morning shooting the sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Lake?


Colin shooting a bull elk that was making all kinds of noise on the first morning of the trip.


Seriously though? Heading out to shoot the first sunset on the day of arrival.


Driving out to find a location to shoot the sunset on day one.

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Making do with a cool rainy afternoon in the mountains.

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The most absurd rainbow I have ever seen. So many photos of this to come. Rain rain rain all day and then this.

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More rain… but rain in Colorado is the best rain of all.

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Remembering why night time astro-photography has always been my favorite. And what better place to do that on the tundra atop Trail Ridge Road? Easily one of my Top Five favorite moments in life in 2014.


August Convection

Tornado season passed me up altogether, and it seemed like the summer lightning season was poised to do the same. After spending the majority of July and August under a fall-like weather pattern, enjoying unseasonably cool, but unseasonably boring weather, things finally swung the other direction. Temperatures this week have returned to the 90 degree mark across much of the midwest, with dew point rising to near 80 degrees at times. Air you can wear, as they say. With a weak front slowly meandering back and forth over the area we’ve seen several waves of slow moving thunderstorm clusters erupt over the area through the first part of the week.

Monday afternoon and evening was quite stormy over Champaign-Urbana for much of the evening, with the thunderstorm complex slowly moving off to the south after sunset. I headed just south of town to a favorite spot and decided to squeeze in my first lightning photos of the summer. It was a mostly frustrating endeavor; the lightning ended up skipping the foreground I had in mind, and I missed several of the better early bolts as I was still dialing in the settings on my camera. IMG_9430 c IMG_9469 c

Tuesday had me out earlier in the day. I noticed thunderstorms going up early in the afternoon nearby, so I took the afternoon off from work to go play. It is sad sad times when you are leaving work early for zero shear, high instability, stationary pulse thunderstorms. But it is what it is – and the storms showed me this by immediately dying as I left the house. Luckily, round two quickly followed as another storm erupted around 4 PM directly over the house. After playing in the garden out back, the sky clouded over and cloud to ground lightning bolts began shelling the neighborhood. I grabbed the camera again and was treated to a little bit of convective fun just to the south of town.

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Landspout chasing is dumb. (May 29th)

May 28th featured some pulse storms going along a subtle stationary boundary draped across central Illinois. I was busy the entire day while I watched landspout tornado reports come out of some of the storms near Bloomington, IL, about an hour to my northwest.

A day later on the 29th, the same boundary had progressed a whole 30 miles south and was located more or less right over my house. During the early afternoon, towers began going up again, and this time with nothing planned during my afternoon I figured I would go sit under the developing storms and make sure nothing funny happened for a second day in a row. I had been texting my brother Wil about the stupid idea of landspout “chasing” and he seemed down, so we headed out together at 1:30.

A landspout, forms under the same process as a waterspout. It is by definition a tornado, but is often much much weaker than the traditional mesocylone born tornado that forms under a supercell thunderstorm. Landspouts instead, form from the ground up; a small swirl if you will, that is stretched by the updraft of a developing thunderstorm. They often die once the tower cumulus cloud develops into a full fledged thunderstorm, as the rainy downdraft squashes the circulation. They can be quite photogenic, but as fellow chaser Skip Talbot said, it’s basically a lephrecaun hunt. They are brief, form without warning, and almost without reason. Trying to call your shot and be in position under the right cumulus cloud before a landspout tornado develops just does not happen very often, especially in a situation such as this with a ton of tiny storms going up along a very long stationary boundary.

Either way, I had the afternoon off and wanted to hear some thunder.

The short story is, we didn’t see anything. The long story isn’t worth writing. We played around with several rounds of convection along the boundary until there was so much cloud debris from earlier thunderstorms that it wasn’t even worth staying out to photograph the precip shafts from the new storms anymore. We headed back into town around 4.

I suggested jokingly that perhaps there was already a landspout in progress but we couldn't see it due to the recent rains and wet soil not being able to be kicked up... so Wil took to the air.

I suggested jokingly that perhaps there was already a landspout in progress but we couldn’t see it due to the recent rains and wet soil not being able to be kicked up… so Wil took to the air.

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Downtown Urbana Time Lapse

Here is the little time lapse of the gust front passing over downtown Urbana, IL on May 12th. Nothing incredible, but really reminded me that I need to get back into the habit of shooting TL again.

Beginning to think we stand an outside chance at an MCS / bow echo in central Illinois tomorrow afternoon. NAM continues to suggest thunderstorms erupting near Peoria in NW Illinois during the early afternoon and then quickly moving them east across central Illinois during the afternoon on a little upper level shortwave.