Posted on September 17, 2017
Aloha from Hawaii!
Let’s have a show of hands: Who feels like their photography has stagnated? Let me suggest to all with your hands up that what’s holding you back may be the very rules that helped elevate you to your current level of proficiency. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that rules are important, the glue of civilization. Bedtimes, homework, and curfews got us through childhood and taught us to self-police as adults. Now we get enough sleep (right?), meet deadlines at work, and toe the line well enough to have become productive members of society with very little supervision (give yourself a gold star). But let me suggest that many of us have become so conditioned to follow rules that we honor them simply because they’ve been labeled “rule.”
As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of society, our reluctance to question rules sometimes impacts areas of our lives that might not be so cut-and-dried. One example would be photographers’ blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended “experts” proliferating online, in print, and at the local camera club. These self-proclaimed authorities spew absolutes for their disciples to embrace: Expose to the right!; Never center your subject!; Tack-sharp front-to-back!; Blurred water is cliché! Blah, blah, blah…. (My standard advice to anyone seeking photographic guidance is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, beeline to the nearest exit because the truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography.)
Rules serve a beginning photographer the way training wheels serve a five-year-old on a bike: They’re great for getting started, but soon get in the way. At first, following expert guidance, beginners’ photography improves noticeably and it’s easy to attribute all this success to rules. But by the time the improvement slows or even ceases altogether, those rules have become so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to realize they now hold us back. You wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or run the Boston Marathon on crutches.
If photography were entirely rule-bound, engineers could write algorithms and design robots that did our photography for us. But the very definition of creativity is venturing beyond the comfortable confines of our preconceptions to create something new. In other words, if you’re not breaking the rules, you’re not being creative.
For the last eight years I’ve spent one or two weeks on Hawaii’s Big Island. And on each trip I make multiple visits to the (fabulous) Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just north of Hilo. There’s so much to love here, but I’m always drawn to the bottom of the garden overlooking Onomea Bay, where the luxuriant jungle unfolds beneath an interlaced canopy of towering monkeypod trees (albizia saman). Every time I’m down here I try to find a composition that captures the lushness I feel in the saturated air, and the way the monkeypod’s branches seem etched against the sky. And each time I come away a little disappointed.
This year, armed with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I decided to give the scene another shot beneath the late afternoon overcast. With a decent breeze stirring the leaves, I pushed my ISO to 800 to be safe. Widening my view to 12mm and pointing up, it soon became clear that the palm tree I needed to anchor my frame belonged in the middle. And even without metering I knew that the crazy dynamic range (the shaded side of every leaf juxtaposed against a bright sky) would force me to sacrifice the texture in the clouds in favor of the essential detail and color in the jungle’s dense shadows.
Both of these important considerations flew in the face of rules that have constrained photographers for years. For as long as we’ve held a camera, our inclination to bullseye every subject has been stifled by voices whispering the “rule” of thirds (horizon 1/3 up from the bottom or down from the top; primary subjects at the intersections of an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid on our frame) in our ear. And of course digital photographers everywhere know to never blow the highlights.
In this case, even though it would get me booted from many camera club photo competitions, I’ve been scoffing at the rule of thirds long enough that centering the palm tree wasn’t hard. But seeing nearly half my frame flashing highlight warnings was a little more difficult. Nevertheless, I held my breath and went ahead with the shot you see here. And it turns out, instead of creating a problem, the white (overexposed) sky becomes a feature that only enhances the rich green and etched branches.
Sit down and write out your strongest, longest held photography rules (trust me, they’re there). Challenge yourself to break at least one of these rules each time you go out with your camera. Don’t expect miracles—at first your resulting images might not thrill you, but I promise that you’ll grow as a photographer, and you just might learn something in the process. (Oh, and you can put your hands down now.)
Breaking the rules
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on September 10, 2017
As a self-employed landscape photographer, I’m governed by far more primitive time measurement constructs than the bustling majority. I work when there’s work to be worked, and (fingers crossed) play when there’s play to be played. The business side of my life sometimes requires a clock and calendar, but the actual photography part of my life is governed by fundamental laws of nature that transcend everyone else’s clocks and calendars: the earth’s rotation on its axis, the earth’s revolution about the sun, and the moon’s position relative to that celestial dance.
