(More) Lightning Lessons

Gary Hart Photography: Downpour and Lightning, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Downpour and Lightning, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 50

This post is all about different aspects photographing lightning—some of the stuff I write about here is covered in much more detail in my Lightning Photo Tips article, so you might want to start there

I’ve been photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon (especially) and elsewhere for 10 years, but I’m happy to say that I’m still learning. While going through my images from this year’s recently completed Grand Canyon monsoon workshops, it occurred to me that now might be a good time to share a couple of this year’s insights.

Lightning Trigger (where it all begins)

You simply can’t photograph daylight lightning consistently without a lightning sensor that detects the lightning and triggers your shutter. And if you follow my lightning photography at all, you’ve no doubt heard me singing the praises of the Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Colorado. (There are a lot of lightning sensors out there, but since Lightning Trigger is trademarked, this is the only one that can legally use “lightning trigger.”) I don’t get anything from Stepping Stone for my endorsement, I just know it’s in my best interests to give everyone in my groups the best chance to photograph lightning, and so far I haven’t found anything that comes close the the success of the Lightning Trigger.

But despite my strong advice to the contrary, every year one or two people will show up with a sensor that’s not a Lightning Trigger. And every year, these are the people who have the poorest lightning success. Sometimes the reason for failure is obvious—like a sensor that allowed the camera to go to sleep after 30 seconds of inactivity. But usually the reason isn’t quite so obvious—I just know that the people with the “other” sensors are much more likely to get shut out. This year was no exception.

The first workshop (of three) started with a bang, with an active storm building across the canyon, about 12 miles away, just before the workshop orientation. Because lightning trumps everything in these monsoon workshops, I cancelled the orientation and herded everyone to the view deck behind Grand Canyon Lodge (I’d advised them to show up with their gear for this very reason), frantically flying around from person to person to introduce myself, help them set up, and make sure their cameras were clicking with each lightning strike.

After about 15 minutes, all but one seemed comfortably settled in, excitedly reporting that their camera was responding to each bolt. In addition to my one participant who wasn’t having success, there was a woman who wasn’t in my group trying to photograph lightning with a sensor—she too was growing frustrate because her camera seemed be ignoring the lightning too. The one thing these two people had in common? Perhaps you already guessed: they were the only two not using a Lightning Trigger.

I actually tried to help both of them troubleshoot the problem, starting with confirming that everything was plugged in right, then quickly moving to lots of fiddling with camera settings, cables, and batteries. But since I could make their sensors respond with the TV remote I always have nearby when I photograph lightning (the easiest way to test a Lightning Trigger in the field), I wasn’t real optimistic—if the remote triggers the camera, the problem is unlikely to be the connection, power, or camera. That leaves the sensor itself as the most likely culprit.

When leading a workshop I don’t have lots of time to get too scientific with my troubleshooting, but think I solved the mystery the next day, when a similar storm started up at about the same time in more less the same place. For the second day in a row we all set up on the Grand Canyon Lodge view deck, and for the second day in a row, the only person in the group whose camera wasn’t responding was the person with the off-brand sensor. (The woman from the prior day wasn’t there.)

While the prior day’s storm moved laterally across the canyon, this storm moved in our direction, approaching to within a couple of miles (and eventually driving us all for cover in the lodge). When, as the storm got closer, the rogue sensor started triggering its camera, I realized that what sets the Lightning Trigger apart from its competition is most likely its range.

My superior range theory got more confirmation on the South Rim a couple of days later. Driving out toward the South Rim’s eastern-most views for our sunset shoot, my eyes were drawn to a massive thunderhead blooming in the distance. With the forecast offering no hope for lightning to chase, that evening’s plan was to make a couple of quick stops at Lipan and Navajo Points, before finishing with sunset at Desert View. But pulling into Lipan Point it was instantly apparent that the thunderhead was straight up the canyon—we weren’t there long before we could also see it was delivering lightning. (One reason I tell everyone to always carry their Trigger, regardless of the forecast.)

Because this turned out to be a spectacular show that lasted until sunset, we never left Lipan Point. Unlike the previous storms, where the lightning was front-and-center in every composition, the lightning this evening was much farther away—between 22 and 25 miles distant, according to the My Lightning Tracker app on my iPhone. While all the Lightning Triggers didn’t seem to miss a single bolt (“not missing” in this case just means firing when there’s a visible bolt—you’ll see below that this is by no means a guarantee that the bolt will be capture), our rogue sensor not seem to see the lightning at all.

Further confirmation of the Lightning Trigger’s range came in the third workshop, when we were photographing lightning more than 30 miles away. I’ve had success with the Lightning Trigger and distant lightning in the past, but this was the first time I’ve had an app (and cellular connectivity) to actually pinpoint the location and distance.

Slower than the speed of lightning (or, About this image)

One of the most frustrating things about photographing lightning is not capturing a spectacular strike. The first half of the capture equation is a sensor that sees the lightning and triggers the camera (see Lightning Trigger discussion above); the other half is having a camera that responds quickly enough to the click instruction from the sensor. And as I’ve said before, all the three major camera brands are fast enough, but where lightning is concerned, the faster the better—and it’s impossible to be too fast. FYI, according to Imagining Resource, Sony Alpha camera’s are the fastest, followed closely by Nikon, with Canon a fair amount slower (but usually not too slow).

