You’re smarter than your camera, because…

Gary Hart Photography: Cradled Crescent, Sierra Foothills

Cradled Crescent, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7RII
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
.4 seconds
F/8
ISO 400

Your camera is stupid (and you’re not)

In a previous life, I spent a dozen or so years doing technical support. In this role, job-one was convincing people that, despite all failures and error messages to the contrary, they are in fact smarter than their computers. Most errors occur because the computer just didn’t understand: If I misspel a wurd, you still know what I meen (rite?); not so with a computer. A computer can’t anticipate, reason, or create; given a task, it will blithely continue repeating a mistake, no matter how egregious, until it is instructed otherwise, fails, or destroys itself.

All this applies equally to today’s “smart” cameras—no matter how advanced its technology, a camera just can’t compete with your brain. Really. If I’d have allowed my camera to decide the exposure for this crescent moon scene, I’d have ended up with a useless mess: The camera would have decided that the foreground hillside was important and allowed in enough light to expose distracting detail and completely wash out the color in the sky. But I knew better. Wanting to simplify the scene, I manually metered and banished the insignificant details to the black shadows, capturing only the moon’s delicate shape and a solitary oak silhouetted against the indigo twilight.

It’s scenes like this that cause me to never trust my camera’s decision making, and why, in my (many) decades of serious photography, I’ve never used anything but manual metering. And since I try to have elements at different depths throughout my frame, focus is almost always my decision, not my camera’s, as well.

Today’s cameras are more technologically advanced than ever—their auto exposure and focus capabilities are quite good, good enough that nobody should feel they must switch to manual if they fear it will diminish the pleasure they get from photography. But if you define photographic pleasure as getting the best possible images, try spending a little time mastering manual metering and hyperfocal focus, then use that knowledge to override your camera’s inclinations. In my workshops, where I teach (but never require) manual metering and hyperfocal focus to all who are interested, people frequently marvel at how easy and satisfying it is to take control of their camera.


(Images I couldn’t have done in Auto mode)

My camera is a time machine

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Pastoral, Sierra Foothills

Sunset Pastoral, Sierra Foothills (2015)
Sony a7R
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
.6 seconds
F/9
ISO 100

Photographers frequently complain about what their camera can’t do, and take for granted the things it does well. A lot of this is a frustration with the inability to duplicate the world the way we see it. But honestly, what fun is that? My favorite photographs are those that show me something I might have overlooked or were not visible to my eye to my eye at all. As someone who tries to photograph a world untouched by the hand of Man, I particularly love the camera’s ability to return me to simpler times, reducing a scene to its essence by subtracting reminders of human incursion.

Gary Hart Photography: Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California

Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California (2005)

I recently returned to this small stand of oak trees huddled atop a hill in the low foothills east of Sacramento. Since I first photographed this scene over ten years ago, the peaceful country road “my” hill overlooks has evolved into a bustling artery for oblivious commuters. More recently, fencing has sprung up and an arcing dirt road has been carved into the hillside, a harbinger I fear of an impending subdivision. They’re everywhere up here now, these cookie-cutter developments with meaningless, corporate-crafted street names (Aspen Meadows Drive, Teakwood Court), devouring this once bucolic setting like a stage-4 cancer.

Despite the distractions, my camera’s “limited” vision instantly returns me to more peaceful times. Gone in a shutter-click are the highway’s roar and choking exhaust, while the encroaching suburbs are banished by the narrow view of a telephoto lens. And that scar of a road? It disappears in the shadows of the camera’s narrow dynamic range.

Photo workshop schedule


Celebrating the camera’s “limited” vision

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Here comes the sun

Gary Hart Photography: Here Comes the Sun, Mather Point, Grand Canyon

Here Comes the Sun, Mather Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/8 second
F/18
ISO 100

I rarely shoot at Mather Point because I’m usually working with workshop students struggling to corral the extreme dynamic range of a summer sunrise there. But on this morning a couple of weeks ago, about half the group had congregated at the rail in near the Mather Point amphitheater, allowing me to set up my tripod and occasionally visit my camera. When it became clear that the clouds were setting up for something special, I prepared my composition, set my f-stop to f/18 (in the sunstar zone), and ready my graduated neutral density filter in anticipation of the sun’s first rays peeking out from behind Wotan’s Throne.

