Posted on August 31, 2016
Let’s start with the given that lightning is dangerous, but if “safety first” is a criterion for intelligence, photographers are stupid. It’s impossible to be 100 percent safe photographing lightning, but the more you understand lightning, how to avoid it and maximize your safety in its midst, the greater your odds of surviving to take more pictures. And not only does a healthy respect for lightning’s fickle power make you safer, understanding lightning will also help you anticipate and photograph lightning.
Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes the negative/positive polarization between two objects (when you get shocked touching a doorknob, you’ve been struck by lightning). The convective air motion (convection is up/down circular flow caused when warm, less-dense air rises, cools and becomes more dense, and finally falls and repeats the process; convection is also what causes bubbling in boiling water) in a thunderstorm transports positively charged molecules upward and negatively charged molecules downward. Because opposite charges attract each other, the extreme polarization (positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground) is quickly (and violently) equalized: Lightning.
With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding rapidly (exploding) when heated by a 50,000 degree lightning bolt. The visual component of the lightning—the flash or bolt that you see—travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (virtually instantaneous regardless of distance). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound (a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light).
Knowing that the thunder occurred simultaneous with the lightning flash, and that they travel at different speeds, we can infer that the farther we are from the lightning, the greater the time elapsed between the arrival of the lightning and thunder. And since we know how fast both travel, we can compute the approximate distance the lightning struck from our location
At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel about a mile in about five seconds, so dividing by five the number of seconds between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash give you the lightning’s distance in miles (divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers). If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means the lightning struck about three miles away.
The 30 people killed by lightning in the United States each year had one thing in common: each didn’t believe he or she would be struck by lightning when they started whatever it was they were doing when they were struck. The surest way to be safe in an electrical storm is to be in a fully enclosed structure or metal vehicle, away from open windows, plumbing, wiring, and electronic devices (ideally, 100 miles away). But since that would preclude our ability to photograph lightning, we need to find a middle ground.
While there’s no completely safe way to photograph lightning, there steps to improve your odds of surviving to enjoy the fruits of your labor. This is where more knowledge comes to the rescue. Most lightning strikes within a six mile radius of the previous strike. So, if less than thirty seconds elapses between the flash and bang, you’re too close. And since “most” doesn’t mean “all,” it’s even better to allow a little margin for error. Thunder isn’t usually audible beyond ten miles, so if you can hear the thunder, it’s safe to assume that you’re within the range of the next strike.
But if you do find yourself caught outside in an electrical storm, with no available shelter, try to do as many of the following steps:
Photographing lightning at night is fairly straightforward, following most of the rules and difficulties that apply to any other night photography shoot: metering, composition, and finding focus in low light. My exposure settings are usually a function of the lightning’s frequency—if it’s only firing every five or ten minutes, I need stretch out my exposure time with a lower ISO and/or smaller aperture.
Rather than try to meter a night scene conventionally, I find the easiest way to get a proper night exposure is to start with a 30-second, large aperture, extreme ISO (ISO 6400 or higher) test exposure. When I get an exposure that works, I determine the shutter speed that suits the lightning frequency, and the lightning density I want in my frame, figure out how many stops more than my 30-second test exposure that is, and subtract the same number of stops from my ISO and f-stop. This test exposure is a good way to check my composition and focus in extreme low light situations.
Until recently, most lightning photography was either at night, when a long exposure will capture as many strokes that occur while the shutter’s open, or the product of pure luck—the shutter just happened to be open when the lightning fired. Daylight lightning is difficult because if you’re relying on your reaction time, the strike will almost certainly come and go before you can react (people who claim success with this technique have usually captured a secondary or tertiary bolt). But now we have lightning sensors, which can detect and respond much faster than any human can react.
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, it fires the shutter immediately upon detecting lightning.
There are many lightning sensors from which to choose. I went with the one that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At slightly less than $400, including a cable to match your DSLR, the LT-IV is far from the cheapest option, but from all I’ve read, heard, observed, and (especially) experienced first hand, lightning sensors are not generic products, and the internal technology matters a lot. The Lightning Trigger is the only one I’d use (I get no kickback for this).
