I’ve always been intrigued by still photos’ ability to reveal aspects of the natural world that are missed by human vision. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the camera’s ability to, through long exposures, blur motion and reveal unseen patterns in moving water. And last week I shared an image that used a long exposure to capture the Milky Way above crashing Hawaiian surf, a 20-second exposure that blurred that explosive wave action into a gauzy haze.
But I think my favorite still image motion effect is probably freezing a lightning bolt—an ephemeral phenomenon that comes and goes so quickly that it is already a memory before it even registers to my brain. The thrill of seeing a lightning strike always delivers a jolt of adrenalin, but it’s not until I can spend time with an image that froze it in time that I appreciate all that happens in a lightning bolt. Multiple prongs, meandering patterns, delicate filaments—each bolt seems to have a personality of its own.
For me, the holy grail of lightning captures is the splash of light that occurs at the primary bolt’s instant of contact with terra firma. Not only is getting the precise timing difficult, the strike also needs to be fairly close, and on a surface that’s angled to face my vantage point.
The lightning in this image checked those boxes, striking just a couple of miles away on the diagonal slope of Brahma Temple facing me. It was one of many lightning strikes captured on the second day of my first (of three) Grand Canyon monsoon workshops earlier this summer. On the day prior we’d had a nice lightning shoot just as the workshop started, but the storm that afternoon had moved parallel to the rim, staying near the South Rim, at least ten miles away.
This afternoon’s storm started in more or less the same area of the South Rim, but crossed the canyon, approaching less than two miles from where my group had set up on the view decks outside Grand Canyon Lodge. Protected beneath an array of lightning rods, and just a few feet from the safety of the fully enclosed lodge Sunroom, this spot is the location of some of my workshop groups’ closest lightning encounters. This afternoon was added to that list.
I usually prefer photographing lightning that’s across the rim, distant enough that we often don’t hear the thunder. At most locations, when the lightning gets as close as it got this afternoon, I’ve already rounded people up and herded them indoors or to the relative safety of the cars. But here I have (barely) enough cellular service to monitor the distance of each strike with my lightning app, and keep everyone apprised of its proximity, so they can make their own call on when to retreat.
Preparing to photograph lightning is a matter of setting up my tripod with my camera and Lightning Trigger, composing a frame that includes the area most likely to receive the next bolt, focusing and metering the scene, then standing back and waiting for the strike (not unlike fishing).
If everything is set up correctly, lightning photography a hands-off endeavor—when it senses lightning, my Lightning Trigger fires my camera’s shutter, then just waits patiently to do it again with the next lightning. So when this bolt hit, I wasn’t even with my camera—I was checking with others in my group. When it struck, it was the closest we’d seen so far. It was also farther to the left than any previous strike—so far, in fact, that I wasn’t even sure it was in my frame.
It wasn’t until I was processing my images that I found that I had indeed captured it. Not only that, this bolt struck close enough, on an exposed surface that was in perfect view for me to capture the precise point of contact in all of its glory. Unfortunately, it was on the far left side of my horizontal frame. This is when I appreciate having my Sony a7RIV, probably the best lightning camera made today. Not only do the Sony bodies have the fastest shutter lag (the time it take for the shutter to respond after receiving the instruction to fire), but 61 megapixels provides a crazy amount of latitude for cropping.
I usually like to get my crop right before capture, but I sometimes need to make an exception when photographing lightning, because I’m never sure where in the frame the lightning will land. In this case, having my lightning strike so close to the left side of a horizontal frame made the image feel very off-balance. To fix the problem, I simply turned it into a vertical composition, eliminating everything on the right 2/3 or the original composition. But with 61 megapixels to play with, the final product was still more than 25 megapixels—more than enough for pretty much all of my uses, including large prints.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.