Knowledge is power

As with many of my images, I can trace this image’s creation to long before the shutter clicked. That’s because, whenever possible, I avoid arriving at a location without knowing at the very least when and where the sun will appear or disappear. In this case I was familiar enough with the Mather Point in August to know that the sun would rise between Wotan’s Throne and Vishnu Temple. But I needed to be more precise than that.

We’re living in an era of ubiquitous information, carrying mini computers with the potential to make virtually everyone an instant astronomical genius. Though my own workflow for computing sun/moon arrival/departure information was established long before smartphones, it amazes me both how easy the internet and smartphones have made preparation, and how few photographers do it.

I got a little head start because I studied astronomy in college for a few semesters (long enough to learn that the essential math would would wring the marvel from my mind), enough to have good mental picture of the celestial rotations and revolutions that determine what we see overhead and when we see it.

While I’m just geeky enough to prefer plotting all this stuff manually, for most people I recommend starting with one of the excellent apps that automate most of the process. Of the two apps I recommend, PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I prefer PhotoPills because it seems more complete, but they’re both excellent.

If you’ve tried either of these apps and found them too complicated, don’t be discouraged—neither is so intuitive that you should expect to simply pick it up and use it. But each is logical and well designed, and I promise that the more you use it, the easier it will become. In other words, practice!

Practice

As with most things in photography, it’s best not to be trying to learn to predict the timing and position of the sun or moon when the results matter. Rather, I suggest that you plot tonight’s sunset from the park down the street, or tomorrow’s sunrise from your backyard. Figure out where and when the sun will set or rise, be there to check your results, and then figure out why it didn’t happen exactly as expected. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your predictions improve after repeating this process a few times. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to anticipate a sun or moon rise or set from home, it’s time to take the show on the road—pick a spot you know fairly well and apply your new knowledge there.

Working it out on the fly

For me, celestial preparation from the comfort of my recliner is only half the job. It’s great when I know exactly where I’ll be and when I’ll be there, but the reality of nature photography isn’t quite so simple. On a first visit to a new location, I often end up places I never imagined I’d be—Hmmm, I wonder where that road goes…, or, Gee, I bet the view from the top of that hill would be great…—often with no connectivity.

On location with no connectivity, I need to be able to figure out the celestial details with only the resources at hand. The two iPhone apps I’ve come to rely on most are Focalware (I couldn’t live without this app) and MotionX-GPS.

  • Focalware provides sun and moon rise/set times, the moon phase, and the altitude and azimuth of the sun and moon—all for any any time and date, and any location on earth. It uses my phone’s GPS to determine my current location, but doesn’t require cell or wifi connectivity.
  • MotionX-GPS gives me topo maps and the ability to plot point-to-point linear distance as well as azimuth. While its maps do require connectivity to download, I can pre-download them to my phone so they’ll be available when I’m offline.

Using these two apps, plus my basic understanding of astronomical dynamics, I’m able to figure out everything necessary to plan a shoot. On this morning at Mather Point, I pulled out my iPhone and opened Focalware to determine the sunrise time and azimuth. I used the MotionX-GPS Measure tool to drop a pin at my current location, then stretch a line, at the angle of the sunrise azimuth, across the canyon until it intersected the horizon. That was all I needed—seeing that this sunrise line passed just to the right of Wotan’s Throne, I was able to set up the composition I wanted.

Workshop Schedule


A gallery of celestial timing

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Concise guide to tripod selection for the serious landscape photographer

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/6 second
F/9
ISO 200
Lightning Trigger LT-IV

Tripod axiom

There’s an axiom in photography (popularized by Thom Hogan): Photographers purchase three tripods: the first tripod is a flimsy, cheap aluminum/plastic monstrosity; next comes a sturdy but heavy “value” tripod; and finally, they spring for the tripod they should have purchased in the first place—a sturdy, light, expensive tripod that will serve them for decades. You’ll save yourself tons of money by biting the bullet and just starting with the tripod that you covet (and probably already know you’ll eventually end up with).

How tall?

