Alone on the Rim

Gary Hart Photography: Bolt from the Pink, Grandview Point Lightning, Grand Canyon

Bolt from the Pink, Grandview Point Lightning, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
Breakthrough neutral polarizer
.4 seconds
F/10
ISO 400

In a day of surprises, I think the most surprising thing was finding myself completely alone on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—in the middle of a workshop. The sun had set, the tourists had gone to dinner, and the rest of my group, thanks to an unexpected turn of events (stay tuned), was with my workshop partner Don Smith at Desert View, about ten miles east. I love leading workshops, but the opportunity to enjoy a summer sunset alone at the Grand Canyon was too rare to not to appreciate. And as if that wasn’t enough, I was being treated to one of the most spectacular lightning displays I’d seen in all my years of photographing the Grand Canyon monsoon.

The weather gods had been messing with us since the workshop’s start two days earlier. The forecast for our first two days was so good, Don and I had virtually guaranteed everyone a lightning bolt (or ten, or 20, or…) on their memory cards by the time we headed to the South Rim on Day 3. But on Day 1 we got too much rain and not enough lightning (not unprecedented), a loss largely assuaged by a gorgeous rainbow at sunset (phew). No worries, the Day 2 lightning forecast was even more promising.

While we did see a bolt or two on the second day, we got nothing close to the classic lightning displays the North Rim frequently serves up during the Grand Canyon Monsoon. Even without any lightning photos, the day was salvaged by the night’s fantastic Milky Way shoot at Cape Royal—an evening so warm that most of us kept the jackets packed and did the whole thing in T-shirts.

But lighting is this workshop’s Holy Grail, and the pressure was building for Don and me. For a few reasons, the North Rim is usually generates about 80 percent of our lightning success. But after being shut out for our two North Rim days, now it was time to motor to the much more crowded South Rim, where the crowds are oppressive and weather forecast called for a measly 10 percent chance of thunderstorms. Suddenly my optimism was waning.

Mother Nature is fickle, and I’m pretty sure she was punishing me for being a little too cocky at the beginning of the workshop. Because on the road to the South Rim (about the time I started to admit serious doubts about our lightning chances), she started filling my windshield with billowing cumulus clouds—not friendly cotton-ball puffs, these clouds were dark, angry towers. By the time we checked into our hotel, our lightning app was showing signs of sneaking activity sneaking up from the south (behind us).

Though nothing was happening near the canyon yet, experience has taught us to be proactive when the storms are building. So rather than wait until the planned sunset departure time, Don and I herded the group to the cars and we bolted for the rim as soon as we could get everyone assembled. Turning east on Desert View Road toward our sunset destination, Desert View, we pulled over at the very first vista. We hopped out to take a look and as Don and I surveyed the view,  someone spotted lightning directly across the canyon. Showtime.

This was indeed a great show, with at least one or two bolts per minute for nearly an hour. Within 15 minutes it was pretty clear that everyone had captured multiple strikes and Don and I could relax—everyone would go home with the lightning photos they came for. The storm was still active when increasing wind and threatening clouds led us to decide it would be prudent to move on.

The next stop on the way to our way to Desert View was Grandview Point, and that’s where things took an unexpected turn. First, when I went to change the precariously low battery on my Sony a7RIII, I realized my backup battery was at home on the charger (gone are my Sony a7RII days when I carried six batteries). But that crisis was soon set aside when one of the members of the group had an emergency that required her to return to the hotel. After a bit of discussion and a little math (Do we have enough seats for the rest of the group to continue to Desert View for sunset? Answer: Yes, with none to spare), I drove her back while everyone else continued on to photograph sunset.

Back at the hotel I did a bit more math and realized there was no way I could make it all the way out to Desert View in the 50 minutes remaining until sunset. But seized by FOMO*, I grabbed my a7RII, checked the battery (fully charged—yay!), and headed back to the rim with no particular plan—even if I couldn’t make it back to the group, I just wanted to be somewhere for sunset. At the junction with Desert View Road I headed east again, away from the Grand Canyon Village congestion and toward some of the less crowded vistas.

