Lucky strike

Gary Hart Photography: Half Dome Lightning Strike, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Half Dome Lightning Strike, Glacier Point, Yosemite
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
.4 seconds
ISO 50

A Lightning Trigger in California is usually about as useful as a fishing pole in the Sahara. But every once in a while a little sub-tropical moisture sneaks up the Sierra crest and blossoms into afternoon thunderstorms. I monitor the weather daily (okay, that’s probably understating it a bit) for just these opportunities, rooting for Yosemite thunderstorms the way a Cubs fan roots for a World Series. And until last weekend, with just about as much success.

Last week the moist vestiges of Hurricane Blanca were sucked into an unstable airmass above the Sierra, just the thunderstorm recipe I’d been looking for. While each day’s Yosemite forecast called for at least a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms, the Saturday forecast looked particularly promising. Nevertheless, several days out, the Saturday thunderstorm probability from the National Weather Service varied widely, fluctuating with each report between 40 and 70 percent. But as Saturday approached, the chances settled in at around 60 percent and I made plans to be there.

Saturday morning my brother Jay and I left Sacramento a little after 8 a.m., and were pulling into Yosemite Valley before noon. Blue sky prevailed upon our arrival, but by the time we finished our sandwiches at Tunnel View, cumulus puffs were sprouting along the crest, a very good sign. Stomachs full, we continued up the road toward Glacier Point. In the forty or so minutes it took to reach Washburn Point, just up the road from Glacier Point, the cumulus puffs had congealed into roiling gray mass that was already delivering coin-size raindrops to my windshield.

The best way to photograph lightning is from a distance (the greater the better), not impossible at the Grand Canyon, where I can stand on one rim and photograph strikes pounding the opposite rim a dozen or more miles away. But my Yosemite lightning target is more specific: Half Dome, which towers above Yosemite Valley like a granite lightning rod, no more than 2 1/2 miles from any vantage point on the Glacier Point road—well within the Margin of Death of even a moderate thunderstorm. (The Margin of Death, or MOD, is my term for the radius surrounding the last lighting strike within which the next bolt could strike.)

In addition to the dramatic profile of Half Dome above Vernal and Nevada Falls, Washburn Point has the advantage of nearby, elevated parking lot that would allow us to set up a Lightning-Trigger-armed camera on a tripod and wait from the safety of the car with a view of the cameras. So, rather than risk trying the more exposed and more remote (much longer sprint to the car) Glacier Point vistas, we started at Washburn Point.

Setting up, we saw lightning firing on the most distant peaks beyond Cloud’s Rest, and safely behind Half Dome. This being my first real attempt with the Lightning Trigger on my Sony bodies (with the exception of one rushed, impromptu, and unexpectedly successful attempt at White Sands last week), I was looking forward to comparing the response of the Sony bodies to my Canon 5D Mark III (shutter lag is a major body-to-body variable that can make or break a lightning shoot). But since Jay didn’t have a Lightning Trigger, and his body is an older Canon 5DII, good brother that I am (plus, he threatened to tell Mom if I didn’t share), I let him use my Lightning Trigger (I have two) and 5DIII.

Soon the rain and wind intensified, the flashes came more frequently, and the thunder grew louder, but rather than retreat to safety, we stayed with our cameras. The activity continued to approach until it seemed to be centered just down the hill in the general direction of Glacier Point, visible to us not as discrete bolts but rather as general flashes in the clouds. Still, we knew the lightning was close because of the relatively short gap separating flash and bang, yet it wasn’t until Jay said he felt the hair standing up on his head and arms that we got smart. Or rather, less stupid.

Back in the car we watched the show at Washburn Point until it abated, then decided to move down the road a bit, to another view closer to Glacier Point. Here we couldn’t see our cameras from the car, but we were able to park within 50 feet or so of their vantage point. Despite the continued dangerously close proximity of the lightning, we again stayed out a little longer than we should have, finally being driven back to shelter not by lightning but by the wet and cold conditions.

This was my first attempt at lightning since my switch to Sony; I was using the a7S because the a7R wasn’t fast enough for lightning (a problem completely cured on the a7RII). The a7S caught all three of the Half Dome hits I saw, with the twin-branched bolt you see here being the most spectacular. My composition was fairly wide for a couple of reasons: first, because the wider I go, the greater my odds of capturing something; second, with Nevada and Vernal Falls on the right, and Tenaya Canyon and Mt. Watkins on the left, the scene justified it.

To say I was lucky this afternoon would be an understatement. Not only did a lightning bolt hit my intended target, my camera captured it (never a sure thing, no matter how fast the camera), and I actually lived to share the shot with you. Here in the comfort of my recliner, I’m kind of at a loss to explain why I thought it was a good idea to stay out with lightning landing well within the MOD. While there are definitely things to tend to while waiting for lightning—shielding the camera from rain, wiping raindrops from the lens, adjusting exposure as the light changes, monitoring that the camera does indeed fire with a visible strike, and simply answering questions from curious onlookers (and preempting their urge to touch the equipment)—none is important enough to risk my life. In my defense, I am much more cautious when I’m guiding a group, which of course will be small consolation to my wife and kids at my funeral.