A good lightning sensor should detect lightning at least 20 miles away. And you can count on a lot of extra clicks—for every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning not visible to me, or outside my camera’s field of view (better too sensitive than not sensitive enough). But when lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that my Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time.
But even firing in response to a visible bolt doesn’t ensure a successful image—sometimes the bolts are so short that the camera can’t click fast enough. This is a limitation of your camera, not your sensor—some cameras are significantly faster than others (more on this later). In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts with long duration and/or multiple strokes that significantly increase your odds.
The daylight lightning shutter speed sweet spot is between 1/15 and 1/4 second—faster shutter speeds risk completing the exposure before some or all of the secondary strokes fire; slower shutter speeds will wash out the lightning (which is why you can’t just put on a neutral density filter and dial in a long exposure to capture daylight lightning).
Achieving daylight shutter speeds around 1/8 second isn’t always easy. I shoot in Manual mode, use a polarizer, often at ISO 50 and f16 or smaller. Of course exposure will vary with the amount of light, and you may not need to go to such extremes if you’re shooting into an extremely dark sky. You can also use a neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed, but take care not to slow the shutter speed beyond 1/4 second and risk washing out the lightning entirely. And if you’re in manual mode (as I am), be aware of the rapidly changing light in a thunderstorm—an exposure that worked five minutes ago might be all wrong now.
After doing this for many years, I’ve developed an exposure approach that seems to work fairly well for me. When the scene is fairly bright, I tend to go with faster shutter speeds like 1/10 to 1/15 second. I find that longer shutter speeds in these situations tends to was out the lightning I capture, making it less dramatic or even virtually invisible. But when dense, saturated clouds block the sunlight and darken the clouds significantly, I usually extend my shutter speeds into the 1/4 to 1/8 second range. The lightning still stands out quite nicely against the dark clouds, and the longer shutter speeds allow me to capture more multiple strokes.
Because shutter lag (the time elapsed between the press of the shutter button and the shutter opening) is death to lightning photography, you’ll want a camera with as little as possible shutter lag. Too much delay, and the bolt will be gone before the camera clicks. (Using shutter speeds in the 1/15 to 1/4 second range, there’s no concern that your shutter will be too fast.)
Shutter lag is one area where the Sony mirrorless cameras shine—after years of shooting Canon, and working with Nikon and other camera brands in my workshops, I’m pretty confident that the Sony mirrorless bodies are the fastest, often by a large amount.
Ideally, you’ll want a camera with shutter lag faster than 60 milliseconds. Somewhat slower shutter lag won’t shut you out completely, but the slower your camera, the lower your success rate will be.
The best resource I’ve found for camera shutter lag times is http://www.imaging-resource.com. In the Camera Review section, look for the Pre-focused time on the Performance tab (though I can’t guarantee that any sensor but the Lightning Trigger is able to pre-focus).
Regardless of the camera you’re using, there are a couple of things you should do to do to minimize shutter lag:
It may very well be that your camera isn’t slowed with these features enabled, but since it’s virtually impossible to get camera manufacturers to commit to a camera’s performance at this level (and despite the wealth of self-proclaimed experts who claim to know), I think it’s wise to minimize your chance for problems by simplifying your camera’s capture process as much as possible.
Other essential or recommended equipment*:
* While I don’t recommend risking staying out when the thunderstorm is on top of you, there will be times when the rain sneaks up on you (I’ve had to leave my camera out in a downpour when a too-close bolt chased me to shelter).
My goal is to photograph lightning that’s happening somewhere else. In other words, if I’m in the storm, I’m too close. For example, places like the rim of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite offer vantage points with expansive views that allow me to photograph thunderstorms from many miles away (which of course still doesn’t absolutely guarantee safety).
Before attempting a lightning shoot, research potential vantage points and familiarize yourself with the weather patterns in the area you’d like to photograph. It’s possible that most storms in your area will tend to form at around the same time of day, and move in the same direction—this knowledge will definitely improve your chances. It’s also a good idea scout escape routes and have a plan if you’re caught off-guard by an advancing or developing cell.