Your primary tripod should be tall enough to elevate your camera to eye level without extending the centerpost (it’s okay if the tripod has a centerpost, though a centerpost adds weight and makes it impossible to lower your camera all the way to the ground). While not essential, even taller is better than a tripod that only extends to eye level because extra height gives you more compositional flexibility, the ability to elevate above obstacles, and easier handling of uneven terrain.

Variables

Carbon fiber is lighter and and less prone to vibration than aluminum, but more expensive (see Tripod axiom above). Three leg-section tripods are less work to set up and take down; four leg-section tripods collapse smaller. In theory, the more leg sections a tripod has, the more it’s prone to vibration, but this isn’t a big concern with a good tripod.

Tripod head

For landscape photography, I strongly recommend a ball head (pivoting ball that can be controlled by loosening and tightening a single knob) rather than a pan/tilt (a lever for each axis of motion). And stay away from the pistol-grip ball heads—they don’t handle weight well.

L-plate

I’m a huge fan of the Arca-Swiss L-plate setup for mounting your camera to the ball head—once you use it, it’ll be hard to imagine how you lived without it. An L-plate is a 90-degree (L-shaped) piece of machined aluminum that mounts flush with the bottom of the camera body, attaching via the tripod mount screw—its L-shape wraps the perpendicular side along one side of the camera body. The entire length of both plate axes are rails that attach (with a lever or knob) to a corresponding mounting clamp on the tripod head. This rail setup is more secure and easier to mount/unmount than a conventional quick-release plate, making switching between horizontal and vertical orientation a simple mater of releasing the clamp, rotating the body, and re-securing the clamp (it takes longer to read the description than to execute it).

Because every camera model has its own dimensions and unique cable, control, memory card, and battery access points, the best L-plates (like Really Right Stuff) are custom-machined for the body (when you get a new camera, you’ll need a new L-plate).

My tripods

I use two Really Right Stuff tripods: the larger RRS TVC-24L is my primary tripod; I also use a smaller, lighter RRS TQC-14 when I fly or hike. My TVC-24L has a RRS BH-55 (overkill for my Sony mirrorless system— I’d probably get a BH-40 if I had to do it over again); my TQC-14 has a BH-30. I’m about 5’ 9” and without the centerpost extended the TQC-14 is just a little shorter than ideal (I need to extend my centerpost a few inches to get my camera to eye level), but it’s a justifiable compromise when weight and/or storage length is a factor. All of my camera bodies and tripod heads are outfitted with RRS Arca Swiss type L-plates and corresponding clamps.

Links

Making the case for using a tripod
Really Right Stuff


Gary Hart Photography: Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

About this image

Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

The best nature images reveal aspects of the world that the human eye misses. For example, though lightning strikes so fast that it’s already a memory before the brain can process them, the camera’s ability to freeze an instant in time preserves magic moments like this that otherwise would be lost forever.

Lightning’s speed makes photographing it  without a tripod virtually impossible: in daylight, it requires a lightning sensor that mounts atop the pre-composed camera and waits for lightning to fire; at night it can be captured with a manual shutter press, but at exposures far too long for hand-holding. 

On this afternoon on the North Rim last month, Don Smith and I had our workshop group set up to photograph a series of active thunderstorms skirting the South Rim about 15 miles away from our vantage point on the Grand Canyon Lodge viewing deck. The deck was packed with people enjoying the show. In crowded locations like this I particularly appreciate the height of the RRS 24L, which gave me the flexibility to elevate above heads and other obstacles. The 24L’s sturdiness gave me peace of mind that my camera would remain stable despite all the heavy footsteps nearby. 

Virtually all of the strikes were vertical, cloud-to-ground strokes directly across the canyon. But already having a pretty good selection of images like that, my camera was set up (on my tripod, Lightning Trigger ready for action) to favor the composition I wanted rather than in the direction of the most lightning activity.

Most of my lightning captures this afternoon were recorded relatively close to my memory, albeit with much more intricate detail than my eyes saw. This cloud-to-cloud strike, the only lightning I captured with this composition, followed a far too circuitous path for my eye/brain to register, but it was etched forever in pixels by my sensor. Better still, the resulting 42 megapixel raw file gives me the luxury of much closer scrutiny than you get with this 800 pixel jpeg. Magnifying the full file to 100 percent, I’m able to infer that what I have here is only a portion of a rather tangled mess of electricity that skipped in and out of clouds, appearing, disappearing, and doubling back on itself like a tangled thread—all in the blink of an eye.