(The irrelevance of clocks and calendars is never more clear than the first morning following a time change. On the second Sunday of each March, when “normal” people moan about rising an hour earlier, the sun thumb its nose at Daylight Saving Time and rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before. So do I. And the first Sunday of November, as others bask in their extra hour of sleep, I get to sleep an entire minute longer. Yippee.)
With my days inexorably tied to the arrival and departure of the sun and moon, and my seasons ruled by the changing angle of the sun’s rays, I sometimes long for a universe where the seemingly random events I so love to photograph can be predicted with the same reliability of a sunset or moonrise. Wouldn’t it be great to mark our calendars for the annual rainbow that arcs above Yosemite Valley at 7:15 p.m. on May 8, or the lightning bolt that strikes Grand Canyon’s Vishnu Temple at 3:05 p.m. every August 12. But Nature, despite the human need to measure, quantify, compute, and record everything still has its secrets. And as much as I long for predictability in my photography life, I think it’s the randomness that keeps me going out there
I love that the precision of a moonrise and the randomness of a lightning strike are both manifestations of the Universe’s celestial choreography: One coin, two sides. And I can’t tell you what thrills me more, the unpredictable explosion of a lightning strike, or the impeccably punctual appearance of a full moon above the landscape. But I love that relationship of earth, moon, and sun that we have down to the microsecond are also the catalysts for the clouds, lightning, rain, snow, rainbows, and so on that feel so random.
Last month I was at the Grand Canyon primarily to photograph lightning (fingers crossed), and as successful as that aspect of the trip was, one morning when lightning was not on the menu we nevertheless made the short trek out to Bright Angel Point. The pre-sunrise blackness was darkened further by a layer of clouds, but as the daylight advanced in the east, the clouds retreated to the west, revealing a waning gibbous moon above the canyon. Whoa. I had no plan to photograph, but adding the moon to an already wonderfully serene morning was just impossible to resist. I quickly set up my tripod and camera, framed a vertical composition, and clicked four wide frames.
Even though I hadn’t planned for it, I’m reasonably certain that the moon was exactly where it was supposed to be. If nothing else, that morning’s beautiful surprise demonstrated that ignorance-induced randomness feels no less random (and wonderful).
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Planned and “Random” Moments in Nature
Posted on September 1, 2017
Earlier this month Don Smith and I traveled to the Grand Canyon for our annual Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops. I enjoy every workshop, but as a true weather nerd, these monsoon workshops are particular highlights in my year, and in Northern California we just don’t get that much weather—that is, unless you consider homogenous blue (summer) or gray (winter) skies weather.
For this trip, I started monitoring the Grand Canyon forecast about a week before the first workshop (okay, maybe a little earlier than that), and ramped up my queries as the workshop approached. If hoping and handwringing could make lightning, I’d never have a bad day at the Grand Canyon, but after three days of fairly benign conditions, workshop group number one was still waiting for their lightning. Then, like a walk-off grand slam, on our final full day Mother Nature gifted us with a spectacular, two-hour lightning show. Phew. In fact, that afternoon we got an entire workshop worth of dramatic weather in about five very intense hours. The day’s highlights included lightning and two rainbows, and wrapped up a mammatus (google it) sunset at Cape Royal. All’s well that ends well.
Contrast group one’s eleventh hour salvation with workshop group two, which hit the ground running (quite literally) before we could even have an orientation. The second workshop was scheduled to start with a 1 p.m. orientation at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. As go most mornings in monsoon season, the day started quietly, but a little after noon lightning started up across the canyon and Don and I set up our tripods, cameras, and Lightning Triggers. With the designated gathering place in front of the lodge, but the viewing deck and lightning show in the back, Don and I took turns running up front and dragging folks down to our location. Those who had arrived with camera gear were put right to work, while the ones who had left their gear in their car or cabin and had to race back up the hill to fetch it.
