I’ve always been something of a weather geek, the more dramatic the better. So when I can combine photography with dramatic weather, I’m in heaven. But as a lifelong Californian (where electrical storms are newsworthy), lightning photography usually requires a road trip. So…
Each August, Don Smith and I pack our camera gear and Lightning Triggers and travel to the Grand Canyon to photograph the summer monsoon’s vivid sunrises, sunsets, and rainbows, and (fingers crossed) dancing lightning. For the last five years, we’ve turned these trips into back-to-back photo workshops, starting with two days on the South Rim followed by two on the North Rim, and reversing that order for the second workshop. It’s where I am right now, in fact.
We always get great photography at the Grand Canyon in monsoon season, but lightning is fickle, and never a sure thing. A few groups have been completely (or nearly completely) shut out, but in recent years we’ve been extremely fortunate, with all of our participants going home with multiple lightning images. Don and I have enough lightning images of our own (which doesn’t mean we stop trying for more), but we’re always anxious until everyone in our group gets at least one.
The forecast for this year’s first group didn’t look good for lightning at the start of the workshop, and we did a lot of hand wringing and forecast checking (and rechecking). The customary Grand Canyon monsoon spectacular sunrises and sunset kept people happy, but it was lightning they wanted. We told them not to stress, that the North Rim (the second half of the workshop) has always been good to us, then uttered silent prayers to the lightning gods.
Thursday, our final full day, dawned clear, and despite a somewhat more promising forecast, we were apprehensive. By mid-morning a few clouds had popped up above the canyon, but by 1:00 p.m. nothing promising had materialized and we went ahead with the planned image review keeping one eye on the canyon. During a short break I ran back to my cabin to grab my water bottle and was startled by the distinct rumble of thunder—by the time I made it back to the meeting hall I had heard several thunder claps and I told everyone to grab their gear, it’s showtime!
The group spread out on the Grand Canyon Lodge’s two viewing decks while Don and I bounced around making sure their scenes were properly composed and metered, and their triggers were firing. The activity started slowly, with a few strikes across the canyon, spanning several miles of the South Rim, making it difficult to decide exactly where to point the cameras. Nevertheless, each strike drew a cheer, with the most dramatic bolts eliciting shouts and whoops worthy of a three-pointer at the buzzer.
We all started with relatively wide compositions that maximized the odds of capturing lightning, but that also shrunk it in the frame. Soon the activity increased and became isolated to a large cell in the west, and we all focused our cameras toward Oza Butte. For the next ninety minutes, Mother Nature put on a display that thrilled us all, delivering single, double, triple, and even quadruple strikes. Lightning is too fast for human reflexes, but our Lightning Triggers were up to the task, clicking (virtually) instantly at every visible strike, and also at many too faint for the eye or camera to pick them up.
As soon as I returned to my cabin I uploaded my images into Lightroom. Due to a variety of factors, some bolts stand out more than others, so I carefully scrutinized each frame to ensure nothing was missed, flagging the ones with lightning. The frames with multiple and forked strikes get a star. When all was said and done, of the 302 frames my Lightning Trigger snapped that afternoon, 46 contained lightning, with 13 starred for multiple or forked strikes.
Everyone in the group captured many lightning strikes that afternoon. The strike I share above fired at the peak of last Thursday’s show, when the lightning was at its peak, repeatedly stabbing the rim with single, multiple, and forked bolts, and even strikes like this one, with multiple forked bolts in a frame spanning just 1/4 second.
One more thing
For very valid reasons, video has replaced still photography for many uses. Lightning isn’t (or shouldn’t be) one of them. Its life measured in milliseconds, a lightning bolt is gone before your brain has a chance to process what your eyes just saw. By the time your brain does register a lightning strike, the magnificent detail that makes each bolt as unique as a snowflake are gone forever. But a still image freezes that instant, enabling all who view to appreciate a lightning strike’s beauty and scrutinize its exquisite detail to their heart’s content.
(Favorite lightning images from this and previous years)
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.