Photo Workshop Schedule


A gallery of frozen moments in nature

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Lightning lessons

Gary Hart Photography: Two Bolts, Grand Canyon

Two Bolts, Grand Canyon
Forked Lightning, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/13 second
F/13
ISO 50
Lightning Trigger LT-IV

This is an updated version of the Lightning article in my Photo Tips section (which I’ll soon move over there too), and the article that recently appeared on the Sony Alpha Universe page. Improvements include a “Night Lightning” section and many additions to the “Maximize your odds” section.

Let’s start with the given that lightning is dangerous, but if “safety first” is a criterion for intelligence, photographers are stupid. It’s impossible to be 100 percent safe photographing lightning, but the more you understand lightning, how to avoid it and maximize your safety in its midst, the greater your odds of surviving to take more pictures. And not only does a healthy respect for lightning’s fickle power make you safer, understanding lightning will also help you anticipate and photograph lightning.

The shocking truth about lightning

Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes the negative/positive polarization between two objects (when you get shocked touching a doorknob, you’ve been struck by lightning). The convective air motion (convection is up/down circular flow caused when warm, less-dense air rises, cools and becomes more dense, and finally falls and repeats the process; convection is also what causes bubbling in boiling water) in a thunderstorm transports positively charged molecules upward and negatively charged molecules downward. Because opposite charges attract each other, the extreme polarization (positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground) is quickly (and violently) equalized: Lightning.

With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding rapidly (exploding) when heated by a 50,000 degree lightning bolt. The visual component of the lightning—the flash or bolt that you see—travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (virtually instantaneous regardless of distance). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound  (a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light).

Knowing that the thunder occurred simultaneous with the lightning flash, and that they travel at different speeds, we can infer that the farther we are from the lightning, the greater the time elapsed between the arrival of the lightning and thunder. And since we know how fast both travel, we can compute the approximate distance the lightning struck from our location

At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel about a mile in about five seconds, so dividing by five the number of seconds between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash give you the lightning’s distance in miles (divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers). If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means the lightning struck about three miles away.

Lightning safety

The 30 people killed by lightning in the United States each year had one thing in common: each didn’t believe he or she would be struck by lightning when they started whatever it was they were doing when they were struck. The surest way to be safe in an electrical storm is to be in a fully enclosed structure or metal vehicle, away from open windows, plumbing, wiring, and electronic devices (ideally, 100 miles away). But since that would preclude our ability to photograph lightning, we need to find a middle ground.

While there’s no completely safe way to photograph lightning, there steps to improve your odds of surviving to enjoy the fruits of your labor. This is where more knowledge comes to the rescue. Most lightning strikes within a six mile radius of the previous strike. So, if less than thirty seconds elapses between the flash and bang, you’re too close. And since “most” doesn’t mean “all,” it’s even better to allow a little margin for error. Thunder isn’t usually audible beyond ten miles, so if you can hear the thunder, it’s safe to assume that you’re within the range of the next strike.

But if you do find yourself caught outside in an electrical storm, with no available shelter, try to do as many of the following steps:

  • Avoid water
  • Avoid high ground
  • Avoid exposed areas
  • Avoid metal or electronic objects
  • Avoid tall objects such as trees and open structures (and tripods)
  • Stay at least fifteen feet from other people
  • If you’re surrounded by trees, position yourself near shorter trees, as far from trunks as possible
  • Do not lie down
  • Crouch with your feet together and your hands covering your ears
  • A lightning strike is often preceded by static electricity that makes your hair stand on end and an ozone smell (best described as the smell of electricity—I think of bumper cars at the amusement park or the smell of my electric slot cars when I was a kid)—if your hair starts to stand up and/or you notice a distinct odor that could be ozone, follow as many of the above steps as you can, as quickly as possible (often you’ll only have time to crouch).

Night lightning

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Photographing lightning at night is fairly straightforward, following most of the rules and difficulties that apply to any other night photography shoot: metering, composition, and finding focus in low light. My exposure settings are usually a function of the lightning’s frequency—if it’s only firing every five or ten minutes, I need stretch out my exposure time with a lower ISO and/or smaller aperture.