By 1:15 we were seeing one or two strikes per minute, sometimes more, spread across a fairly broad area of the South Rim. Soon Don and I had a dozen photographers spread across two outside decks separated by an enclosed viewing room. Most of them had never used a Lightning Trigger, or even photographed lightning, so once we got everyone assembled, most of the next hour was spent running around setting up and testing Lightning Triggers, helping people achieve the right exposure, and suggesting compositions.
During that first hour our cameras, set up and primed for action, enthusiastically fired away unattended. When I’m with my camera during a storm, I’m constantly tweaking my composition, exposure, and Lightning Trigger sensitivity. Left to its own devices, my camera ended up with over 400 frames of the very same scene, most of which had no lightning (because the trigger was detecting lightning too faint to register). Fortunately, by the time everyone had settled into a comfort zone with their cameras and Lightning Triggers, not only was the lightning display still going strong, it had moved closer (but remained at a relatively safe distance) and was isolated to the most photogenic part of the view. Our second hour was pure joy, as each dramatic strike seemed designed to outdo the one that preceded it.
The image I share at the top of this post came when the storm was at its most intense, moving southwest to northeast across (right to left) the canyon, just a little east of our location. The brightest bolt you see is striking just below the South Rim, between Yaki and Shoshone Points, but ten miles away.
When all was said and done, I got about 50 strikes that afternoon, and everyone in the group got multiple strikes as well. We had another productive lightning day the next day, but this is the day I’ll remember.
Lightning Photography Revisited
Photographing lightning at night is mostly a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction with a multi-second shutter speed and hoping the lightning fires while your shutter’s open—pretty straightforward. Photographing daylight lightning is a little more problematic. It’s usually over before you can react, so without a lightning sensor to recognize lightning and click your shutter, success is largely dumb luck (few people are quick enough see it and click).
Lightning Trigger: The best tool for the job
A lightning sensor attaches to your camera’s hot shoe and connects via a special cable to the camera’s remote-release port. When engaged, the sensor fires the shutter (virtually) immediately upon detecting lightning—whether or not the lightning is visible to the eye or camera. With many lightning sensors from which to choose, before I bought my first one I did lots of research. I ended up choosing the sensor that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At a little less than $400 (including the cable), the Lightning Trigger is not the cheapest option, but after leading lightning-oriented workshops for five years, I can say with lots of confidence that lightning sensors are not generic products, and the internal technology matters a lot. The Lightning Trigger is the only one I’d use and recommend (I get no kickback for this).
I won’t get into lots of specifics about how to set up the Lightning Trigger because it’s simple and covered fairly well in the included documentation. But you should know that connecting the Trigger will disable your LCD replay, which means you won’t be able to review your captures without disconnecting (a simple but sometimes inconvenient task). You also won’t be able to adjust your exposure with the Lightning Trigger operational.
The Lightning Trigger documentation promises at least a 20 mile range, and I’ve seen nothing that causes me to question that. It also says you can expect the sensor to fire at lightning that’s not necessarily in front of you, or lightning you can’t see at all. For every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning I didn’t see, or that were outside my camera’s field of view. But when visible lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that the Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time (that is, even though I got lots of false positives, the Lightning Trigger missed very few bolts it should have detected). Of these successful clicks, I actually captured lightning in about 2/3 of the frames.
The misses are a function of the timing between lightning and camera—sometimes the lightning is just too fast for the camera. In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts of longer duration, multiple strokes that are easier to capture. And my success rate has increased significantly beyond 2/3 since switching from a Canon 5DIII to a Sony a7RII (more on this in the Shutter Lag section).
The Lightning Trigger documentation recommends shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/20 second—shutter speeds faster than 1/20 second risk completing the exposure before some or all of the secondary strokes fire; slower shutter speeds tend to wash out the lightning. To achieve daylight shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/20 second, I use a polarizer, with my camera at ISO 50 and aperture at f/16 (and sometimes smaller). Of course exposure values will vary with the amount of light available, and you may not need such extreme settings when shooting into an extremely dark sky. The two stops of light lost to a polarizer helps a lot, and 4- or 6-stop neutral density filter is even better.