Because you can’t be everywhere at once, I strongly recommend using a smartphone app that reports current lightning activity. For example, when I’m at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, I usually stay in Tusayan, about 15 minutes from the rim, and often don’t know exactly when the lightning has started, or whether it’s west or east. I can also get a pretty good idea of where the storms are building and the direction they’re moving to get myself out to the rim before the show starts.
The app I use on my iPhone is Lightning Finder, which reports (with a minimal annual subscription), virtually real-time, every lightning strike in North America. Another subscription-based (for real-time lightning) app that I’ve heard good things about but haven’t tried is RadarScope. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so you might want to do some research to see what’s out there.
Choosing a conventional landscape scene usually involves some planning to ensure the best light for my planned subject, and that the weather will cooperate. But lightning photography is far more opportunistic—we may know that a chance for lightning exists, but we rarely know exactly where it will appear. So while I may have an idea of a landscape to put with my lightning, but if the lightning’s not happening there, my lightning shoot won’t be terribly productive unless I adjust.
The greater the vertical distance raindrops rise and fall in the clouds, the greater the potential for the extreme polarization that’s conducive to electrical activity. So look for towering thunderheads, the higher the better. I also look for gray curtains of rain hanging beneath dark clouds, which is usually an indication of where the cell is most active. The darker the rain curtains, the heavier the rain and the more likely there will be lightning. But be aware that the lightning doesn’t necessarily fire in the darkest part of the clouds—sometimes you can see lightning in the thinner gray areas out front of the main rain band.
My general approach is to identify the most likely lightning source (rain curtain) and find the best composition that includes it. The wider your composition, the greater your odds of capturing lightning somewhere in your frame, but the smaller the lightning will appear. I tend to start wider to ensure success, then tighten my composition once I’m fairly confident I captured something.
Sometimes I encounter a situation where the best lightning is firing above a boring scene, but I see potential (but so far no lightning) above a much better scene. That’s a classic risk/reward dilemma without an absolute best solution. Because I have so many lightning images, I tend to go with the better composition rather than the best chance for lightning. On the other hand, I advise those who have few or no lightning captures to opt for the sure thing until they know they’ve had some success.
A frequent composition problem I see in the initial images of my workshop students is too much sky. Monitor the storm until you know the height of the lightning’s origin, then put the top of the frame a little above that—more sky if there’s something interesting above, less if it’s homogenous gray clouds. But it’s better to have a little too much sky than to have the lightning coming out of the top of your frame.
With a lightning sensor engaged and firing, it’s easy to feel like there’s not much to do. But lightning storms move, so in addition to the obvious safety implications (which should be your primary concern), it benefits you to monitor and anticipate the lightning activity’s path. Armed with this knowledge, I’ll frequently shift, tighten, or widen my composition as the situation dictates.
Since my Lightning Trigger is so sensitive, picking up lightning well out of my frame and (most frequently) in inter- and intra-cloud lightning that’s invisible to the naked eye in daylight, I get far more frames than I get lightning. This going through hundreds of frames on my computer to find the ones with lightning a very tedious task. That job becomes much easier if, when my Lightning Trigger is armed and ready, I lock my eye on the horizon. When I see lightning and hear my shutter click, I mark that frame by quickly clicking another with my hand in front of the lens. (If I don’t hear my shutter click, I check to make sure everything is working and set up properly.)
Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so monitor the storm you’re photographing, and the sky around you in all directions, closely and continuously. Not only will this enable you to adjust your composition to account for a cell’s movement, it can save your life when an active cell threatens your location.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 26, 2016
Don Smith and I just wrapped up 13 days and two workshops at Grand Canyon. Bookending the trip with 12+ hour drives, each day we had 4:30 a.m. wake-ups, lots of waiting for something to happen punctuated by bursts of extremely intense activity, and very late dinners. Both groups enjoyed the full complement of monsoon thrills, including thunder and lightning, rainbows, dramatic clouds, and vivid sunrises and sunsets that made the difficult schedule more than tolerable.