Rather than try to meter a night scene conventionally, I find the easiest way to get a proper night exposure is to start with a 30-second, large aperture, extreme ISO (ISO 6400 or higher) test exposure. When I get an exposure that works, I determine the shutter speed that suits the lightning frequency, and the lightning density I want in my frame, figure out how many stops more than my 30-second test exposure that is, and subtract the same number of stops from my ISO and f-stop. This test exposure is a good way to check my composition and focus in extreme low light situations.

Daylight lightning

Until recently, most lightning photography was either at night, when a long exposure will capture as many strokes that occur while the shutter’s open, or the product of pure luck—the shutter just happened to be open when the lightning fired. Daylight lightning is difficult because if you’re relying on your reaction time, the strike will almost certainly come and go before you can react (people who claim success with this technique have usually captured a secondary or tertiary bolt). But now we have lightning sensors, which can detect and respond much faster than any human can react.

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, it fires the shutter immediately upon detecting lightning.

There are many lightning sensors from which to choose. I went with the one that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At slightly less than $400, including a cable to match your DSLR, the LT-IV is far from the cheapest option, but from all I’ve read, heard, observed, and (especially) experienced first hand, lightning sensors are not generic products, and the internal technology matters a lot. The Lightning Trigger is the only one I’d use (I get no kickback for this).

A good lightning sensor should detect lightning at least 20 miles away. And you can count on a lot of extra clicks—for every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning not visible to me, or outside my camera’s field of view (better too sensitive than not sensitive enough). But when lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that my Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time.

But even firing in response to a visible bolt doesn’t ensure a successful image—sometimes the bolts are so short that the camera can’t click fast enough. This is a limitation of your camera, not your sensor—some cameras are significantly faster than others (more on this later). In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts with long duration and/or multiple strokes that significantly increase your odds.

Exposure settings

The daylight lightning shutter speed sweet spot is between 1/15 and 1/4 second—faster shutter speeds risk completing the exposure before some or all of the secondary strokes fire; slower shutter speeds will wash out the lightning (which is why you can’t just put on a neutral density filter and dial in a long exposure to capture daylight lightning).

Achieving daylight shutter speeds around 1/8 second isn’t always easy. I shoot in Manual mode, use a polarizer, often at ISO 50 and f16 or smaller. Of course exposure will vary with the amount of light, and you may not need to go to such extremes if you’re shooting into an extremely dark sky. You can also use a neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed, but take care not to slow the shutter speed beyond 1/4 second and risk washing out the lightning entirely. And if you’re in manual mode (as I am), be aware of the rapidly changing light in a thunderstorm—an exposure that worked five minutes ago might be all wrong now.

After doing this for many years, I’ve developed an exposure approach that seems to work fairly well for me. When the scene is fairly bright, I tend to go with faster shutter speeds like 1/10 to 1/15 second. I find that longer shutter speeds in these situations tends to was out the lightning I capture, making it less dramatic or even virtually invisible. But when dense, saturated clouds block the sunlight and darken the clouds significantly, I usually extend my shutter speeds into the 1/4 to 1/8 second range. The lightning still stands out quite nicely against the dark clouds, and the longer shutter speeds allow me to capture more multiple strokes.

Shutter lag

Because shutter lag (the time elapsed between the press of the shutter button and the shutter opening) is death to lightning photography, you’ll want a camera with as little as possible shutter lag. Too much delay, and the bolt will be gone before the camera clicks. (Using shutter speeds in the 1/15 to 1/4 second range, there’s no concern that your shutter will be too fast.)

Shutter lag is one area where the Sony mirrorless cameras shine—after years of shooting Canon, and working with Nikon and other camera brands in my workshops, I’m pretty confident that the Sony mirrorless bodies are the fastest, often by a large amount.

Ideally, you’ll want a camera with shutter lag faster than 60 milliseconds. Somewhat slower shutter lag won’t shut you out completely, but the slower your camera, the lower your success rate will be.

