The Grand Canyon, lightning, and lots (!) of people

Lightning Strike, Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon

Lightning Strike, Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/15 second
75 mm
ISO 50

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The thunderheads started blooming at around 11:00 a.m; by noon they were delivering rain and lightning at widely dispersed locations around the rim. It was Grand Canyon day two, the first full day of last week’s monsoon visit with Don Smith. Seeing black clouds to the east, we drove out to Lipan Point, but after an hour or so of nothing much, decided to shake things up and brave the crowds near Ground Zero for Grand Canyon tourist activity, Mather Point.

At Mather, Don and I split immediately—Don headed a little east toward an outcrop away from the crowds; having seen a couple of strikes already, I didn’t feel like exploring and headed to familiar territory right in the teeth of the tourists.

Sharing popular vistas with tourists can be trying, but it’s also lots of fun if I remember that my priorities are different from everyone else’s, and that my desire to get a good photograph in no way entitles me to special consideration. Additionally, because carrying a tripod labels me Photographer, I represent not just myself, but the entire community of photographers. In other words, in the minds of others, if I’m a jerk, it’s not just me who’s a jerk, it’s all photographers. If someone walks through (or stands in) my frame, I wait; if someone kicks my tripod, I simply smile and recheck my composition; if someone asks me questions (“Is that a real camera?”; “Are you a photographer?”; “What’s the best camera?”), I answer politely. And I’m always happy to snap pictures of the family, no matter how many cameras they hand me.

Because an extended tripod can occupy more space than I’m entitled to, and can be a real safety hazard for people gazing out rather than watching their step, I try to plant myself in as unobtrusive a location as possible. At the Grand Canyon, where everyone lines the rail, this isn’t always easy. In these situations I try to identify the ideal spot, then stand back and wait for the current occupant to move—fortunately, gawkers rarely stay long. Once at the rail, I put one or two tripod legs over or through the rail to minimize my footprint on the traffic side.

At the Grand Canyon in particular, where foot traffic seems to flow constantly, I avoid moving around much once I’m set up. This isn’t ideal for someone as concerned about foreground/background relationships as I am, but if I make the right choice to start, I can usually stay happy in one spot for twenty or thirty minutes by simply altering my focal length and orientation.

On this afternoon it wasn’t long before I was set up in a spot that made me happy. Having succeeded capturing lightning with a wide composition the prior day, I tried tighter compositions here at Mather. To maximize my odds for success with each composition, I stuck with a composition for two or three bolts (or until it was clear that nothing more was happening in that part of the sky), at least fifteen minutes in most cases. While waiting I’d just stand back, away from the rail, alternating my view between the target rain cell and the steady stream of tourists. With each bolt I’d quickly check  the red light on the back of my camera to confirm that the shutter fired. After forty or fifty minutes in a spot, I’d shift to a different location.

Being fairly tight with the composition, I know I missed a few strikes just outside my frame. Of the four hits I got that day, the one at the top of this post was the best combination of position in the frame and brightness (I cropped it a little in Photoshop to tighten further). In a perfect world I’d have gotten a bolt striking either Brahma Temple (in the back), or Zoroaster Temple (the shorter tower just in front of Brahma), but I was pretty happy to get this one landing right behind Brahma, about six miles away.

In addition to all the quality time absorbing the Grand Canyon’s majesty and the novelty of an electrical storm to my California eyes, I had a blast meeting and talking with people. Lots and lots of people. Between flashes I answered many, many questions: “What are you waiting for?” (“Lightning.”); “What’s that thing on top of your camera?” (“It’s a lightning trigger.”); and, “How does it work?” (“It detects lightning and fires the shutter much faster than I can.”) These questions often led to great conversations with visitors from all over the world, many of whom stood and rooted for lightning right along with me. All in all, a really nice day.

(For a more technical discussion of lightning photography, click here.)

8 Comments on “The Grand Canyon, lightning, and lots (!) of people

    • Thanks, Mike. Daylight lightning is particularly difficult to photograph, which might explain why we don’t see too many pictures with it.

  1. Your patience is inspiring. Seriously! I will try to remember this when I choose to grumble about every minor irritation. And I also liked the shot 🙂

  2. Great shot Gary. I’ve competed with tourists at the Grand Canyon until I realized I was one and got right sized. I came close to eternal life in the Rockies, shooting with John Shaw, when a sudden storm hit at 14,000 feet, and we had to find shelter rather quickly. We had been photographing butterflies, and like the childrens book, I wondered where they went when it rained. We were entertained by the mountain goats who seemed immune to the weather gods. Love your blogs…Richard

    • Thanks, Richard. Yeah, you really don’t appreciate the power of lightning until you experience it up close. The combination of exhilaration and terror is inversely proportional to the time separating the lightning and thunder.

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