Most workshops have a theme that develops organically and takes on a life of its own throughout the workshop. At some point I realized that second workshop’s theme had somehow become me peering at an LCD, or projecting an image onto the screen during image review, and advising (with emphasis), “Less sky, more canyon.”
I won’t belabor a point I’ve made many times (most recently here) that the most frame space should go to the part of the scene with the most visual interest, except to say that few locations illustrate this better than Grand Canyon. It’s a rare sky that compete with the canyon’s majesty, but what I saw frequently in this workshop was photographers giving half or more of their frame to a sky that didn’t match the canyon below.
I suspect this was happening for a few reasons. Sometimes people just reflexively split their frame with the horizon, or automatically break their scene with the horizon 1/3 of the way down from the top, or up from the bottom, because a misguided judge at their camera club enforces the rule of thirds with Biblical conviction. Other times they simply were composing for lightning firing across the canyon and just weren’t sure how high the lightning originated. But for the distant lightning we usually shoot, that’s invariably fairly near the horizon, and it only takes one strike to get a pretty good idea of where that will be.
This doesn’t mean Grand Canyon images should never include lots of sky, it means that the sky you give your Grand Canyon image should be earned. A towering rainbow? Horizon-to-horizon sunrise or sunset color? By all means, widen your lens and tilt the camera up. But don’t forget that even when the sky is spectacular, it’s the canyon that makes your image special.
No sky, minimal sky, lots of sky—I came away from this workshop with lots of new images I’ll be sharing over the next few weeks. The image here was from the first of two spectacular lightning shows, one for each workshop, our groups enjoyed. We were about halfway into the image review at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim when the lightning started up across the canyon. We instantly jumped into an unrehearsed Keystone Cops scene, scrambling for our gear, racing for the door, and setting up on the viewing deck outside.
Don and I had prepped the group on Lightning Trigger setup on the first evening, and made sure everyone’s Trigger was functioning, so we didn’t have too many problems that afternoon.
The show lasted over two hours, and by the time it was over, everyone in the group had multiple lightning images.
Posted on June 3, 2016
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur
A few days ago someone on Facebook commented on my previous Grand Canyon rainbow image that getting “the” shot is more about luck than anything else. I had a good chuckle, but once I fully comprehended that this person was in fact serious, I actually felt a little sad for him. Since we tend to make choices that validate our version of reality, imagine going through life with that philosophy.
No one can deny that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and I choose to embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance favors the prepared mind. Ansel Adams was quite fond of repeating Pasteur’s quote; later Galen Rowell, and I’m sure many other photographers, embraced it to great success.
As nature photographers, we must acknowledge the tremendous role chance plays in the conditions that rule the scenes we photograph, then do our best to maximize our odds for witnessing, in the best possible circumstances, whatever special something Mother Nature might toss in our direction. A rainbow over Safeway or the sewage treatment plant is still beautiful, but a rainbow above Yosemite Valley or the Grand Canyon is a lifetime memory (not to mention a beautiful photograph).
A few years ago, on a drive to Yosemite to meet clients for dinner (and to plan the next day’s tour), I saw conditions that told me a rainbow was possible. When I met the clients at the cafeteria, I suggested that we forget dinner and take a shot at a rainbow instead. With no guarantee, we raced our empty stomachs across Yosemite Valley, scaled some rocks behind Tunnel View, and sat in a downpour for about twenty minutes. Our reward? A double rainbow arcing across Yosemite Valley. Were we lucky? Absolutely. But it was no fluke that my clients and I were the only “lucky” ones out there that evening.
Before sunrise on a chilly May morning in 2011, my workshop group and I had the good fortune photograph a crescent moon splitting El Capitan and Half Dome from an often overlooked vista on the north side of the Merced River. Luck? What do you think? Well, I guess you could say that we were lucky that our alarms went off, and that the clouds stayed away that morning. But I knew at least a year in advance that a crescent moon would be rising in this part of the sky on this very morning, scheduled my spring workshop to include this date, then spent hours plotting all the location and timing options to determine where we should be for the moonrise.