Lightning is fast, really, really fast, so the faster your camera clicks the shutter after getting the command, the more success you’ll have. The delay between the click instruction (whether from your finger pressing the shutter button, a remote release, or a lightning sensor) and the shutter firing is called “shutter lag.” The less shutter lag you have, the better your results will be. The two most important shutter lag factors are:
- Camera model: It’s surprising how much shutter lag can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model. In a perfect world, for lightning photography your camera’s shutter lag will be 60 milliseconds (.06 seconds) or faster (the lower the number the better), but 120 milliseconds (.o12 seconds) or faster can give you some success. The top cameras from Sony, Nikon, and Canon are all fast enough, but the latest Sonys are the definite shutter lag winner (fastest), with Nikon second, and Canon third (slowest). And shutter lag can vary with the manufacturer’s model: While my Sony a7RII is one of the fastest cameras out there, my a7R was unusably slow, so you need to check your model. Unfortunately, shutter lag isn’t usually in the manufacturers specification, so it’s hard to find. The best source I’ve found is the “Pre-focused” time in the Performance tab of the camera reviews at Imaging Resource.
- Camera settings: Basically, to minimize the “thinking” the camera needs to before firing, you want to be in manual everything mode—metering and focus. If your camera offers an electronic front curtain option (as my Sonys do), use it. If you must autofocus, go ahead and do it each time you recompose, then turn autofocus off as soon as you’re focused. Though the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests Aperture Priority metering, I use and recommend Manual metering mode to eliminate any camera-slowing metering. And, also despite what the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests, noise reduction is a post-capture function that might slightly delay continuous frames, but it won’t increase shutter lag.
In addition to a lightning sensor and fast camera, you’ll need:
- A solid tripod and head: Don’t even think about trying to photograph lightning hand-held
- Rain gear that keeps you dry from head-to-toe
- Umbrella (a.k.a., Wile E. Coyote Lightning Rod) to shield your camera and lightning sensor (many sensors, including the Lightning Trigger, aren’t waterproof) while you compose and wait in the rain. (And obviously, when the lightning gets close, put the umbrella down and run for cover.)
- Lens hood to shield some of the raindrops that could mar the front element of your lenses
- Neutral density filter and/or polarizer to slow shutter speed into the ideal range (1/4 – 1/20 second)
- A garbage bag (my choice) or rainproof camera jacket (haven’t found one I like) to keep your camera and sensor dry during a downpour
- Extra lightning sensor batteries (better safe than sorry)
- Extra memory cards: When a storm is very close or active, your camera could click 20 or 30 frames per minute (even when no lightning is visible)
- Infrared remote to test your Lightning Trigger; I sometimes borrow the remote from my hotel room, but the Apple TV remote works great and is extremely compact (fits nicely into the Lightning Trigger pouch)
- A towel
Getting the shot
Lightning is most likely to strike in or near the gray curtains (clearly recognizable as distant rain) that hang beneath dark clouds. In addition to visible rain curtains, the darkest and tallest clouds are usually the most likely to fire lightning. Here are a few more points to consider:
- The wider your composition, the greater your odds of capturing lightning, but the smaller the lightning will appear in your image.
- Identify the most likely lightning cell and find the best composition that includes it. I tend to start with wider compositions to ensure success, then tighten my composition once I’m fairly confident I captured something.
- Note the height from which the lightning originates and be sure to include enough cloud to get all of the stroke. On the other hand, don’t include too much room above the lightning—one of the most frequent rookie mistakes I see is too much sky/clouds in the frame. Unless the storm is too close for safety, most lightning will originate from about the same height above the ground.
- The best is usually a midrange zoom such as a 24-70 or 24-105—if you find yourself reaching for the 16-35 (or wider), you’re too close.
- On the other hand, once you’re sure you’ve captured some good strikes, try putting on a 70-200. The narrow field of view can significantly reduce the number of frames with lightning, but the ones you get will be much larger in the frame and therefore more spectacular.
