Posted on August 18, 2018
Lightning (at a safe distance) is pretty cool. It has always fascinated me, partly for the ephemeral power that can explode a tree and disappear before my brain can register its existence, but also because lightning is a rare sight for these California eyes. What what exactly is going on in a lightning bolt? I thought you’d never ask….
The shocking truth about lightning
Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes negative/positive polarization between two objects. For example, when you get shocked touching the doorknob in your bedroom, you’ve been struck by your own personal lightning bolt. You got zapped because, courtesy of that carpet you just dragged your fuzzy slippers across, you picked up a few extra electrons that the doorknob was more than happy to relieve you of.
While the polarization process that happens in an electrical storm isn’t as thoroughly understood as the one in your bedroom, it’s generally accepted that a thunderstorm’s vertical, convective air motion shuffles electrons in the atmosphere. To jar your high school science memories, convection occurs when a fluid substance heats, becomes less dense, and rises until it cools and becomes dense enough to sink. (You initiate convection when you boil water.)
The is up/down circular flow of atmospheric convection happens when air near the ground warms, expands, and rises. The rising air carries water vapor; since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, the ascending water vapor eventually condenses into clouds. The convective motion jostling the water and ice molecules inside the clouds strips the molecules of electrons. Electrons are negatively charged and more dense than the surrounding air; freed of their conventional bonds, these electrons fall earthward. Overhead, the clouds relieved of many electrons are suddenly positively charged, while the ground below has been rendered negatively charged by virtue of its new electron surplus.
Because nature abhors any imbalance, these opposite charges attract each other. The extreme polarization in a thunderstorm—positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground—is quickly (and violently) equalized: lightning! So I guess you could say that lightning is God’s way of telling Earth, “Stop being so negative!”
With lightning comes other atmospheric changes. The sudden infusion of a 50,000 degree electric charge displaces the surrounding air very suddenly, creating an audible compression wave that we know as thunder.
The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second. But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a mere 750 miles per hour (or so)—a million times slower than light.
Because lightning and its thunder are simultaneous, and we know how fast each travels, we can compute the lightning’s approximate distance. (Thunder’s speed varies slightly with atmospheric conditions; light’s speed is non-negotiable.) From our human perspective the lightning arrives instantaneously, but moving at 750 miles per hour, thunder takes around five seconds to travel a mile. So, dividing by five the number of seconds to elapse between the lightning’s flash and its thunder’s crash gives you the lightning’s distance in miles (divide the interval by three for the approximate distance in kilometers). For example, if ten seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about two miles away, fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away, and so on.
This speed difference also explains why lightning comes and goes in milliseconds, while its thunder can rumble and roll for several seconds. Because a lightning bolt can travel many miles, the thunder from its nearest portions reaches you much sooner than its most distant components.
About this image
Each summer moisture from the Gulf of Mexico makes its way up into the American Southwest. The combination of moist air and extreme heat (to kick off convection) makes August ripe for thunderstorms at the Grand Canyon. For the last six years, Don Smith and I have scheduled two photo workshops hoping to photograph these thunderstorms and their effects (clouds, rainbows, and especially lightning).
Bit with unseasonably dry air in place, the forecast at the start of this year’s first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop wasn’t especially favorable for lightning. I told the group during the orientation that I wasn’t concerned, that I’ve often seen forecasts like this change suddenly—then anxiously monitored every subsequent NWS forecast update with crossed fingers. In the meantime, we were all quite content photographing incredible smoke effects, courtesy of three nearby wildfires.
By the end of our second day I started seeing hints of moisture returning to the forecast toward the end of the workshop, with each forecast looking a little more promising than the one prior. By day four, the workshop’s final full day, I was downright optimistic.
We’ve always had better lightning success on the North Rim. Partly because the view faces south, the direction from which the storms tend to arrive, and partly because our cabins at Grand Canyon Lodge are right on the rim. Grand Canyon Lodge also has a pair of view decks, shielded by lightning rods, that are ideal for photographing lightning.
