The Reason I Do This: Redux

Gary Hart Photography: Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, Grand CanyonThree Strikes, Lightning and Rainbow from Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
24-105L
ISO 100
f/11

This week I’m at the Grand Canyon with virtually no connectivity, so I dug up this blog post from one of the most memorable photography experiences of my life.

August 2013

Nature photographers plan, and plan, and plan some more, but no amount of planning can overcome the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Few things are more disappointing than a long anticipated and perfectly executed shoot washed out by conditions beyond my control. But when all of nature’s variables click into place, the world becomes a happy place indeed. And when nature ups the ante by adding something unexpected, euphoria ensues.

Don Smith and I just returned from two weeks photographing the Grand Canyon. We did a little of our own photography on the trip, but the prime focus was our two four-plus day photo workshops, split evenly between the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims. These workshops were scheduled to give our groups the opportunity to photograph the Grand Canyon, day and night, under the influence of the annual Southwest monsoon: billowing clouds, vivid rainbows, and (especially) lightning. But any workshop requiring specific weather conditions is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety—we were fairly certain the photography would be great (after all, it is the Grand Canyon), but few natural phenomena are more fickle than lightning.

When plotting a workshop schedule (or any landscape photo shoot), the best a photographer can do is maximize the odds: We try to schedule all the non-photography requirements (meals, sleep, travel, training) for the times least likely to conflict with the best photography. For example, we know that because the monsoon thunderstorms usually don’t develop before midday, Grand Canyon summer sunrises often lack the clouds and pristine air necessary for the vivid color photographer’s covet. Therefore our photography emphasis for this workshop is on getting our groups out from mid-morning through (and sometimes after) sunset. That doesn’t mean we blow off sunrise, it just means that the sunrises are generally better for exhausted, sleep-deprived photographers to skip than the sunsets are.

Nevertheless, we rallied the troops at 5 a.m. Friday for our second workshop’s final shoot, a ten minute walk from our rim-side cabins to Bright Angel Point. The forecast was for clear skies, but the workshop had already had so many wonderful shoots, I considered this final one just a little bonus, the cherry atop an already delicious sundae.

My mind was already on the long drive home—in fact, as Don and I exited our cabin in the pre-dawn darkness, I predicted that I wouldn’t even take my camera out of my bag that morning. My words as I turned the doorknob were, “But if I leave my bag here, we’ll probably get lightning and a rainbow.” Little did I know how grateful I’d be to have brought my gear….

What followed was what Don and I later agreed was probably the single most memorable workshop shoot either of us had ever experienced. Gathering in the lobby of Grand Canyon Lodge, we saw lightning flashes across the canyon, but it was impossible to tell in the darkness how far away it was. Hiking to the vista, we saw several distinct bolts stab the rim, and by the time our gear was set up, the show had intensified, delivering numerous violent strikes in multiple directions that illuminated the canyon several times per minute.

The morning’s pyrotechnics continued for over two hours, awing us first in the dark, then through twilight, and finally into and beyond a magenta sunrise. And as if that wasn’t enough, as the sun crested the horizon behind us, a small but vivid fragment of rainbow materialized on the canyon’s rim, hanging there like a target for the lightning to take potshots at it.

This was more than just good photography, this was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of weather, location, and light that more than made up for the many times nature has disappointed. Rather than bore you with more words, here are a few images from that morning:

Lightning Before Dawn, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand CanyonLightning Before Dawn, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Arriving on the rim about 45 minutes before sunrise, we found the South Rim under full attack. This 30 second exposure captured a pair of strikes near Mojave Point.

 

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon
As the sun neared the eastern horizon, I couldn’t help sneaking an occasional peek behind me. Seeing clear skies in the rising sun’s direction, I crossed my fingers for the clouds to hold off long enough to allow the sunlight to illuminate the lightning show before us. As the sun topped the horizon, its rays caught the rain falling along the rim, balancing a nearly vertical section of rainbow atop Powell Point. In this single, 1/3 second exposure, I managed to capture the rainbow briefly sharing the rim with three simultaneous lighting strikes.

