The calm above the storm

The Calm Above the Storm, Grand Canyon

The Calm Above the Storm, Grand Canyon and Lightning by Moonlight, Mather Point
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
30 seconds
ISO 200
73 mm

If you’ve ever taken off in a violent storm, watched the exploding sky just beyond your window, felt the plane buck until you verged on panic, then suddenly broken through the clouds into utter peace, you might appreciate the dichotomy depicted in this scene.

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Overwhelmed by the euphoria the Grand Canyon workshop’s final sunrise was this moonlight experience on the South Rim a couple of nights earlier, the highlight of the workshop until that unforgettable morning. Don Smith and I had planned all along for this to be the group’s moonlight night, always a workshop highlight, but we got much more than we bargained for when we found the North Rim under a full scale assault from multiple electrical cells. The moonlit tranquility of our South Rim vantage point was a striking contrast to what was happening across the canyon. Several times per minute the clouds would strobe with lightning hidden by the clouds, and once or twice each minute a bolt would land near the rim for all to see. Above all this activity, the stars twinkled peacefully, clearly indifferent to the violence below.

Unlike the moonless experience at Kilauea a couple of weeks later, photographing with a full moon is pretty straightforward. Not only does the moon make a great focus point (just don’t forget to turn off autofocus before clicking your shutter), you can actually see your camera, its controls, the scene itself, and all potential obstacles (photographers, tripods, camera bags). And because exposures are generally short, do-overs are easy. So my job was easy, pretty much reduced to wandering around reminding everyone to vary their compositions, and making sure they’d all had a success.

Everybody got something that excited them that night, and the variety of images was amazing. I saw vertical and horizontal frames, wide and tight, most aimed north like this one, but there were also some great lightning captures to the east, up the canyon. My own favorite was this one that captured a bolt’s origin through a window high in the clouds, and its forked impact with the rim. While a wide composition would have increased the likelihood of capturing a strike somewhere in my frame, it would have also further shrunk the already distant lightning. My 73mm focal length in this case reflects my desire to make the lightning more prominent, and my confidence in the frequency of strikes in this direction (the more disperse the strikes, the wider I compose). Usually my night exposure decisions are designed to minimize star motion, but in this case I opted for 30 seconds to maximize the chance for capturing a strike (or more) during the exposure—a close look at the stars here clearly shows the onset of motion blur despite the fact that I was aimed north, where star motion is minimal.

This image reminds me why video is no substitute for still photography. Video’s benefits are undeniable, but the ability spend forever in a single instant like this is priceless.

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