The lightning started firing early on our final evening. We all rushed to the rim, attached our Lightning Triggers, and pointed toward the most promising clouds. Much to my relief, it wasn’t long before everyone in the group had at least one lightning image, and most had many more than just one.
But feeling a bit greedy, with nice clouds overhead, and the smoke that had set up camp in the canyon for most of the week suddenly scoured by heavy rain, I realized that all we needed to ignite a sunset lightshow was a little sunlight. I glanced westward and saw signs of clearing. Dare I hope for a sunset to go with this lightning? As if by divine intervention, the sun emerged from the clouds just a few minutes before sunset, infusing the canyon and its diaphanous rain bands with light that started amber and reddened with each passing minute.
When the choice is between a (relatively) bland scene most likely to get lightning, and better a composition with just a slight chance for lighting, I usually take my chances and opt for the better composition. In this case the lightning had shifted a little north of the canyon, but I pointed my camera toward the better light over the canyon and crossed my fingers. So irresistible was the light that while waiting (and not wanting to change my composition and miss a lightning strike), I pulled my a7RII from my bag and clicked a couple of handheld frames due south, where no lightning was possible but the light was especially sweet. (Anyone who knows me will be shocked to hear that I took a picture without a tripod.)
Though several bolts fired during the five or so minutes before the sun disappeared, the one in this image was the only lightning I captured with the great sunset light. But all I wanted was one sunset strike, and I felt extremely lucky that it arrived just as the magenta glow reached its crescendo.
The lightning waxed and waned for several more hours. With the sun down the sky soon darkened enough for me to remove my Lightning Trigger and switch to long exposures in Bulb mode. I stayed until after 10:00, wrapping up with a couple of 20+ minute exposures that captured more than a dozen strikes each.
Posted on June 3, 2018
It was 4:00 a.m. and I’d spent the last two hours photographing the Milky Way’s brilliant core above the Colorado River. In about 75 minutes the guides would be ringing the “coffee’s ready” gong, signaling the start of another day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Collapsing my tripod, I performed a little mental math and found slight relief in the knowledge that I might be able to squeeze in one more hour of sleep. That relief vanished in the time it took to turn and glance toward the northern sky and see the Big Dipper, suspended like a celestial mobile in the notch separating the canyon walls.
My Milky Way position had been chosen for its unobstructed view of the southern sky; the best view of the Big Dipper was clear across the campsite, at a sheltered pool just beyond our rafts. The moonless night sky at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is so dark that the Milky Way casts a slight shadow, but once your eyes adjust, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate without adding light. Trudging across through the sand, I passed a handful of other solitary photographers, anonymous shapes enjoying the darkness as much as I was. I stopped few times to answer questions and point out the Big Dipper, then moved on.
Setting up on the steep, sandy slope above the river, I gazed at the Big Dipper and privately chuckled at my good fortune—this prime photo opportunity hadn’t manifest because I proactively made myself seek a scene away from my original subject (as I encourage my students to do), it was a chance glance after I’d mentally put myself to bed. When we landed at that spot the prior afternoon, I’d been so focused on the southern exposure and the Milky Way opportunity in that direction that I hadn’t even considered that there might be something facing north too. Shame on me, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Checking my first Big Dipper frame, a couple of things became instantly obvious: though sunrise was still an hour away, and my eyes could detect no sign of its approach, with the same exposure I’d been using for most of the night, the sky was noticeably brighter on my LCD; more significantly, the Big Dipper was reflecting in the river. I realized that pool below me, while not flowing, was sloshing enough that the reflection didn’t stand out to my eyes, but it was smoothed enough by a multi-second exposure that the water mirrored a blurred but clearly visible reflection of the bright Dipper stars.