I’d love to say that I sensed the potential for a rainbow over the Grand Canyon when I scheduled last month’s raft trip over a year ago, then hustled my group down the river for three days to be in this very position for the event. But I’m not quite that prescient. On the other hand, I did anticipate the potential for a rainbow a few hours earlier, scouted and planned my composition as soon as we arrived at camp, then called the rainbow’s arrival far enough in advance to allow people to get their gear, find a scene of their own, and set up before it arrived.
As I tried to make it clear in my previous post, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, a moonrise, the Milky Way, or whatever) with your location of choice.
But to decide that photographing nature’s most special moments is mostly about luck is to pretty much limit your rainbows to the Safeways and sewage treatment plants of your everyday world. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve prepared for a special moment in nature, changed plans, lost sleep, driven many miles, skipped meals, and suffered in miserable conditions, all with nothing to show for my sacrifice. But just one success like a rainbow above the Grand Canyon is more than enough compensation for a thousand miserable failures. And here’s another secret: no matter how miserable I am getting to and waiting for my goal event, whether it happens or not, I absolutely love the anticipation, the just sitting out there fueled by the thought that it just might happen.
Posted on May 30, 2016
Perhaps you’ve noticed that many popular nature photographers have a “hook,” a persona they’ve created to distinguish themselves from the competition (it saddens me to think that photography can be viewed as a competition, but that’s a thought for another day). This hook can be as simple (and annoying) as flamboyant self-promotion, or an inherent gift that enables the photographer to get the shot no one else would have gotten, something like superhuman courage or endurance. Some photographers actually credit a divine connection or disembodied voices that guide them to the shot.
Clearly I’m going to need to come up with a hook of my own if I’m to succeed. Flamboyant self-promotion just isn’t my style, and my marathon days are in the distant past. Courage? I think my poor relationship with heights would rule that out. And the only disembodied voice I hear is my GPS telling me she’s “recalculating.”
Just when I thought I’d reached an impasse that threatened to keep me mired in photographic anonymity, a little word percolated up from my memory, a word that I’d heard uttered behind my back a few times after I’d successfully called a rainbow or moonrise: “Genius.” That’s it! I could position myself as the Sherlock of shutter speed, the Franklin of f-stop, the Einstein of ISO. That’s…, well, genius!
And just as the fact that none of these other photographers are quite as special as their press clippings imply, the fact that I’m not actually a genius would not be a limiting factor.
Okay, the truth is that photography is not rocket science, and nature photographers are rarely called to pave the road to scientific or spiritual truth. Not only is genius not a requirement for great photography, for the photographer who thinks too much, genius can be a hindrance. On the other hand, a little bit of thought doesn’t hurt.
It’s true that I’ve photographed more than my share of vivid rainbows and breathtaking celestial phenomena—moonrises and moonsets, moonbows, the Milky Way, and even a comet—from many iconic locations, but that’s mostly due to just a little research and planning combined with a basic understanding of the natural world. An understanding basic enough for most people who apply themselves.
For example, this rainbow. It was clearly the highlight of this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip, and while I did call it about fifteen minutes in advance, I can’t claim genius. Like most aspects of nature photography, photographing a rainbow is mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Of course there are thing you can do to increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time. Whether it’s an understanding of rainbows that enables me to position myself and wait, or simply knowing when and where to look, when I do get it right, I can appear more prescient than I really am.
The essentials for a rainbow are simple: sunlight (or moonlight, or any other source of bright, white light) at 42 degrees or lower, and airborne water droplets. Combine these two elements with the correct angle of view and you’ll get a rainbow. The lower the sun, the higher (and more full) the rainbow. And the center of the rainbow will always be exactly opposite the sun—in other words, your shadow will always point toward the rainbow’s center. There are a few other complicating factors, but this is really all you need to know to be a rainbow “genius.”
In this case it had been raining on and off all day, and while rain is indeed half of the ingredients in our rainbow recipe, as is often the case, this afternoon the sunlight half was blocked by the clouds delivering the rain. Not only do rain clouds block sunlight, so do towering canyon walls. Complicating things further, the window when the sun is low enough to create a rainbow is much smaller in the longer daylight months near the summer solstice (because the sun spends much of its day above 42 degrees). So, there at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on this May afternoon, the rainbow odds weren’t in our favor.