The best resource I’ve found for camera shutter lag times is http://www.imaging-resource.com. In the Camera Review section, look for the Pre-focused time on the Performance tab (though I can’t guarantee that any sensor but the Lightning Trigger is able to pre-focus).

Regardless of the camera you’re using, there are a couple of things you should do to do to minimize shutter lag:

  • Turn off autofocus. Even with back-button focus (focus not tied to the shutter button), on some cameras autofocus will initiate a brief communication between the lens and camera that will slightly delay response. 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, I recommend manual exposure mode to eliminate any metering when the shutter trips (again, this could vary with the camera).
  • Turn off any pre-click detection, such as face-recognition. (Noise reduction settings shouldn’t matter, since that’s a post-click function.)

It may very well be that your camera isn’t slowed with these features enabled, but since it’s virtually impossible to get camera manufacturers to commit to a camera’s performance at this level (and despite the wealth of self-proclaimed experts who claim to know), I think it’s wise to minimize your chance for problems by simplifying your camera’s capture process as much as possible.

Other equipment

Other essential or recommended equipment*:

  • A sturdy tripod (and despite what you might have heard, you’re no safer with carbon fiber than you are with aluminum)
  • Rain gear that will keep you dry from head-to-toe
  • An umbrella for shielding your camera and lightning sensor (many sensors, including the Lightning Trigger, aren’t waterproof) while composing and shooting in the rain
  • Lens hoods to reduce the raindrops that might mar the front element of your lenses
  • Neutral density filter and/or polarizer to slow shutter speed
  • A garbage bag (my choice) or rainproof camera jacket (haven’t found one I like) to protect your camera
  • Extra lightning sensor batteries (better safe than sorry)
  • An infrared remote to make sure the sensor is functioning (I sometimes borrow the remote from the hotel)
  • A towel (also borrowed from the hotel)

* While I don’t recommend risking staying out when the thunderstorm is on top of you, there will be times when the rain sneaks up on you (I’ve had to leave my camera out in a downpour when a too-close bolt chased me to shelter).

Getting the shot

My goal is to photograph lightning that’s happening somewhere else. In other words, if I’m in the storm, I’m too close. For example, places like the rim of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite offer vantage points with expansive views that allow me to photograph thunderstorms from many miles away (which of course still doesn’t absolutely guarantee safety).

Do your homework

Before attempting a lightning shoot, research potential vantage points and familiarize yourself with the weather patterns in the area you’d like to photograph. It’s possible that most storms in your area will tend to form at around the same time of day, and move in the same direction—this knowledge will definitely improve your chances. It’s also a good idea scout escape routes and have a plan if you’re caught off-guard by an advancing or developing cell.

Because you can’t be everywhere at once, I strongly recommend using a smartphone app that reports current lightning activity. For example, when I’m at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, I usually stay in Tusayan, about 15 minutes from the rim, and often don’t know exactly when the lightning has started, or whether it’s west or east. I can also get a pretty good idea of where the storms are building and the direction they’re moving to get myself out to the rim before the show starts.

The app I use on my iPhone is Lightning Finder, which reports (with a minimal annual subscription), virtually real-time, every lightning strike in North America. Another subscription-based (for real-time lightning) app that I’ve heard good things about but haven’t tried is RadarScope. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so you might want to do some research to see what’s out there.

Maximize your odds

Choosing a conventional landscape scene usually involves some planning to ensure the best light for my planned subject, and that the weather will cooperate. But lightning photography is far more opportunistic—we may know that a chance for lightning exists, but we rarely know exactly where it will appear. So while I may have an idea of a landscape to put with my lightning, but if the lightning’s not happening there, my lightning shoot won’t be terribly productive unless I adjust.

The greater the vertical distance raindrops rise and fall in the clouds, the greater the potential for the extreme polarization that’s conducive to electrical activity. So look for towering thunderheads, the higher the better. I also look for gray curtains of rain hanging beneath dark clouds, which is usually an indication of where the cell is most active. The darker the rain curtains, the heavier the rain and the more likely there will be lightning. But be aware that the lightning doesn’t necessarily fire in the darkest part of the clouds—sometimes you can see lightning in the thinner gray areas out front of the main rain band.