From my elevated vantage point, part of the handle’s reflection was lost to the sandy beach—I needed to move closer to the river to include the entire reflection. Remember when I said it’s surprisingly easy to navigate in the moonless darkness? On my first step toward the river I learned that functional night vision applies to avoiding objects, not to depth perception. So, as that first step dropped earthward and I waited for it to touch down, where I expected sand I found only air. The rest of me followed quickly and I was in free-fall. Fortunately the fall was not far, just a couple of feet, but it’s amazing how the disorientation of a blind fall slowed time enough for me to curse the darkness before my graceless splat onto the damp beach.
The beach was damp because the place I landed had been river when I went to bed. I popped up almost as quickly as I landed, the unwitting beneficiary of artificial tides induced by upstream releases from the Glen Canyon Dam, timed to meet the power needs of Las Vegas and the rest of the Southwest sprawl. Had I fallen a few hours earlier, I’d have splashed in chilly river water—not enough river to sweep me to my death, but definitely enough to soak me and my camera. So I found myself sandy but otherwise unscathed—glancing about to see if anyone had seen my fall, I instantly forgave the darkness that had made me more or less invisible. The Rokinon lens I’d had on my camera was caked with sand; since it was too dark to clean it, I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM.
The rest of the shoot was fairly uneventful, at least until my final frame. Over the next few minutes I inched even closer to the river, which I discovered had receded enough to add about six feet of soggy shore. With each frame I verified my focus, tweaked my composition, and experimented with different exposures.
On my final few frames I was comfortable enough with all of the photography variables that I wasn’t even thinking about the next shot, and instead simply stood and took in the night sky. As I waited for my last frame of the night to complete, a brilliant meteor sprung from the darkness and split the Dipper’s handle. It came and went in a heartbeat, and I held my breath until the image popped up on my LCD and I confirmed that I’d captured it. The perfect cap to a spectacular night.
Posted on May 27, 2018
Nothing in my life delivers a more potent dose of perspective than viewing the world from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Days are spent at the mercy of the Colorado River, alternately drifting and hurtling beneath mile-high rock layers that tell more than a billion years of Earth story. And when the sun goes down, the ceiling becomes a cosmological light show, each pinpoint representing a different instant in our galaxy’s past.
More than any of my five trips through the Grand Canyon, I’ll remember this year’s for its night skies. The wall-to-wall blue that dogged our daylight photography darkened to just what the night-photography doctor ordered, and we took full advantage. Excited about the potential for stars, each day I powwowed with our lead guide, the amazing Lindsay, to identify potential campsites with the best views of the night sky in general, and the best views of our Milky Way’s brilliant galactic core in particular.
But targeting a Milky Way campsite is easier in theory than execution. In the Northern Hemisphere, even when the galactic core reaches its highest point, it’s still fairly low in the southern sky. So given the Grand Canyon’s general east/west orientation, the best Milky Way views are usually blocked by the canyon’s towering walls. Even identifying a potential campsite on a north/south oriented stretch of the river doesn’t ensure success because Colorado River campsites in the Grand Canyon are first-come, first-served. So even though the other groups on the river don’t usually think strategically about photographing the night sky like I do, each campsite has its own appealing qualities and there’s never a guarantee that any given one will be free when we get there.
In general, my raft trips’ first night or (maybe) two usually provide our best Milky Way opportunities because the first 75 miles of the Colorado River downstream from our put-in at Lee’s Ferry runs pretty much north/south. With the river running north/south, the canyon walls are to the east and west and we usually get a pretty clear view of the north and south horizons. Just downstream from the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, the canyon bends more or less permanently east/west and Milky Way core views are few and far between.
This year, our day-one campsite got us a decent but not quite perfect view of the southern sky. Nevertheless, many rafters rose and gave it a try, with varying degrees of success—at the very least, it was good practice, and much was learned. On day two we had a magnificently open sky, but the southern horizon was behind us as we faced the river, so the Milky Way’s center rose above lots of shrubs and rocks. That night I and a few others photographed the view across the river toward the Big Dipper, North Star, and fainter part of the Milky Way in Cassiopeia, but a handful had some success photographing the brighter Milky Way from a hill facing south.
