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.
Here are my tips for photographing daylight lightning:
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.