- Lightning stands out better in a slightly underexposed image. My target shutter speed is usually 1/8 second (slow enough to include multiple pulses, but not so slow that I risk washing out the lightning). When the sky is relatively bright, dropping to 1/15 or even 1/20 second can make the lightning stand out better than 1/8. Conversely, when the sky is extremely dark and the lightning is firing like crazy, extending to 1/4 second might increase your chances for multiple pulses.
- Just because you’re standing around waiting for things to happen, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Keep your eyes glued to the sky and adjust your composition as the lightning shifts, or as new activity starts elsewhere. If you wait until you hear your shutter click or someone else exclaim before looking up, you won’t see the lightning. And monitor the light—your exposure can change by several stops as the storm moves, intensifies, or winds down.
- Try not to check your captures on your LCD until you’re done (or better yet, until you upload your images to your computer). Viewing the LCD requires turning off the sensor, which risks missing a shot (I’m pretty sure lightning waits for me to turn off my sensor), and you’ll also find that many successful captures, especially wide compositions, just aren’t that visible on an LCD viewed in daylight anyway.
Do as I say (not as I do)
Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so you need to monitor them closely. Sometimes this simply means adjusting your composition to account for shifting lightning; other times it means retreating to the car if the cell threatens your location.
Join Don Smith and me in our next Grand Canyon Monsoon Photo Workshop
Read my article in Outdoor Photographer magazine, Shooting the Monsoon
A Lightning Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 23, 2017
After years of anticipation, months of planning, weeks of preparation, and days of stressing, the 2017 North American total solar eclipse came and went in 2 minutes and 6 seconds. When it was over, I wasn’t even sure I had any usable images, but I’m now qualified to state that experiencing a total solar eclipse transcends any images that result.
For the eclipse, my wife and I traveled to my brother-in-law’s (dirt-road remote) 160 acres in the mountains west of Alpha, Idaho, conveniently located in the middle of the path of totality. To avoid the crowds, we’d driven up Friday evening and hunkered down until Tuesday morning. Because the two weeks prior had been occupied entirely by workshops in Madison, Wisconsin (for Sony) and (mostly) at the Grand Canyon, I was playing catch-up with my eclipse prep, I tried to use the downtime in the mountains as efficiently as possible. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to order my eclipse glasses and lens filter while they were still available, so I was good to go equipment-wise. Not so fortunately, I quickly learned I’d been a little too cocky and hadn’t test things as thoroughly as I should have.
For the most efficient use of my time, I decided to set up two tripods, one with my brand new Sony 100-400 GM (on its maiden voyage) mounted on my a7RII, the other supporting the a7SII and Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4. While I could have done the telephoto shot from anywhere, I also wanted a series of images that needed a foreground. But with totality not until 11:26 a.m. the sun would be quite high, and I knew I’d need a wide lens in vertical orientation. I did some scouting on Saturday and Sunday, picking a spot with an east-facing view of the Long Valley and about a 10-minute walk up the mountain from our base of operations.
Sunday night I cut two solar filters from a 6″x6″ solar filter sheet I’d purchased just for this purpose, a filter for each lens, but by the time I’d gotten them fitted just right, the sun was down (cue portentous music). In bed on Sunday night, for the first time since I played baseball, I found myself rooting for blue skies. The forecast promised by the weatherman, I suspect with his fingers crossed behind his back, was little comfort because he’d also promised blue skies for each of the three days preceding the eclipse, and each had been stained by an assortment of disorganized stratus clouds that seemed to appear and disappear with alarming randomness.
The first thing I did Monday morning was poke my head outside and look skyward. Blue, nothing but blue. Exhale. After breakfast I donned my camera bag and headed for my spot, arriving as planned about 30 minutes before the 10:11 start time. So far so good. The filter for the 16-35 was perfect, but the 100-400’s filter was too small to cover the entire field of view when zoomed beyond 200mm. Uh-oh. After a few minutes of panic I devised an ad lib, but I lost precious prep, practice, and composure time. (Note to self: Cut filters early enough to test them in daylight.)
When the sun’s upper right edge started disappearing, right on schedule, I began firing slow and steady, click-click, one per camera, at about 2-minute intervals. Between each click-pair I donned my eclipse glasses and monitored the moon’s progress across the face of the sun. For nearly an hour the show was pretty cool, but nothing I’d never seen before, and I was able to relax bit.
