Photographing lightning is about 95 percent arms folded, toe-tapping, just-plain-standing-around-scanning-the-horizon—interspersed with random bursts of pandemonium. Usually, after all that waiting waiting around, with the first bolt usually comes the realization that you anticipated wrong and either, 1) the lightning is way over there; or 2) the lightning is right here (!). What generally ensues is a Keystone Cops frenzy of camera bag flinging, tire screeching, gear tossing, tripod expanding, camera cursing, Lightning Trigger fumbling, bedlam. Followed by more waiting. And waiting. And waiting….
I’ve always thought that the waiting part of lightning photography is a lot like fishing (spiced up by the understanding that these fish have the ability to strike you dead without warning). Both are an intoxicating mix of serene communing with nature and an electric current of anticipation. And whether you’re fishing for trying to photograph lightning, the strike far from a guarantee that you’ll reel anything in. Just as fish somehow slip the hook, you a lightning strike can come and go before even the fastest cameras can respond. Most of my lightning “the one that got away” stories turn out to be something I’ve done wrong (and my list of stupid mistakes is too long, and embarrassing, to detail here).
One frustration that I’ve learned to deal with is that when a Lightning Trigger is attached and turned on, the camera is in pre-focus mode (to allow the fastest shutter-lag), which disables LCD review—and I guarantee that the surest way to ensure another lightning strike is to turn off your Lightning Trigger because the second you turn off your Lightning Trigger to see if you got that last strike, a spectacular triple-strike will fire right in the middle of your frame. Guaranteed. (This is an extension of the axiom every photographer knows: The best way to make something you’ve been waiting for happen, is to put away your camera gear.) Though there’s no way to know, I would bet that each time you pull the line out of the water to make sure the worm is still there, the “big one” you’ve been dreaming about swims right by.
Read the lightning photography tutorial in my Lightning Photography photo tips article.
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Still reeling from Saturday’s 12-hour drive to the Grand Canyon for our 2015 Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop, and with clear skies in the forecast for Sunday, Don Smith and I planned to take the day to recharge for the workshop that started Monday. But dark clouds after lunch sent us racing up to the rim (a 15 minute drive) to see what was going on (see Keystone Cops reference above).
Starting at Grand View Point, we quickly set up our tripods, attached our Lightning Triggers to our cameras, and aimed toward promising clouds in the east, up the canyon, and waited. Soon these distant clouds weakened, but a new batch of clouds overhead darkened, and a breeze picked up—usually a sign that rain is coming. Aside from the spectacular beauty, another great thing about photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon is the expansive vistas that allow you to photograph distant lightning. Basically, we want to be photographing someone else’s storm—if you’re in the storm you’re photographing, you’re too close. So when the rain started falling we packed up and bid a hasty retreat; by the time we made it to the car, the rain had turned to hail we could hear thunder. Since the storm appeared to be moving west, we drove east to get on the back side of it, eventually ending up at Lipan Point—one of my favorite spots for lightning because it has long views both up and down the canyon.
We set up west of the Lipan vista, enjoying relative peace and quiet away from the summer tourist swarm. The cell that had chased us from Grand View was diminishing, but we could see an even more impressive cell moving up to replace it from the south. The first bolts this storm fired were above the flat, scrub pine plain south of the rim, but it was moving toward the canyon so we set up and waited. At first I hedged my bets, composing wide enough to get lightning over the less aesthetically pleasing terrain, along with the canyon. But as the cell moved out over the canyon, my composition moved with it.
When photographing lightning, not only do you need to get the light right, you need to make sure your shutter speed is slow enough to capture secondary and tertiary strikes, but fast enough that the lightning doesn’t get lost in the background. That’s because a long shutter speed, even if the rest of the scene is perfectly exposed, will wash out the lightning (not problem at night, when there’s plenty of contrast). The light this afternoon was particularly schizophrenic, so because I prefer photographing lightning in manual metering mode (I explain in the lightning tutorial linked above), I had to frequently monitor the changes and adjust my exposure accordingly.
That afternoon we enjoyed about a half hour of quality shooting before lightning moved too close for comfort. In that span I saw at least a half dozen canyon strikes, not an especially active storm by Grand Canyon standards, but one that delivered several photogenic strikes like this one (my favorite of the bunch). Lightning photography can be mesmerizing, and when the strikes just keep getting more and more spectacular, it’s easy to lose track of (or not care) how close the storm is. Fortunate for us this afternoon, a second active cell snuck up behind us and jarred us from our trance. It was over less photogenic terrain, so we managed to pull ourselves away before things became too dangerous.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.