But despite the poor odds, because this afternoon’s rain fell from clouds ventilated by lots of blue gaps, I gave my group a brief rainbow alert, telling them when (according to my Focalware iPhone app, the sun would drop below 42 degrees at 3:45) and where to look (follow your shadow), and encouraging them to be ready. Being ready means figuring out where the rainbow will appear and finding a composition in that direction, then regularly checking the heavens—not just for what’s happening now, but especially for what might happen soon.
We arrived at our campsite with a light rain falling. The sun was completely obscured by clouds, but knowing that the sun would eventually drop into a large patch of blue on the western horizon, I went scouting for possible rainbow views as soon as my camp was set up. When the rain intensified an hour or so later, I reflexively looked skyward and realized that the sun was about to pop out. I quickly sounded the alarm (“The rainbow is coming! The rainbow is coming!”), grabbed my gear, and beelined to the spot I’d found earlier.
A few followed my lead and set up with me, but the skeptics (who couldn’t see beyond the heavy rain and no sunlight at that moment) continued with whatever they were doing. After about fifteen minutes standing in the rain, a few splashes of sunlight lit the ridge above us on our side of the river; less than a minute later, a small fragment of rainbow appeared upstream above the right bank, then before our eyes spread across the river to connect with the other side. Soon we had a double rainbow, as vivid as any I’ve ever seen.
Fortunate for the skeptics, this rainbow lasted so long, everyone had a chance to photograph it. Our four guides (with an average of 15 years Grand Canyon guiding experience), said it was the most vivid and longest (duration) rainbow they’d ever seen. (I actually toned it down a little in Photoshop.)
Genius? Hardly. Just a little knowledge and preparation mixed with a large dose of good fortune.
One more thing (May 31, 2016)
The vast majority of photographers whose work I enjoy viewing achieved their success the old fashioned way, by simply taking pictures and sharing them (rather than blatant self-promotion or exaggerated stories of personal sacrifice). In no particular order, here’s a short, incomplete list of photographers I admire for doing things the right way: Charles Cramer, Galen Rowell, David Muench, William Neill, and Michael Frye. In addition to great images, one thing these photographers have in common is an emphasis on sharing their wisdom and experience instead of hyperbolic tales of their photographic exploits.
Posted on May 25, 2016
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about shooting sans tripod on my recent Grand Canyon raft trip. My rationale for this sacrilege was that any shot without a tripod is better than no shot at all. I have no regrets, partly because I ended up with Grand Canyon perspectives I’d have never captured otherwise, but also because shooting hand-held reinforced for me all the reasons I’m so committed to tripod shooting.
Much of my tripod-centric approach is simply a product of the way I’m wired—I’m pretty deliberate in my approach to most things, relying on anticipation and careful consideration rather than cat-like reflexes as my path to action. That would probably explain why my sport of choice is baseball, I actually enjoy golf on TV, and would take chess or Scrabble over any video game (I’m pretty sure the last video game I played was Pong). It also explains, despite being an avid sports fan, my preference for photographing stationary landscapes.
Despite this preference, for the last three years my camera and I have embarked on a one week raft trip through Grand Canyon, where the scenery is almost always in motion (relatively speaking, of course). And after three years, I’ve grown to appreciate how much floating Grand Canyon is like reading a great novel, with every bend a new page that offers potential for sublime reflection or heart pounding action. And just as I prefer savoring a novel, lingering on or returning to passages that resonate with me, I’d love to navigate Grand Canyon at my own pace. But alas….
The rock in this image was a random obstacle separated from the surrounding cliffs at some time in the distant past, falling victim to millennia of dogged assault by rain, wind, heat, cold, and ultimately, gravity. Understanding that the river is about 50 feet deep here makes it easier to appreciate the size of this rock, and the magnitude of the explosion its demise must have set off.