The entire sky was gray and at first I thought sunset might be a dud, but then I caught a thin layer of brightness in my rearview mirror and realized there was a hole on the horizon—when the sun drops into it, everything might just light up for a few minutes. I checked my watch and goosed the accelerator hoping to make it as far as Grandview Point. Unfortunately, in the national parks you can only go as fast as the next Winnebago, and sunset was less than 10 minutes away when I dove into my Grandview parking space. I grabbed my camera bag and dashed down the trail to my favorite view atop an exposed rock outcrop, not realizing until headed off-trail that I was still in my flip-flops. But with no time to go back for more sane footwear, I continued slip-sliding my way down to my destination and (barely) made it with all limbs intact.

The color was starting but as soon as my camera was set up, but I took a few seconds to get my adrenalin under control. The first thing that struck me was the quiet, most unusual for a Grand Canyon summer sunset. I attributed it to the storm, which had just moved on from here, and the fact that Grandview isn’t heralded as a sunset location (because most non-photographers like their sunset views to face west, and there are better spots at Grand Canyon for that).

As expected, there was indeed great color that evening, but even more exciting was all the lightning in the east: Cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, cloud flashes, multiple bolts, extreme zig-zags—pretty much a who’s who of lightning, several times per minute. Most of the lightning was firing somewhere in the empty desert beyond Desert View, but it looked far enough away that the group was safe. From my perspective there was no canyon or anything else interesting in the direction of extreme activity, so I pointed my camera at a somewhat promising curtain of rain that aligned better with my view of the canyon—and hoped.

Photographing lightning is more thrilling than I can describe, and I can think of no better place for it than Grand Canyon. The distance of the views here relieves (most of) the anxiety that comes with viewing lightning—so far on this trip I’ve captured 116 frames with lightning (yes, I count them) and still haven’t been close enough to any of them to have heard their thunder. And Grand Canyon puts the actual lightning experience on steroids because during the long peaceful periods between strikes you’re gazing upon one of the most breathtaking views on Earth. When a bolt explodes from the clouds, its metaphorical jolt to my psyche seems to match it’s actual 50,000 (ish) volt electrostatic jolt.

I only captured a half-dozen or so strikes over the canyon that evening, but all I need is one. This one touched down several minutes after sunset, about 30 miles away. It came right at the peak of the color and couldn’t have been more perfectly timed or placed. And as I waited for the next bolt to trigger my camera, I got to enjoy this view the same, infinitely more spectacular, light show the rest of the group was enjoying—in glorious, absolute quiet.

* FOMO: fear of missing out

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Highlights of (nearly) a Decade Chasing Lightning

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.

5 Comments on “Alone on the Rim

  1. Why not use a slightly longer exposure to make it easier (create a longer window) to “catch” the lightning bolt? Are you always able to trigger right on time or does it take quite a few tries to get one? Thanks in advance!

    • Thanks, Andrew. That’s one of the most common misconceptions about lightning photography—that a longer exposure is better than a shorter one. I’m guessing it started because for years the only way to reliably photograph lightning was at night. Lightning needs contrast to stand out against the sky, and the night sky provides great contrast. But during the day, when the sky is bright and the contrast is much less, the longer the shutter is open, the smaller the percentage of exposure time the lightning bolt occupies, and the less visible the lightning will be. With a Lightning Trigger, we can now hit shutter speed “sweet spot”—just long enough to capture the primary and secondary bolts, but no longer. In the middle of the day, that’s usually 1/4-1/15 second. When the sky is extremely dark, or as sunset approaches, I’ll stretch that to a half second or more, but only long enough to properly expose the foreground without making other exposure compromises, such as a high ISO. FYI, I never try to “time” lightning—it’s just too fast. The Lightning Trigger is much faster than I am, but sometimes the lightning is too fast even for it.

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