A little after 11:00, about 25 minutes before totality (11:26), I became aware of an eerie warming of the light—eerie because it wasn’t accompanied by the long shadows we’re accustomed to when the light warms. By 11:15, the air had chilled noticeably and I reached for the flannel shirt I’d packed in anticipation. The light continued to warm and fade with each passing minute, but the mountains across the valley remained noticeably brighter, another odd experience given the cloudless skies—a clear indicator of the west-to-east advance of the moon’s shadow across the landscape.
The motion of the moon was best detected indirectly, by observing the shrinking sun, much the way the hour hand’s circling of a clock is recognized by the realization that its position has changed. Even with just a sliver of sun remaining, its ability to illuminate surprised me. Then, just like that, it was dark—not pitch dark, but dark enough for a few stars. But the only star that had my attention was the absolutely mesmerizing sun, whose brilliance had been snuffed in an instant that transformed it from the brightest thing in the sky to the darkest, a black disk fringed with shimmering light that seemed to pulse with energy.
Suddenly I was having a hard time concentrating on photography, but I snapped a series of images with my long lens, bracketing like crazy, and a couple of frames with my wide lens. Then I watched some more. And then it was over.
I’ve witnessed several partial eclipses, and one annular eclipse, but they were more memorable for what they represent than their spectacle. A total eclipse catches you off guard because in a heartbeat it goes from an amazing but familiar show to a visual extravaganza that defies both description and photography. A partial eclipse is to a total eclipse as a transistor radio is to a live symphony.
The method to my madness
I know that it’s virtually impossible to capture an eclipse photo that doesn’t look like thousands of other eclipse photos, but the image here is my attempt. If you read my blog, you know that I believe the opportunity for unique images lies in the ability to capture the world as the camera sees it, not as the human eye sees it. So, in the months leading up to the eclipse I thought about how to achieve this.
In a fast-shutter telephoto click featuring nothing but the sun, I lose the opportunity to leverage my camera’s take on motion and depth, but I can use the way my camera handles light. One plan was a shotgun approach to exposure, bracketing many shutter clicks across a wide exposure range, then see what I got. And I wanted to create a starburst effect when the sun reappeared. But rather than stop down to the f/16 or smaller f-stop I usually use for a starburst, I opted here for f/9 to broaden the sunburst rays. (To hedge my bets, I also tried f/16, but I like this one better.)
Because I know you’re going to ask…
When I say I want to capture the world as my camera sees it, I mean that I want my creativity to happen in my camera, not my computer. This image is a single click that’s nothing like what my eyes saw, but it is very much what my camera saw. The processing I did was minimal: To get the orange-yellow that I saw with the solar filter in place before totality, I warmed the color temperature in Lightroom, then somewhat desaturated it. I also tweaked the Exposure, Highlights, Whites, and Blacks sliders. In Photoshop I ran Topaz DeNoise, did a little selective desaturation (yellows), removed some lens flare. That’s it.
I should add that this image would probably not be possible without a camera that delivers the dynamic range of my Sony a7RII.
I’ve been photographing seriously for over 40 years, but never have I felt as much like a rookie as I did on eclipse morning. Walking down the hill when it was over, I was hyper-aware of the mistakes I’d made and the things I’d do differently. I don’t think my wide images will ever see the light of day (no specific problems, I’m just not thrilled with my results), but this is the first of several telephoto images that I like a lot. I know I’ll soon be processing a handful of images that look a lot more like what my eyes saw (but also look a lot like the eclipse images you’ve already seen). The one I share here is my favorite because it doesn’t look like what my eyes saw, but it does most accurately express the feeling I experienced when the sun burst from behind the moon and once again bathed the world in light.
My calendar is already marked for April 8, 2024.
Celestial Wonders: Sun, Moon, and Stars
Posted on August 18, 2017
Today I drive to the mountains of Idaho to photograph Monday’s total solar eclipse. Having never photographed an eclipse, total or otherwise, I have no eclipse images to share. And I won’t pretend to be an expert, or attempt to tell you how to photograph it. But I do have one piece of experienced-based advice that I want to share with photographers planning to capture the eclipse: Don’t forget to savor the moment.