Unfortunately, viewing my subject at eight miles per hour precludes the realtime analysis and consideration its story merits, and I was forced to act now and think later. In this case I barely had time to rise, wobble toward the front of the raft, balance, brace, meter, compose, focus, and click. One click. Then the rock was behind me and it was time to turn the page.
Posted on May 23, 2016
Who knew there could be so much intimate beauty in a location known for its horizon stretching panoramas? In fact, there are so many of these little gems that I run out of unique adjectives to describe them. Springing from a narrow slot in the red sandstone to plummet 180 feet to river level, Deer Creek Fall is probably the most dramatic of the many waterfalls we see on the raft trip.
Last year we stayed at Deer Creek Fall long enough to photograph it, but not long enough to explore. The prior year, on my first trip, we spent a couple of hours here; with temperatures in the 90s, most of the group photographed from the bottom, then cooled off in the emerald pool at its base. But a few of us took the relatively short, fairly grueling, completely unnerving trail to the top. Grueling because the route is carved into the sun-exposed sheer wall just downstream from the fall; unnerving because just as you’re catching your breath atop the slot canyon feeding the fall, you realize that continuing requires navigating about 20 feet of 18 inch wide ledge in the otherwise vertical sandstone. With no handhold and a 75 foot drop to the creek that may as well be 750 or 7500 feet (the outcome would be the same), I studied it for about five minutes. Watching the guides stride boldly across without hesitation, in flip-flops, did little to quell my anxiety. I finally sucked it up and made it to the other side, but once was enough.
This year, thanks to some deft planning by our lead guide, we scored the campsite directly across the river from the fall. He deposited the group at the fall, then motored across the river with another guide to get the camp started. The two other guides led a hearty group up the trail to the top, while the rest of us explored with our cameras at river level.
Already familiar with scenes down there, I scaled a boulder-strewn notch in the rocks just upstream to an elevated platform with great top-to-bottom view of the fall. Up here I found enough foreground options to keep me happy for the duration of our stay, and was so engrossed that I was completely unfazed by the verticality of my surroundings.
As I worked the scene, I eventually honed in on a vivid green shrub that stood out against the red sandstone, ultimately landing on variations of the composition you see here. Working this scene I dealt with intermittent showers, a fickle wind that ranged from nearly calm to frustratingly persistent, and a real desire for depth of field throughout my frame. After a number of frames at f16, I magnified an image on my LCD enough to see that the shrub was sharp, but the background was just nearly sharp. As much as I try to avoid anything smaller than f16, I stopped down to f20 and refocused a little farther back, about three feet behind my shrub. Another check of my LCD confirmed that everything from the nearby rocks to the background plants was sharp.
Our campsite that night was less than spacious (think compact condo living as opposed to sprawling suburban subdivisions), but definitely worth the close confines for the view alone. This stay across from Deer Creek Fall turned out to be memorable for one other event that happened later that evening, but that’s a story for another day….
Posted on May 19, 2016
Every once in a while an image so perfectly captures my emotions at the moment of capture that I just can’t stop looking at it. This is one of those images.
After two relatively benign days of peaceful floating punctuated with occasional mild riffles and only a small handful of moderate-at-best rapids, the group was feeling pretty comfortable on the river. But our guides had made it pretty clear that we hadn’t really encountered anything serious yet, and most in the group were a little anxious about what was in store for day-three—”rapid day.”
Our second night’s camp was a few miles downstream from the Little Colorado River, just ten minutes upstream from Unkar, our first major rapid. I could tell people were getting a little anxious because, as the only person on the trip to have done it before (this was my third trip in three years), I spent much of the evening reassuring people that while the rapids were indeed an E Ticket ride (on that scale, we’d so far navigated no more than two C Tickets), they were more thrilling than threatening. Of course I had to qualify my reassurance with the disclaimer that last year Unkar, tomorrow’s very first rapid, had tossed me from the raft and into the Colorado.