Photographing daylight lightning

Here are my tips for photographing daylight lightning:

  • You need a lightning sensor that detects the lightning and fires your shutter much faster than your reflexes can react. The only sensor that I’ve found to work reliably is the Lightning Trigger by Stepping Stone Products (I get no kickback, I swear). Of course have brands many to choose from, some much cheaper than the Lightning Trigger. While I have no direct experience with many of the other sensors, I do lead lightning workshops and have witnessed some major fails by other brands.
  • Your camera must be fast, the faster the better. The speed you’re looking for is the time from the shutter-button press until shutter release: shutter lag. Unfortunately, shutter lag is a difficult number to find, and it’s rarely (never?) provided by the manufacturer. The best resource I’ve found is the Performance tab of the Imaging Resource camera reviews. Even they can’t provide a simple value because there are multiple variables, and you can’t simply assume that your camera is automatically working at the fastest. To ensure the fastest shutter lag possible, turn off autofocus (this is important) and shoot in manual exposure (on some cameras this might not make much difference, but there’s no way of knowing for sure so I think it’s best to just turn it off). The pre-focused time (shutter button pressed halfway) is what you’re going for, but some (most?) triggers don’t do this—the Lightning Trigger does.
  • The shutter-speed “sweet spot” is 1/8 to 1/4 second, but anywhere between 1/15 and 1/2 second should work pretty well. If you’re too fast, you risk missing some of the secondary strikes that often accompany the initial strike; if you’re too slow, the lighting tends to get washed out. Keeping the shutter open long enough to get into the sweet spot in broad daylight often requires the lowest ISO possible (it helps if your camera goes down to ISO 50), and a polarizer (I use Singh-Ray). A neutral density filter will work too, but make sure you don’t go too slow with the shutter speed or the lightning you capture might faint or not even visible.
  • Come with a strategy for keeping you and (especially) your gear dry. I never go out to photograph in the rain without my waterproof gear, which keeps me dry from head-to-toe: rain hat, parka, waterproof over-pants, waterproof shoes—a stylish ensemble that frees my umbrella for my camera. This strategy works great when there’s no lightning, but—well, let’s just say that an umbrella might not be the best choice when lightning’s in the area. When photographing lightning, I use a waterproof rain cover for my camera (which I won’t recommend because it’s a pain and I’m looking for something I like better—stay tuned). And as much as I hate lens hoods (they just get in the way), I have to admit that they can help keep raindrops off your front lens element. I also make sure to carry multiple lens cloths in my pockets (because there are too many pockets in photography, so it’s just easier to have a cloth in each pocket than it is to remember which pocket I put it in) and check my front element for raindrops frequently. Also handy is a bath towel to dry all of your equipment before you put it away. A chamois (check your local auto parts store) also works great for this. And a garbage or plastic grocery bag (there’s always one in my camera bag) is great for tossing over your camera any time you’re caught in a sudden downpour.

Some links

Upcoming workshops

A stormy weather gallery

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

27 Comments on “Lucky strike

  1. I have been waiting to see what you captured. Thank you for all the information and for sharing the amazing photo. It is spectacular 🙂 And your mother would be proud that you shared your equipment with your brother. 🙂

  2. Another question I have. Was this still daylight? Didn’t see a mention of a filter to block the light more than just stopping down to f11.

      • Thanks for the info. And you are a good brother sharing both camera gear AND juice box…..

  3. Gary, the excitement expressed in your writing narrative matches your lighting photos. I felt I was almost there, but of course, I would have been sheltered in the car. Great images! Lynda

  4. Beautiful photo of the lightening strile on Half Dome! I can’t comment on the wisdom of standing near a camera in an electrical storm, but it sounds almost as smart as being on horseback (and both the horse and I wearing metal) during them. Yup, took me a while to wise up…;

  5. Great write-up and images, as always Gary. The writing skills you bring from your former life benefit us all.

    Just read Don’s blog and he wasn’t as lucky with his lightning quest. Maybe you should offer him a juice box in sympathy. 🙂


    • Thanks, Mike. Yeah, I was quite fortunate things worked out. Don’s weather forecast looked promising too, further proof that there’s just nothing certain about trying to photograph the weather.

  6. Gary. This photo is just jaw dropping and crazy good. Crazy risky, too. (That’s probably not a workshop you guys will be leading any time soon.) The lightening could have struck anywhere on your frame and made it a powerful shot but right on the tip of the dome? Jeepers.

  7. It’s a wonderful image, of course, because it’s one of yours. Perseverance, a vast body of knowledge about the weather and location, and a finely tuned sense of balance between reasonable risk and craziness – that’s what makes you the professional, while most of us would prefer a warm cup of coffee indoors.

    • Thank you, George. Quoting Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I do my best to maximize my odds, but ultimately need to rely on forces beyond my control. I honestly don’t think photography would be as enjoyable for me if every single shoot worked out exactly as planned.

  8. You’ve done it again. Another awesome shot showcasing your skillful mastery of photography. Hope your wife gave you an earful, but the thunderstorms are glorious in Yosemite, aren’t they? BE SAFE

  9. Hi Gary, I hate to disagree with you, this is not the shot of the month, it is the shot of a lifetime. You have outdone yourself again. What an amazing shot!

  10. Pingback: Yosemite, weather or not | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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