My general approach is to identify the most likely lightning source (rain curtain) and find the best composition that includes it. The wider your composition, the greater your odds of capturing lightning somewhere in your frame, but the smaller the lightning will appear. I tend to start wider to ensure success, then tighten my composition once I’m fairly confident I captured something.

Sometimes I encounter a situation where the best lightning is firing above a boring scene, but I see potential (but so far no lightning) above a much better scene. That’s a classic risk/reward dilemma without an absolute best solution. Because I have so many lightning images, I tend to go with the better composition rather than the best chance for lightning. On the other hand, I advise those who have few or no lightning captures to opt for the sure thing until they know they’ve had some success.

A frequent composition problem I see in the initial images of my workshop students is too much sky. Monitor the storm until you know the height of the lightning’s origin, then put the top of the frame a little above that—more sky if there’s something interesting above, less if it’s homogenous gray clouds. But it’s better to have a little too much sky than to have the lightning coming out of the top of your frame.

With a lightning sensor engaged and firing, it’s easy to feel like there’s not much to do. But lightning storms move, so in addition to the obvious safety implications (which should be your primary concern), it benefits you to monitor and anticipate the lightning activity’s path. Armed with this knowledge, I’ll frequently shift, tighten, or widen my composition as the situation dictates.

Since my Lightning Trigger is so sensitive, picking up lightning well out of my frame and (most frequently) in inter- and intra-cloud lightning that’s invisible to the naked eye in daylight, I get far more frames than I get lightning. This going through hundreds of frames on my computer to find the ones with lightning a very tedious task. That job becomes much easier if, when my Lightning Trigger is armed and ready, I lock my eye on the horizon. When I see lightning and hear my shutter click, I mark that frame by quickly clicking another with my hand in front of the lens. (If I don’t hear my shutter click, I check to make sure everything is working and set up properly.)

Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so monitor the storm you’re photographing, and the sky around you in all directions, closely and continuously. Not only will this enable you to adjust your composition to account for a cell’s movement, it can save your life when an active cell threatens your location.

Grand Canyon Monsoon Photo Workshops


A Lightning Gallery

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Less sky, more canyon

Gary Hart Photography: Forked Lightning, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Forked Lightning, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/6 second
F/14
ISO 50
Lightning Trigger LT-IV

Don Smith and I just wrapped up 13 days and two workshops at Grand Canyon. Bookending the trip with 12+ hour drives, each day we had 4:30 a.m. wake-ups, lots of waiting for something to happen punctuated by bursts of extremely intense activity, and very late dinners. Both groups enjoyed the full complement of monsoon thrills, including thunder and lightning, rainbows, dramatic clouds, and vivid sunrises and sunsets that made the difficult schedule more than tolerable.

Most workshops have a theme that develops organically and takes on a life of its own throughout the workshop. At some point I realized that second workshop’s theme had somehow become me peering at an LCD, or projecting an image onto the screen during image review, and advising (with emphasis), “Less sky, more canyon.”

I won’t belabor a point I’ve made many times (most recently here) that the most frame space should go to the part of the scene with the most visual interest, except to say that few locations illustrate this better than Grand Canyon. It’s a rare sky that compete with the canyon’s majesty, but what I saw frequently in this workshop was photographers giving half or more of their frame to a sky that didn’t match the canyon below.

I suspect this was happening for a few reasons. Sometimes people just reflexively split their frame with the horizon, or automatically break their scene with the horizon 1/3 of the way down from the top, or up from the bottom, because a misguided judge at their camera club enforces the rule of thirds with Biblical conviction. Other times they simply were composing for lightning firing across the canyon and just weren’t sure how high the lightning originated. But for the distant lightning we usually shoot, that’s invariably fairly near the horizon, and it only takes one strike to get a pretty good idea of where that will be.

This doesn’t mean Grand Canyon images should never include lots of sky, it means that the sky you give your Grand Canyon image should be earned. A towering rainbow? Horizon-to-horizon sunrise or sunset color? By all means, widen your lens and tilt the camera up. But don’t forget that even when the sky is spectacular, it’s the canyon that makes your image special.