For most, the eclipse will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memory of a lifetime. Totality will be over in minutes. I’ve had more than my share of these special opportunities, some as simple as a fortuitous confluence of breathtaking landscape and spectacular light; some as predictable as the moon hovering above a favorite subject; and some as unexpected as a sudden rainbow above an iconic landscape.
One such moment for me was the August morning in 2013 on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, when the weather forecast called for clear (boring) skies, and instead we got a two hour lightning display that started in the dark and climaxed with a rainbow and three simultaneous lightning strikes. For the first ten minutes of this show, my camera was misbehaving and I was unable to photograph anything. Nevertheless, my awe for what I was witnessing transcended my frustration, and today my memories are so much greater than a few favorite images. More important than the pictures I captured that morning are the vivid images etched in my memory, the people I shared the morning with, the emotion that came with each lightning bolt, and our giddy laughter at our good fortune. Truly one of the highlights of my life that would have been reduced to a few favorite captures if I’d have allowed myself to be too caught up in the photography. (And I still got my pictures.)
I honestly don’t know what to expect on Monday, but I expect it to be similarly thrilling, and I plan to drink in every second of it. I’ll do my scouting and planning to be as prepared as possible in advance, but I refused to be so focused on getting “the shot” that I fail to appreciate this experience of a lifetime. I’ll take a great memory over a great photo any day.
A Few of My Own “Moments of a Lifetime”
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 15, 2017
I’ve always been something of a weather geek, the more dramatic the better. So when I can combine photography with dramatic weather, I’m in heaven. But as a lifelong Californian (where electrical storms are newsworthy), lightning photography usually requires a road trip. So…
Each August, Don Smith and I pack our camera gear and Lightning Triggers and travel to the Grand Canyon to photograph the summer monsoon’s vivid sunrises, sunsets, and rainbows, and (fingers crossed) dancing lightning. For the last five years, we’ve turned these trips into back-to-back photo workshops, starting with two days on the South Rim followed by two on the North Rim, and reversing that order for the second workshop. It’s where I am right now, in fact.
We always get great photography at the Grand Canyon in monsoon season, but lightning is fickle, and never a sure thing. A few groups have been completely (or nearly completely) shut out, but in recent years we’ve been extremely fortunate, with all of our participants going home with multiple lightning images. Don and I have enough lightning images of our own (which doesn’t mean we stop trying for more), but we’re always anxious until everyone in our group gets at least one.
The forecast for this year’s first group didn’t look good for lightning at the start of the workshop, and we did a lot of hand wringing and forecast checking (and rechecking). The customary Grand Canyon monsoon spectacular sunrises and sunset kept people happy, but it was lightning they wanted. We told them not to stress, that the North Rim (the second half of the workshop) has always been good to us, then uttered silent prayers to the lightning gods.
Thursday, our final full day, dawned clear, and despite a somewhat more promising forecast, we were apprehensive. By mid-morning a few clouds had popped up above the canyon, but by 1:00 p.m. nothing promising had materialized and we went ahead with the planned image review keeping one eye on the canyon. During a short break I ran back to my cabin to grab my water bottle and was startled by the distinct rumble of thunder—by the time I made it back to the meeting hall I had heard several thunder claps and I told everyone to grab their gear, it’s showtime!
The group spread out on the Grand Canyon Lodge’s two viewing decks while Don and I bounced around making sure their scenes were properly composed and metered, and their triggers were firing. The activity started slowly, with a few strikes across the canyon, spanning several miles of the South Rim, making it difficult to decide exactly where to point the cameras. Nevertheless, each strike drew a cheer, with the most dramatic bolts eliciting shouts and whoops worthy of a three-pointer at the buzzer.
We all started with relatively wide compositions that maximized the odds of capturing lightning, but that also shrunk it in the frame. Soon the activity increased and became isolated to a large cell in the west, and we all focused our cameras toward Oza Butte. For the next ninety minutes, Mother Nature put on a display that thrilled us all, delivering single, double, triple, and even quadruple strikes. Lightning is too fast for human reflexes, but our Lightning Triggers were up to the task, clicking (virtually) instantly at every visible strike, and also at many too faint for the eye or camera to pick them up.