I can confirm the Imaging Resource data. While I had good success while using Canon my first few years photographing lightning, my success rate has been noticeably higher since switching to Sony in 2014 (my first Sony lightning shoot was in 2015). But despite a faster camera, the frustration with missed lightning hasn’t disappeared completely. Usually it’s just one or two here and there—I just shrug my shoulders because I know I’ll probably get the next one. But in this year’s third workshop, one especially frustrating shoot got my attention.

The third group didn’t have any lightning luck on the North Rim for our first two days, but the forecast looked more promising for the South Rim half of the workshop. Unfortunately, the best chances were forecast for the day of our 4-hour rim-to-rim drive. Since it’s such a nice drive, I usually give everyone the whole day to make it, suggesting stops then setting them free after the sunrise shoot—we don’t gather as a group again until late afternoon on the other side. But with such a promising lightning forecast, this time I had everyone meet me at Desert View, the first South Rim vista when driving from the North Rim, at 1:00 p.m., hoping that we’d get the workshop’s first shot at lightning.

Setting up on the rim just west of the Desert View Watchtower, we just hung out for awhile, waiting for something to happen. Our patience was rewarded after about an hour, when a few people in the group saw lightning in the east. This was out toward the Painted Desert—not actually over the canyon, but close enough to get lightning and the canyon in one frame. Better yet, it soon became clear that the storm was moving, not just toward the canyon, but toward one of my favorite Grand Canyon views.

This whole shoot lasted at least a couple of hours. Standing there on the rim, we watched the lightning first migrate north, eventually intersecting the canyon just beyond the Little Colorado River confluence. It then started to shift westward, crossed the canyon, continued drifting west, and everyone was pretty excited. That is, until we realized that it was also getting closer. We were preparing to retreat when a bolt hit inside the canyon, less than two miles away, sending our sense of urgency into overdrive.

Since this was this group’s first lightning, everyone was especially excited when their camera clicked with each lightning bolt. Though I knew no one would get every single bolt, with several dozen visible strikes, I was pretty confident everyone’s success numbers would be in the double digits—mine included.

But checking my images in my room that night, I was disappointed to count only three frames with lightning. I was just going to write it off as one of those things—perhaps my LT battery was weak, or maybe I was too focused on working with others in the group (in other words, doing my job) to adjust my composition frequently enough to track the continuously shifting storm.

But when I mentioned my poor success to Curt, my assistant on this trip, he expressed similar results. And talking to the group the next day, we learned that no one else got more than a (very small) handful of strikes. How could a dozen people using a lightning sensor that years of experience proves works reliably, on a variety of cameras, have such similarly poor results on just one shoot? Adding to the mystery, it became clear by the images shared in the image review that the lightning everyone did capture, was all the same strikes. What’s going on?

One of the things I love most about working with Curt is that he’s as inquisitive and bulldog-tenacious tracking down these mysteries as I am. We got to work researching what could be going on, both on our own, and together on a one-hour conference call with Rich at Stepping Stone, the mastermind behind the Lightning Trigger.

Rich suggested that it could be that we encountered a storm that was mostly positive lightning. Positive lightning, which comprises about 5 percent of lightning strikes, usually spends all of its energy in a single stroke, making that one stroke very bright, but also much faster from start to finish. He thought that maybe the lighting was done before everyone’s cameras could react. That made sense.

But after a little research on positive lightning, I (tentatively) ruled it out as our culprit because: 1) I saw nothing that indicates that positive lightning is storm-specific (though I’m open to correction); 2) positive lightning originates near the top of the cloud, and I saw no sign of that in this storm; 3) positive lightning tends to come near the end of the storm, and we photographed this one from start to finish; and finally, 4) positive lightning typically strikes outside the main rain band, and we saw very little of this.

But that conversation with Rich convinced me that our problem this afternoon had to indeed be a caused by lightning that was too fast for our cameras. And after mulling that thought for awhile, then digging deeper into my lightning resources, I theorized that we’d probably just encountered a storm that didn’t have as much juice as the typical monsoon storms I’m accustomed to.

This makes sense if you understand that a typical negative lightning strike that looks like a single bolt to the eye (or camera), is actually a series of strokes following the same channel. The number of strokes in a single lightning bolt varies with the amount of energy the lightning needs to release—the more strokes, the longer the strike seems to last. (As an interesting aside, earlier in the trip Curt got accidental confirmation of lightning’s multiple stroke aspect when, with his camera set to Continuous rather than the Single Shot that I use, he got the same lightning bolt in two, and at least once, three contiguous frames.)

The jury is still out on this theory, but it makes sense. If I learn anything more, I promise to share it. Right now I’m in the process of updating the Lightning Photo Tips article with this and more insights gained since the last update, so that’s the best place to check for new information.

Oh, and the image I share here was one of my three successes that afternoon, so I’m not really complaining.


2021 Grand Canyon Monsoon Highlights (processed so far)

Spoiler Alert: It’s not just lightning

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

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