No sky, minimal sky, lots of sky—I came away from this workshop with lots of new images I’ll be sharing over the next few weeks. The image here was from the first of two spectacular lightning shows, one for each workshop, our groups enjoyed. We were about halfway into the image review at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim when the lightning started up across the canyon. We instantly jumped into an unrehearsed Keystone Cops scene, scrambling for our gear, racing for the door, and setting up on the viewing deck outside.

Don and I had prepped the group on Lightning Trigger setup on the first evening, and made sure everyone’s Trigger was functioning, so we didn’t have too many problems that afternoon.

The show lasted over two hours, and by the time it was over, everyone in the group had multiple lightning images.

Join next year’s Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop


Less sky, more canyon

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The cure for the summertime blues

Gary Hart Photography: New Moon, Sierra Foothills

New Moon and Oak, Sierra Foothills
Sony a6300
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 100

There are many great reasons to be a landscape photographer in California. Summer isn’t one of them. Most people find California’s benign whether appealing—our mild winters and dry summers are one of the Golden State’s prime attractions. But to photographers, blue skies are boring, and California’s summer skies are nothing if not blue.

We say goodbye to our clouds in May, and I go stir crazy waiting for their return in October. One summertime solution is night photography, which requires clear skies. As an added bonus, summer’s warm temperatures make fumbling with camera gear and standing around in the dark much more tolerable, and the Milky Way’s bright center is very much a summer feature. California’s dense population means extreme light pollution through much of the state, but our proximity to mountains make escaping the light relatively easy in summer.

Because I can’t always make it to the mountains, I’ve found other photo opportunities in the foothills closer to home. The wildflowers of spring are gone, and the sun has burned the once green grass a golden brown, but the foothill’s oak trees are reliable silhouettes against the colorful twilight sky. Once upon a time I was satisfied with simple silhouettes, but in recent years I’ve made an effort to include a crescent moon in my foothill oak silhouette scenes.

A crescent moon only appears in close proximity to the sun, hanging in the brightest part of the post-sunset/pre-sunrise sky, above a (relatively) dark landscape. The more of the moon that’s illuminated, the farther in the sky from the sun it will hover (a full moon is exactly opposite the sun, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise). Since a crescent rises and sets just before or after the sun, there’s not a lot of time when it’s above the horizon and the sky is dark enough for its thin outline to stand out.

Getting a crescent moon to align with my foreground subjects is all about timing—for example, some months a new moon follows the sun too closely, dropping below the horizon before the sky has darkened enough to reveal it. The next night the moon lags so far behind the sun that that getting it in the frame with my subject before the sky darkens too much requires a moon-shrinking wide angle lens. As much as I enjoy accenting a scene with a small crescent, I truly love photographing the moon large.

My most recent attempt came last Thursday, a day I’d circled in my calendar several months ago after calculating that the moon would be in the perfect twilight window—not too low or too high—for my favorite trees. My brother and I started the evening at a location with a lower horizon so we could photograph the sun setting into the trees (I blogged about that shoot last week), then zipped up the road to a spot that I’ve been photographing for years.

Sometimes I can photograph this scene from the road, but in summer the new moon sets so far north that we had to angle a little south and climb one small hill and circle another to align it with the trees in the distance. Aligning the trees and moon enabled me to shoot the entire scene with my Tamron 150-600 and Sony a6300 for maximum magnification.

There are actually two trees side-by-side atop this distant hill, but I had so much magnification, I could only photograph one at a time. I gave both trees equal time—today’s image came early in the shoot, when the moon aligned better with the left-most tree. As the moon descended to the right, I eventually turned my attention to the other tree.

Regardless of the tree I was working on, I moved around a lot, left/right and up/back, dodging cow pies, to balance the moon and tree in the frame and find a relationship that worked. By ascending a small hill behind me, I was even able to extend the shoot a few minutes before the moon finally disappeared.

It would have been very easy to stay home and do something else that night. I know these simple images aren’t big money makers, and summer moon and oak silhouettes may not be as spectacular as Yosemite Valley covered with snow, or a rainbow above the Grand Canyon, but I find photographing them no less personally rewarding. (I already can’t wait until next month.)

One more thing: See the small dot of light on the right, at about the same level as the moon? That’s Mercury, another sun-hugging visitor only visible in the dawn or dusk twilight glow.

Read more about photographing a crescent moon


A crescent moon gallery

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