As soon as I returned to my cabin I uploaded my images into Lightroom. Due to a variety of factors, some bolts stand out more than others, so I carefully scrutinized each frame to ensure nothing was missed, flagging the ones with lightning. The frames with multiple and forked strikes get a star. When all was said and done, of the 302 frames my Lightning Trigger snapped that afternoon, 46 contained lightning, with 13 starred for multiple or forked strikes.
Everyone in the group captured many lightning strikes that afternoon. The strike I share above fired at the peak of last Thursday’s show, when the lightning was at its peak, repeatedly stabbing the rim with single, multiple, and forked bolts, and even strikes like this one, with multiple forked bolts in a frame spanning just 1/4 second.
One more thing
For very valid reasons, video has replaced still photography for many uses. Lightning isn’t (or shouldn’t be) one of them. Its life measured in milliseconds, a lightning bolt is gone before your brain has a chance to process what your eyes just saw. By the time your brain does register a lightning strike, the magnificent detail that makes each bolt as unique as a snowflake are gone forever. But a still image freezes that instant, enabling all who view to appreciate a lightning strike’s beauty and scrutinize its exquisite detail to their heart’s content.
A Lightning Gallery
(Favorite lightning images from this and previous years)
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 10, 2017
America’s National Parks have always been busy in the summer, but in recent years the summer crowds have virtually overwhelmed many of our parks. Between gridlock on the roads, more cars than parking places, and hip-to-hip tourists at the vista rails, what was once an opportunity to commune with nature has become a survival of the fittest endurance test.
My solution has been to avoid the national parks in summer, but for many summer is the only time to visit the special locations they’ve longed to see for their entire lives. And the only thing worse than visiting Yosemite or Grand Canyon in summer, is never visiting them at all.
Though I can’t make the crowds go away, let me offer an experience-based suggestion that is guaranteed to enhance your national park experience: Sunrise. Or more accurately, the morning hours from about thirty minutes before sunrise until around two hours after sunrise.
For most people the idea of rising before the sun on a vacation is laughable, but therein lies the genius. If you can overcome the urge to be most people, you can enjoy America’s most crowded national parks, at the height of the summer rush, in glorious peace. You won’t be alone, but you’ll be savoring the day’s first rays with a microscopic subset of the park’s total visitors, kindred spirits who relish nature and solitude as much as you do, who speak softly, stroll slowly, and respect personal space.
About this image
As much as I try to leave the national parks to the tourists in summer, my desire to photograph the lightning and rainbows of the Grand Canyon’s summer monsoon leaves me no choice. A couple of days ago, Don Smith and I guided our photo workshop group out to photograph sunrise at Grandview Point on the always crowded South Rim. Grandview is one of Grand Canyon’s most popular spots, but leaving our hotel about 45 minutes before sunrise got us out there about a half hour before the sun, and long before the tourists had even hit their snooze button the first time.
There were just a couple of other cars in the parking lot, the same lot that in just a few hours people will be circling in vain for five, ten, even fifteen minutes. Having Grandview virtually to ourselves, the group was able to spread out and find their own view of the canyon without competing with the teaming midday hordes that most people experience there.
Along with a few other people in the group, I set up in front a concave sandstone rock with a view across the canyon to where the sun would soon appear. Because this is my first trip with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I’ve been making a point to familiarize myself with it, so I twisted it on and went wide. With a clear horizon and relative dearth of clouds, I dialed my f-stop to f/18 to ensure a good sunstar when the sun crested the horizon, and composed a frame.
When photographing a sunrise, the advancing light makes it impossible to set the exposure very far in advance. In these rapidly changing conditions, I love my mirrorless Sony a7RII’s pre-capture histogram in my viewfinder—I just kept my eye on the histogram, dropped the shutter speed in 1/3-stop increments as the horizon brightened, and was ready to hit the ground clicking the second the sun appeared.
A Grand Canyon Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.