I knew days four and five would be long shots for Milky Way photography because Lindsay and I had in mind an east/west trending day-4 site directly across the river from Deer Creek Fall (fingers crossed), one of the trip’s photographic highlights. And there were no good candidates for day 5 (we ended up camping beneath Toroweap). But Lindsay had an ace up her sleeve for day 3, our first day on the east/west portion of the river, if we could pull it off.
In addition to being the day we bend west, day three is the much anticipated “rapid day.” After warming up with a couple of days of fairly infrequent mild to medium rapids, the action on day three ramps up considerably, both in rapid frequency and intensity. Rapid day is always so much fun, for most of the rafters the thoughts of night photography take backseat thrills and laughter.
While everyone else’s attention was on the river, in the back of my mind I was crossing my virtual fingers for the prosaically named Camp 118 (for the number of miles downstream from our starting point at Lee’s Ferry). Camp 118 had been on my radar since Lindsay had told me about it on our first day, citing a bend in the river that gives the spot a view of the southern sky that’s very rare on this part of the river. But she warned me that Camp 118 has other benefits that make it popular among all the trips on the river, and gave us a no better than 50 percent chance of scoring it.
Equal parts exhausted and exhilarated, late in the afternoon of day three we rounded a bend and found Camp 118 free and clear. Phew. As soon as we landed I did a quick check with my compass app and confirmed that the river here pointed due south. Camp 118 also had a long south-facing sandy beach that would give everyone ample room to setup and move around in the dark without getting in anyone else’s way. Once the boat was off-loaded I gathered the troops and told them to prepare for some the best Milky Way photography of the trip.
One more Grand Canyon Milky Way obstacle I forgot to mention is that even in the most favorable locations, the galactic core doesn’t rotate into the slot between the canyon walls until 2:00 a.m. or later. Often rafters go to bed with every intention of rising to photograph it, but when the time comes, their resolve has burrowed deep into the cozy folds of their sleeping bag. The best antidote is to be as prepared as possible before going to bed. At the very least, I prescribe the following: identify your composition, set up your camera, lens, and tripod, set your exposure, focus at infinity, and have your camera ready atop the tripod beside your cot. Better still, if it can be done without risk of someone stumbling over it in the dark, leave the camera composed and focused at your predetermined shooting spot.
I woke at 2:00 a.m. and found many already at work on the Milky Way, which was just making its way into view above the canyon wall in the east. During the next two-and-a-quarter hours I worked the scene while the galactic core slid from left to right, first above the river and finally down toward the wall on the west side of the river. I used both my Sony a7SII and a7RIII bodies, and my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lenses.
Since getting my 42 megapixel a7RIII, I’ve been happy enough with its night photography results that I’d almost forgotten about my 12 megapixel a7SII. In fact, I seriously considered leaving my a7SII at home for this trip. I’m so glad I didn’t. Using the two side-by-side like this, offered an instant reminder why the a7SII is the night photography king. Combined with the light gathering ability of an f/1.4 lens, with my a7SII I can look through my viewfinder and focus perfectly in about three seconds. I can also get crazy-bright images in crazy-dark conditions like this.
I usually feel like the “star” of night images is the sky; because vertical orientation gives me the most sky and least foreground, most of my night images are oriented vertically, especially when the more or less vertically oriented Milky Way is present. But one of my goals for this trip was more horizontal Milky Way images, so I made a point of setting aside my vertical bias and shooting a lot of horizontal frames. This image (like all of my images) is a single click (no composite of multiple frames) with no artificial light added (no light painting or any other light besides stars and skylight). I saw several meteors that night, but have no specific memories of the small one darting across the upper middle of this frame.
I wrapped up with this scene a little before 4:00 a.m., but heading back to bed I saw the Big Dipper cradled between the two canyon walls, just above the north horizon, too beautiful to resist. I ended up photographing another 20 minutes or so on the other side of camp, ending up with one of my favorite images of the trip, including a meteor I very much remember. But that’s a story for another day….
A few tips for photographing the Milky Way
I have an entire article that spells out Milky Way photography, but here’s the CliffsNotes (is that still a thing?) version:
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on May 15, 2018
In spring of 2014 I fulfilled a life-long dream to raft the Grand Canyon. My plan was to do it once, but the trip so exceeded my (already quite high) expectations, and those of all the photographers who joined me, that I just decided to keep doing it until people stopped showing up. Tomorrow I hit the river for the fifth year in a row. With next year’s trip nearly full already, there’s no end in sight.
Combined with my annual Grand Canyon Monsoon trip in August, rafting the Grand Canyon has helped me establish a relationship with the Grand Canyon surpassed only by my relationship with Yosemite. When I return late next week, I’m sure I’ll have many more stories and images to share. In the meantime, I’m sharing a gallery of images from past visits (top and bottom). Stay tuned….
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Posted on February 25, 2018
I get a lot of questions in the field during a photo workshop, but about 80% of them are some version of, “Should I do it this way or that way?”:
Sometimes people seem so paralyzed by these choices, it seems they’d rather do nothing than make a mistake. Or maybe they’re inhibited by the subconscious belief that we must conserve resources at all costs. From our earliest years, we were admonished to not waste things: don’t leave the water running, turn of the light when you leave the room, clean your plate, and a host of other waste-related rules. Adding to our formative-years stress, when we recovering film shooters got our first adult cameras, already rendered destitute by the new equipment, we were suddenly punched in the wallet by the cost of film and processing. It’s no wonder we try to spare every frame.
Of course conserving resources is important, today more than ever. But my question for digital photographers is, exactly what resources are you conserving? Here’s a revolutionary thought: While every click with a film camera costs money, every click with a digital camera increases the return on your investment. That’s right: every time you take a picture with your digital camera, your cost per click drops.
I’m not suggesting that you put your camera in continuous shooting mode and fire away*. But I am encouraging you to shoot liberally, with a purpose. And there’s no law that says that purpose must be a successful image.
For example, a click can just be a way to get in the mood, or to determine whether there really is a shot there (I don’t always know whether a scene is worth working until I’ve clicked a couple of frames). And I frequently play “what-if?” games with my camera (“I wonder what would happen if I do this…”). I’d be mortified if people saw some of these what-if? images, but I often learn from them. Sometimes I simply learn what not to do, but often I see enough to understand why it didn’t work, and end up with ideas for how it might work the next time.
I usually use my first click the way I use a draft when I’m writing: rather than a completed masterpiece, my goal for the first few clicks of a scene is a foundation to incrementally refine until I reach the finished product. Or when I’m not sure of the best way to handle a scene, I shoot it multiple ways to defer the decision until I view the image on a large monitor.
At the very least, especially when photographing a scene that especially thrills you, shoot it with as much variety as time permits: horizontal/vertical, wide/tight, and as many perspectives as you can come up with. I mean, you never know when a magazine might want a vertical version of the horizontal Grand Canyon rainbow image you just installed on the wall of the local bank.
Photography often requires instantaneous choices, and Nature doesn’t always wait until you’re ready. So because you can’t always have a pro photographer whispering in your ear every time you’re out with your camera, any time you find yourself wondering whether you should or shouldn’t shoot a scene one way or another (or another, or another, or…), just shoot it both ways and rest easy.
* True story: I once had a woman in a workshop put her Nikon D4 in continuous shooting mode, hold the camera in front of her, depress the shutter button, and spin. When I asked her what in the world she was doing, she replied, “It’s Yosemite—there’s bound to be something good in there.”
About this image
I captured this rainbow about 15 minutes after capturing the rainbow in my February 18 post. Pulling into Roosevelt Point a few miles down the road from Vista Encantada (and the earlier rainbow), we were still very much in rush mode. I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to apply my deliberate, what-if?, multiple draft approach. But I did have time to flip my camera and shoot a variety of compositions before the rainbow faded. I started with the wider vertical and horizontal frames you see here, then moved on to tighter compositions.
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Posted on February 18, 2018
When the weather gets crazy, do you sprint for cover or reach for your camera? Your answer may be a pretty good indicator of your success as a landscape photographer. It’s an unfortunate fact that the light, color, and drama that make the most memorable landscape photos all come when most sane people would rather be inside: at sunrise, when the rest of the world is asleep; at sunset, when everyone else is at dinner; and during wild weather, when anyone with sense is on the sofa in front of the fire.
Not only do clouds keep tourists at bay, they’re usually a prerequisite for the best nature photography. Whether they simply diffuse sunlight to subdue extreme contrast into something much more camera-friendly, or contort themselves into diaphanous curtains and towering pillars that are subjects themselves, clouds are a photographer’s friend.
And with clouds, often comes rain. But the photographer willing to go out in the rain is also the photographer who captures lightning, rainbows, and vivid sunsets and sunrises. The key to photographing in rain is preparation. Regardless of the forecast, I never travel without my rain gear duffel that contains everything necessary to keep me dry and focused on photography: waterproof hat, gloves, parka, rain pants, and boots for me, and an umbrella for my camera. My go-to rain cover is a plastic garbage bag that keeps my camera and lens dry when I’m searching or waiting for a shot. The final essential wet weather accessory is a towel or chamois to dry any gear (especially the front of my lens) that gets wet.
Covered head-to-toe with my waterproof wardrobe, I’m ready to photograph whatever Mother Nature delivers. When I’m ready to shoot, my umbrella always comes out first, then off comes the bag and into a pocket. With one hand managing the umbrella, I have one hand free to compose, expose, focus, and click.
When the wind blows it’s often difficult to manage an umbrella and keep my lens free of water droplets. Since my Sony bodies are sufficiently sealed (as are many other mirrorless and DSLR bodies and lenses), I don’t worry about raindrops (but make sure you have the hot-shoe cap in place). Sometimes, when the wind is too extreme, I even briefly set the umbrella aside (but not too far). Once my composition, exposure, and focus are set, I point the umbrella’s convex side into the wind and lower it until it’s right on top of the camera (for maximum rain protection), pull out my towel and dry the front of the lens (and the rest of the camera and lens too if it’s raining hard), then lift the umbrella and click simultaneously (before more droplets land on my lens).
About this image
Last summer’s Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop group had already had a great day. Following a nice sunrise at the always beautiful Point Imperial, we spent two hours on the Grand Canyon Lodge view deck photographing a spectacular electrical storm that delivered multiple lightning captures to everyone in the group. Here’s a sample of the day’s bounty to this point:
When the storm moved too close and drove us inside to safety (we’re resilient and adventuresome, not stupid), it would have been easy to rest on our laurels and call it a day. I mean, who likes getting rained on?
Photographers, that’s who. Don Smith and I herded the group into the cars and headed to Cape Royal Road, where we could follow the Grand Canyon’s East Rim above Marble Canyon all the way to Cape Royal. Knowing that monsoon showers are fairly localized, the plan was to drive out of the cell that was dumping on us at the lodge and either shoot back at it, or (more likely) find another cell firing out over the canyon. In the back of my mind though was the hope for a rainbow above the canyon—dropping in west, the sun was perfectly positioned for rainbows in the east.
The rainbow appeared just after we passed the Point Imperial Road junction, arcing above the forest. Climbing through the trees toward the rim and its views of Marble Canyon, my urgency intensified with the rainbow’s vivid color, but we were stuck behind a meandering tourist who clearly had different priorities. As tempted as I was to pass him, I knew with three more cars following me, that would be a mistake. So we poked along at a glacial pace. After what seemed like hours, the rainbow was hanging in there as we pulled into the Vista Encantada parking area and screeched to a halt—I swear everyone was out of the car and scrambling for their gear before I’d come to a complete stop.
With a full rainbow above an expansive view, I opted for my Sony 12-24 lens on my a7RII, but immediately began to question that choice. While Vista Encantada offers a very pretty view, it’s not my favorite view to photograph because of all the less-than-photogenic shrubbery in the foreground—a telephoto lens would have worked better to eliminate the foreground. But I wanted more rainbow. So after a few failed attempts to find a composition at the conventional vista, I sprinted into the woods in search of something better. This turned out to be a wise choice, as the shrubs here were replaced with (much more appealing) mature evergreens.
In a perfect world I’d have had an unobstructed view into the Grand Canyon, but the world is rarely perfect. I decided to use the nearby trees as my foreground, moving back from the trees just far enough for the rainbow to clear their crowns, then left as far as the terrain permitted, separating the two left-most trees. Composing wide enough to include the trees top-to-bottom also allowed me to include all of the rainbow—suddenly my 12-24 lens choice was genius!
After finishing at Vista Encantada we continued down the road and photographed another rainbow from Roosevelt Point, before wrapping up the day with a sunset for the ages at Cape Royal. A great day indeed, all thanks to weather that would have kept most tourists indoors.
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Posted on September 1, 2017
Earlier this month Don Smith and I traveled to the Grand Canyon for our annual Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops. I enjoy every workshop, but as a true weather nerd, these monsoon workshops are particular highlights in my year, and in Northern California we just don’t get that much weather—that is, unless you consider homogenous blue (summer) or gray (winter) skies weather.
For this trip, I started monitoring the Grand Canyon forecast about a week before the first workshop (okay, maybe a little earlier than that), and ramped up my queries as the workshop approached. If hoping and handwringing could make lightning, I’d never have a bad day at the Grand Canyon, but after three days of fairly benign conditions, workshop group number one was still waiting for their lightning. Then, like a walk-off grand slam, on our final full day Mother Nature gifted us with a spectacular, two-hour lightning show. Phew. In fact, that afternoon we got an entire workshop worth of dramatic weather in about five very intense hours. The day’s highlights included lightning and two rainbows, and wrapped up a mammatus (google it) sunset at Cape Royal. All’s well that ends well.
Contrast group one’s eleventh hour salvation with workshop group two, which hit the ground running (quite literally) before we could even have an orientation. The second workshop was scheduled to start with a 1 p.m. orientation at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. As go most mornings in monsoon season, the day started quietly, but a little after noon lightning started up across the canyon and Don and I set up our tripods, cameras, and Lightning Triggers. With the designated gathering place in front of the lodge, but the viewing deck and lightning show in the back, Don and I took turns running up front and dragging folks down to our location. Those who had arrived with camera gear were put right to work, while the ones who had left their gear in their car or cabin and had to race back up the hill to fetch it.
By 1:15 we were seeing one or two strikes per minute, sometimes more, spread across a fairly broad area of the South Rim. Soon Don and I had a dozen photographers spread across two outside decks separated by an enclosed viewing room. Most of them had never used a Lightning Trigger, or even photographed lightning, so once we got everyone assembled, most of the next hour was spent running around setting up and testing Lightning Triggers, helping people achieve the right exposure, and suggesting compositions.
During that first hour our cameras, set up and primed for action, enthusiastically fired away unattended. When I’m with my camera during a storm, I’m constantly tweaking my composition, exposure, and Lightning Trigger sensitivity. Left to its own devices, my camera ended up with over 400 frames of the very same scene, most of which had no lightning (because the trigger was detecting lightning too faint to register). Fortunately, by the time everyone had settled into a comfort zone with their cameras and Lightning Triggers, not only was the lightning display still going strong, it had moved closer (but remained at a relatively safe distance) and was isolated to the most photogenic part of the view. Our second hour was pure joy, as each dramatic strike seemed designed to outdo the one that preceded it.
The image I share at the top of this post came when the storm was at its most intense, moving southwest to northeast across (right to left) the canyon, just a little east of our location. The brightest bolt you see is striking just below the South Rim, between Yaki and Shoshone Points, but ten miles away.
When all was said and done, I got about 50 strikes that afternoon, and everyone in the group got multiple strikes as well. We had another productive lightning day the next day, but this is the day I’ll remember.
Photographing lightning at night is mostly a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction with a multi-second shutter speed and hoping the lightning fires while your shutter’s open—pretty straightforward. Photographing daylight lightning is a little more problematic. It’s usually over before you can react, so without a lightning sensor to recognize lightning and click your shutter, success is largely dumb luck (few people are quick enough see it and click).
Lightning Trigger: The best tool for the job
A lightning sensor attaches to your camera’s hot shoe and connects via a special cable to the camera’s remote-release port. When engaged, the sensor fires the shutter (virtually) immediately upon detecting lightning—whether or not the lightning is visible to the eye or camera. With many lightning sensors from which to choose, before I bought my first one I did lots of research. I ended up choosing the sensor that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At a little less than $400 (including the cable), the Lightning Trigger is not the cheapest option, but after leading lightning-oriented workshops for five years, I can say with lots of confidence that lightning sensors are not generic products, and the internal technology matters a lot. The Lightning Trigger is the only one I’d use and recommend (I get no kickback for this).
I won’t get into lots of specifics about how to set up the Lightning Trigger because it’s simple and covered fairly well in the included documentation. But you should know that connecting the Trigger will disable your LCD replay, which means you won’t be able to review your captures without disconnecting (a simple but sometimes inconvenient task). You also won’t be able to adjust your exposure with the Lightning Trigger operational.
The Lightning Trigger documentation promises at least a 20 mile range, and I’ve seen nothing that causes me to question that. It also says you can expect the sensor to fire at lightning that’s not necessarily in front of you, or lightning you can’t see at all. For every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning I didn’t see, or that were outside my camera’s field of view. But when visible lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that the Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time (that is, even though I got lots of false positives, the Lightning Trigger missed very few bolts it should have detected). Of these successful clicks, I actually captured lightning in about 2/3 of the frames.
The misses are a function of the timing between lightning and camera—sometimes the lightning is just too fast for the camera. In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts of longer duration, multiple strokes that are easier to capture. And my success rate has increased significantly beyond 2/3 since switching from a Canon 5DIII to a Sony a7RII (more on this in the Shutter Lag section).
The Lightning Trigger documentation recommends shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/20 second—shutter speeds faster than 1/20 second risk completing the exposure before some or all of the secondary strokes fire; slower shutter speeds tend to wash out the lightning. To achieve daylight shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/20 second, I use a polarizer, with my camera at ISO 50 and aperture at f/16 (and sometimes smaller). Of course exposure values will vary with the amount of light available, and you may not need such extreme settings when shooting into an extremely dark sky. The two stops of light lost to a polarizer helps a lot, and 4- or 6-stop neutral density filter is even better.
Lightning is fast, really, really fast, so the faster your camera clicks the shutter after getting the command, the more success you’ll have. The delay between the click instruction (whether from your finger pressing the shutter button, a remote release, or a lightning sensor) and the shutter firing is called “shutter lag.” The less shutter lag you have, the better your results will be. The two most important shutter lag factors are:
In addition to a lightning sensor and fast camera, you’ll need:
Lightning is most likely to strike in or near the gray curtains (clearly recognizable as distant rain) that hang beneath dark clouds. In addition to visible rain curtains, the darkest and tallest clouds are usually the most likely to fire lightning. Here are a few more points to consider:
Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so you need to monitor them closely. Sometimes this simply means adjusting your composition to account for shifting lightning; other times it means retreating to the car if the cell threatens your location.
Join Don Smith and me in our next Grand Canyon Monsoon Photo Workshop
Read my article in Outdoor Photographer magazine, Shooting the Monsoon
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