My eyes pop open at the very first piano note of Pat Metheny Group’s “Minuano.” It’s 4:10 a.m., precisely 30 minutes before I’d told my group we’d be taillights-up-the-road for the day’s sunrise shoot. No matter how soothing the day’s chosen wakeup tune, any wakeup time that starts with a “4:” is jarring. Since my rule is to be at the cars to load 5 minutes before taillights time (because I wait or go looking for no one—if you’re not there at the designated time, I assume you’ve opted out), I have less than 25 minutes to shower, shave, dress, and walk (hike) to retrieve my car from the far reaches of the Grand Canyon Lodge parking lot. So as much as I’d love to close my eyes and continue listening to one of my favorite songs, my feet are on the floor before the percussion chimes in, and I reach full speed long before the song does. I know I won’t slow down until lights out tonight.
Twenty-five minutes later I’m idling in the darkness, waiting for the group to load into the cars. While waiting I quickly check my phone for a signal—never a sure thing on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. One bar of LTE—enough to open my lightning app and check, for the first of what will no doubt be dozens of times by day’s end, for any nearby activity. As expected, nothing so far. With everyone accounted for and ready, I put my car in gear and lead our small parade to Point Imperial.
My first group’s Point Imperial sunrise had been one for the ages and I secretly cross my fingers for the second group to experience something similar. It’s still dark-and-early when we pull up, but not so dark that I can’t see that the eastern horizon is choked by clouds. As the twilight brightens, we enjoy soft light courtesy of a sky-full of interesting clouds, but no sunrise color. When the 5:40 sunrise time comes and goes without the sun making an appearance, I visually survey the group but sense no disappointment. With no other locations on the morning’s schedule, I’m in no rush to leave. When it’s finally clear that everyone’s done shooting, I gather the group by the cars and give them a quick summary of my plan for the rest of the day. We’re back at Grand Canyon Lodge by 7:00.
What I’d shared in the parking lot before our Point Imperial departure was that the day’s lightning forecast was very promising, and rather than try to chase it, our cabins’ proximity to the rim makes Grand Canyon Lodge the ideal place to hang out and wait for the lightning to come to us. The plan for the morning is to enjoy a few hours of free time (to breakfast, sleep, hike, process images, chill, or whatever). While they’re doing that, I monitor my lightning app and keep an eye on the South Rim. At the first sign of any activity, I’ll send a group text and we’ll gather to start shooting as quickly as they can get down there. But I also encouraged them to monitor the skies themselves, because monsoon storms can ramp up with surprising speed. And if the sky is still quiet at 11 a.m., we’ll do image review and training in the lodge auditorium (where we’ll also have a view of the rim and any potential lightning). My final instruction was to bring their cameras and Lightning Triggers to the training, because lightning trumps training and there’s a good chance we won’t finish.
By 11 a.m. my app shows lightning popping near Flagstaff, less than 100 miles south. A good sign, because monsoon storms usually move up from the south, and often (but not always) lightning near Flagstaff bodes well for storms of our own. My fingers are crossed as I start the image review.
The lightning starts firing across the rim a little before 1 p.m., just as I wrap up the image review—perfect timing (for which I can take no credit). Everyone has their gear as suggested and we’re set up and ready for action within 5 minutes.
As is frequently the case, this first storm doesn’t start as an especially dynamic display, but it’s enough to get everyone hopeful. The workshop started 24 hours earlier with a similar lightning show that delayed our orientation before fizzling after an hour or so. Even though that storm didn’t amount to much, it was active enough that a few in the group had already captured a lightning strike or two. It also gave everyone a small taste of the lightning photography experience, and gave me the opportunity to make sure everyone was up to speed with their Lightning Triggers and the best approach for capturing lightning. But today we’re ready for more.
Though not spectacular, today’s is in fact more, lasting over two hours, with strikes spread from southeast to southwest across the South Rim. The pattern for most of the afternoon seems to be one cell remaining active for 20 or 30 minutes, and as it starts to fade, someone notices another cell has come to life somewhere else and we turn our attention in that direction.
Unlike yesterday, some of this afternoon’s strikes have real personality. Many take a rather circuitous route to earth (like the image on the right), a few feature multiple bolts (separate strokes) or forks (one bolt with multiple prongs), and most produce lots of spidery filaments that only really show up in a photo. Though not the most prolific lightning display I’ve seen, by the time it’s over I’m confident everyone in my group has captured something nice—a huge relief.
But we’re not done. Even though the prime time for lightning is behind us, we still have our late afternoon drive out Cape Royal Road to visit most of the remaining unseen North Rim vistas, and wrapping up with sunset at Cape Royal. And though I’m not terribly optimistic, if the clouds depart, we’ll stay out there for a Milky Way shoot.
By the time we depart for Cape Royal Road, there’s no sign of lightning activity in the vicinity. Not necessarily a death knell for our lightning chances, but not a particularly good sign either. After a couple of short-ish stops at Vista Encantada and Roosevelt Point, we spend about 45 minutes photographing at Walhalla Overlook. My cell signal is intermittent out here, but as we’re about to leave Walhalla I get enough of a signal to open my lighting app and see that there’s quite a bit of new activity about 50 miles south—a little too far for quality photography, but worth monitoring nevertheless. Because things can change quickly…
It’s an easy .4 mile walk out to Cape Royal Point, with a handful of photo possibilities on the way. In the parking lot I give everyone a brief orientation about the opportunities there and send them down the trail. Before grabbing my gear, I let everyone get ahead of me so I can check on them on my way out.
By the time make it to the vista at the end of the trail, I see that several photographers with lightning triggers (some from my group, some from another small group) are pointing toward Vishnu Temple and beyond. Looking in that direction, it doesn’t take long to figure out what has gotten their attention: a massive thunderhead has set up camp about 30 miles south and is sending massive bolts earthward every 20 or 30 seconds.
I race to set up my camera and Lightning Trigger, then run around like Paul Revere trying to hail those in the group who have lagged behind. Since we’re so scattered, it’s impossible to know exactly who’s where, but within five minutes or so I’m relatively confident that everyone knows what’s happening.
For the next hour we enjoy what I instantly dubbed one of my top-5 lightning shoots of all-time. It has everything I dare hope for, both in terms of lightning quality and quantity. Plus personality—lots and lots of personality. And if you read my post from two weeks ago, you know that the missing ingredient is often composition. But, as if all the other great stuff isn’t enough, some of the very best lightning aligns beautifully with Vishnu Temple, one of Grand Canyon’s most distinctive and recognizable monuments.
Then, just about the time the lightning to the south slows down, another storm blazes up in the east that is at least as prolific, violent, and chock full of personality. Unlike many in my group, I delay turning to this display because the first storm is still showing a little activity, and I don’t like the new composition quite as much. But after seeing some of the incredible strikes happening in that direction, I just can’t resist and recompose in time to catch a few spectacular bolts. When darkness falls and the activity finally starts to wane, we make our way back to the cars for a very happy drive back to the lodge. I’m especially happy because I’m certain I’ve met my personal goal for every monsoon workshop (with room to spare): at least one quality lightning strike for every person in the group.
With another 4-something wakeup in my immediate future, my lights are out before 10 p.m. I sleep very well.
A few words about this image
Today’s image is just one of many captured shortly after I arrived at Cape Royal this evening. The lightning came so frequently, and so much of my attention was on members of my group, that I have no specific memory of this particular set.
One thing that I love about still photography is its ability to freeze action that happens too fast for the eye/brain to register. Even if I did remember seeing this particular lighting trio, it came and went so suddenly that I’d have had no idea how much character it possessed.
The prominent point in the foreground is Vishnu Temple, a pyramid-shaped landmark that stands in striking contrast to nearby flat-topped Wotan’s Throne, when seen from most of the South Rim vistas.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.