 

Lightning and Rainbow, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand CanyonColor and Light, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
The rainbow persisted as the lightning continued. Confident that I’d captured enough horizontal frames, I switched to a vertical composition in time to catch one more strike with the rainbow.

 

Incoming Storm, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand CanyonStorm’s Approach, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
As the sun rose, the rocks reddened and the storm edged closer. Ridges visible earlier were slowly overtaken by the advancing rain, and long, rolling waves of thunder echoed overhead. Preceding the rain were billowing clouds; here I went with an extreme wide (17mm) vertical composition to capture the incoming storm skewering the rim with by a single bolt. I had to retreat to shelter shortly thereafter.

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops

Learn how to photograph lightning


A Lightning Gallery

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

A star is born

New Day, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

New Day, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
3.2 seconds
F/20
ISO 200
16 mm

Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of sunstars (a.k.a. starbursts). Cool as they are, sunstars have become ubiquitous to the point of cliché. So why do I shoot them? Because sometimes there’s little else you can do when the sun intrudes on the scene you came to photograph. In other words, they’re often more of a lemonade-from-lemons kind of thing.

Despite their ubiquity, sunstars work because there’s universal resonance to witnessing the sun kiss the horizon—I mean, who doesn’t have a warm memory of watching from a special location as the sun begins or completes its daily journey? These moments touch us on a literal, visual level (they’re beautiful), but I think more significantly they serve as a metaphor for the hope or closure we all long for.

Unfortunately, doing justice to these moments in a photograph is difficult: Including the sun in your frame introduces lens flare, extreme (often unmanageable) contrast, and an unattractive eye magnet that overpowers the rest of the scene. And while a sunstar doesn’t capture the literal experience, it does do a pretty good job of conveying the metaphor.

The good news is, despite the difficulties, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward. Here’s a quick recipe:

  1. Start with a brilliant, fine point of light: The sun is the most logical candidate, but you can do it with the moon, stars, and pretty much any bright artificial light (lighthouse, headlights, and so on). The finer the light source the more precise the star effect will be, and the less lens flare and blown highlights you’ll have. If it’s the sun you’re using, virtually all of it needs to be hidden to get the delicate, symmetrical distribution of beams that generally work best. In this image the horizon hides most of the sun, but you can use a cloud, tree, rock, or whatever.
  2. The smaller your aperture, the finer your sunstar will appear: I generally use f16 or smaller (larger f-number).
  3. Do something to control the highlights: When the sun is entering your frame, you’re invariably dealing with a sky that’s much brighter than your foreground and will need to take steps to avoid the foreground of murky shadows. If you have a foreground shape or shapes against the sky, you could turn the foreground into a silhouette. But when I want to capture foreground detail, I use graduated neutral density filters to hold back the brilliant sky. My 3-stop reverse is my go-to GND in these situations; in particularly difficult light I’ll stack it with a 2-stop hard GND. Whenever I use a GND, I find Lightroom or Photoshop dodging/burning is a great way to disguise the telltale GND transition. HDR blending of multiple images is another way to mitigate extreme sky/foreground contrast (but I don’t do HDR, so you’ll need to Google this).
  4. Different lenses will yield different results: Experiment with your lenses to see which one gives the most pleasing sunstar effect. For example, I recently replaced my faithful 17-40L lens with a 16-35L Series II lens, and while I was satisfied with the sunstars from my 17-40, the 16-35 results are clearly better.
  5. Practice: You can practice sunstars any time the sun’s out. Just go outside with your camera, dial in a small aperture, and hide the sun behind whatever object is convenient (a tree, your house, etc.).

On the morning of this image from last month at the Grand Canyon, I had no plan to photograph. But I was working with a workshop student and we found this nice little scene off the trail to Bright Angel Point. The clouds had assembled into an organized formation that seemed to emanate from just beyond the horizon, and when they started to vibrate with sunrise color, I couldn’t resist. I quickly composed my scene, dialed down to f20, metered on the foreground, and stacked my 3-stop reverse and 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filters. The sun appeared a few seconds later and I fired off several frames before its brilliance overcame my filters’ ability to hold it back.

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