With 28 rafters and 4 guides, my group filled two J-Rig rafts— massive, motorize floating beasts with room for 15+ people and more than a week’s worth of supplies and equipment. When we’re just floating with the current, J-rig rafters can stand and stretch, and even wander around the rafts with relative ease. But when a rapid approaches, we have to hunker down and lock onto the designated hand-holds in one of the raft’s three three riding zones:
The next morning we pushed off a little before 8:00. I’d decided before the trip that, given our history, I wanted to be up front for Unkar. I was joined on the tubes by only one other rafter, while everyone else, uncertain about what was in store, crammed into the two back areas. (We called our other raft the “party raft”—their tubes were packed with rafters throughout the trip.)
Approaching Unkar, the guides’ moods changed: Wiley cut the engine, and we drifted toward the downstream roar while Lindsay delivered a serious lecture about rapid survival. Adding to the tension, on her way back to her seat, for the first time Lindsay checked everyone’s lifejacket and hand holds. Then, before we had a chance panic, the engine fired, the river quickened, and the raft shot forward and plunged into the whitewater.
A major rapid assaults many senses at once. The larger rapids pummel you with a series of waves that toss you in multiple directions at once and barely give a chance to recover before the next rapid tosses you in directions you didn’t know existed. The largest rapids, like Unkar, have multiple stomach-swallowing drops and ascents; you soon learn that the largest are nearly vertical, horizon-swallowing, down/up cavities that run green and smooth with a garnish of churning whitewater dancing on top. Depending on how the raft hits a wave, we could ride over with barely a splash, or crash through in a full emersion baptismal experience.
The soundtrack to the rapid’s visual, tactile, and equilibrium experience is a locomotive roar mixed with screams. You know the ride’s over and you’ve survived when the screams turn to shouts, and finally laughter as everyone dares to take their eyes from the river to make eye contact with the other survivors.
Unkar turned out to be one of the bigger—but definitely not the biggest—rides of this year’s trip. When it spit our boat out the other end, I uncurled my fingers from the ropes and shook the water free, checked all my parts to ensure they were as they were when we entered, then scanned my fellow rafters for their reaction to their first major rapid. The euphoria was clear, and I think if it had been possible, the vote to do it all over would have been unanimous.
As I suspected might happen, surviving Unkar emboldened the group; by the end of the day and for the rest of the trip, we had far more people riding on the tubes, with the limiting factor not so much fear as it was the 47 degree river water with an uncanny ability to penetrate even the most robust “waterproof” rainwear.
That evening, thirty-plus major rapids (and at least as many lesser rapids) farther downstream, we pulled into camp soggy and sore, but far from beaten. The afternoon had turned showery, and the showers persisted as we set up camp, slowing our drying more than adding to our wetness. While the guides prepared dinner in a light drizzle, I wandered down to the river to survey the photo opportunities. I found pictures everywhere—upstream, downstream, across the river—but rather than dive right into my camera bag, I first took the time to savor my surroundings.
The canyon’s pulse, the river’s ubiquitous thrum echoing from rocks that predate the dinosaurs, is simultaneously exhilarating and meditative. Unable to bottle this exquisite balance to take back with me, I turned to my camera, hoping for the next best thing—an image that will bring me back.
Shortly before sunset the rain stopped and sunlight fringed openings in the thinning clouds. By this time several others in the group had joined me at the river’s edge, each camera pointing at a different scene. I’d found mine, I soon tired of the limited foreground options and set out across a field of river-rounded boulders, hopping in my flip-flops toward a promising formation of rocks protruding from the river about a hundred yards away.
It wasn’t until I was all the way there that I realized that the solitary plant I could see protruding from the river wasn’t going to be a distraction to deal with, it was going to be my subject. As the sky colored and darkened, I kept working on this one little plant, positioning and repositioning until the plant, surrounding rocks, and looming peak felt balanced. The final touch that tied the scene up came when I moved a little closer and raised my tripod to its apex so my plant was isolated entirely against the river.
After spending a little more time with this image, I better appreciate why the scene resonated with me then, and why I feel so drawn to it now. The river is rushing here, flaunting the power that tossed and drenched me and my fellow rafters all day, yet this small plant stands motionless for the duration of an exposure that exceeds one second. I admire its calm, the way it towers unfazed above the force that carved this magnificent chasm.