The reason I do this

Gary Hart Photography: Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
24-105L
ISO 100
F11

Nature photographers plan, and plan, and plan some more, but no amount of planning can overcome the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Few things are more disappointing than a long anticipated and perfectly executed shoot washed out by conditions beyond my control, but when all of nature’s variables click into place, the world becomes a happy place indeed. And when nature ups the ante by adding something unexpected, euphoria ensues.

Don Smith and I just returned from two weeks photographing the Grand Canyon. We did a little of our own photography on the trip, but the prime focus was our two four-plus day photo workshops, split evenly between the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims. These workshops were scheduled to give our groups the opportunity to photograph the Grand Canyon, day and night, under the influence of the annual Southwest monsoon: billowing clouds, vivid rainbows, and (especially) lightning. But any workshop requiring specific weather conditions is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety—we were fairly certain the photography would be great (after all, it is the Grand Canyon), but few natural phenomena are more fickle than lightning.

When plotting a workshop schedule (or any landscape photo shoot), the best a photographer can do is maximize the odds: We try to schedule all the non-photography requirements (meals, sleep, travel, training) for the times least likely to conflict with the best photography. For example, we know that because the monsoon thunderstorms usually don’t develop before midday, Grand Canyon summer sunrises often lack the clouds and pristine air necessary for the vivid color photographer’s covet. Therefore our photography emphasis for this workshop is on getting our groups out from mid-morning through (and sometimes after) sunset. That doesn’t mean we blow off sunrise, it just means that the sunrises are generally better for exhausted, sleep-deprived photographers to skip than the sunsets are.

Nevertheless, we rallied the troops at 5 a.m. Friday for the second workshop’s final shoot, a ten minute walk from our rim-side cabins to Bright Angel Point. The forecast was for clear skies, but the workshop had already had so many wonderful shoots, I considered this final one just a little bonus, the cherry atop an already delicious sundae. My mind was already on the long drive home—in fact, as Don and I exited our cabin in the pre-dawn darkness, I predicted that I wouldn’t even take my camera out of my bag that morning. My words as I turned the doorknob were, “But if I leave my bag here, we’ll probably get lightning and a rainbow.” Little did I know how grateful I’d be to have brought my gear….

What followed was what Don and I later agreed was probably the single most memorable workshop shoot either of us had ever experienced. Gathering in the lobby of Grand Canyon Lodge, we saw lightning flashes across the canyon, but it was impossible to tell in the darkness how far away it was. Hiking to the vista at the end of the trail, we saw several distinct bolts stab the rim, and by the time our gear was set up, the show had intensified, delivering numerous violent strikes in multiple directions that illuminated the canyon several times per minute.

The morning’s pyrotechnics continued for over two hours, awing us first in the dark, then through twilight, and finally into and beyond a magenta sunrise. And as if that wasn’t enough, as the sun crested the horizon behind us, a small but vivid fragment of rainbow materialized on the canyon’s rim and hung there like a target for the lightning to take potshots at it. This was more than just good photography, this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of weather, location, and light that more than made up for the many times nature has disappointed. Rather than bore you with more words, here are a few images from that morning:

Lightning Before Dawn, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Lightning Before Dawn, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Arriving on the rim about 45 minutes before sunrise, we found the South Rim under full attack. This 30 second exposure captured a pair of strikes near Mojave Point.

 

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon
As the sun neared the eastern horizon, I couldn’t help sneaking an occasional peek behind me. Seeing clear skies in the rising sun’s direction, I crossed my fingers for the clouds to hold off long enough to allow the sunlight to illuminate the lightning show before us. As the sun topped the horizon, its rays caught the rain falling along the rim, balancing a nearly vertical section of rainbow atop Powell Point. In this single, 1/3 second exposure, I managed to capture the rainbow briefly sharing the rim with three simultaneous lighting strikes.

 

Lightning and Rainbow, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Color and Light, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
The rainbow persisted as the lightning continued. Confident that I’d captured enough horizontal frames, I switched to a vertical composition in time to catch one more strike with the rainbow.

 

Incoming Storm, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Storm’s Approach, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
As the sun rose, the rocks reddened and the storm edged closer. Ridges visible earlier were slowly overtaken by the advancing rain, and long, rolling waves of thunder echoed overhead. Preceding the rain were billowing clouds; here I went with an extreme wide (17mm) vertical composition to capture the incoming storm skewering the rim with by a single bolt. I had to retreat to shelter shortly thereafter.

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops

Read about photographing lightning


A Lightning Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

30 Comments on “The reason I do this

  1. It’s too wonderful to lay simply to chance, to think it’s all caprice and circumstance. It brings too much joy to attribute it to good fortune alone, or to dumb luck. There was Something at work that day that almost seemed to intend to delight you.

  2. Reblogged this on His World and commented:
    Gary does some wonderful landscape photography. I hope you’ll consider following his blog.

  3. Pingback: Birdless | Wayne Nelson's Earth Image's Blog

  4. Pingback: It’s not just a hole with red rocks | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  5. Pingback: Last night, at the volcano… | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  6. Pingback: The calm above the storm | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  7. Pingback: Favorite: Sunrise Mirror | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  8. Gary, you are fast coming to #1 on my list of favorite photographers. I have become a Gary trekkie. Your photos speak to me. Thank You!!!

  9. Pingback: Shocking truths about lightning | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  10. Pingback: Seeing the trees for the forest | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  11. Glorious images, have my trigger on order, bags almost packed, not that I am anxious or anything.

  12. These are fantastic, Gary…. and a bonus rainbow. Is the lightning captured solely with a long exposure (and good timing) or do you always use a lightning trigger? Love this post and your work, as always. Thanks.

  13. Pingback: Nature’s transcendent moments | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  14. Pingback: Eclipse: Savor the Moment | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  15. Pingback: The first rule of photography: Just show up | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  16. Spectacular captures & interesting read ! Thank you for sharing! Made my day!

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: