Posted on October 23, 2013
While working on an upcoming “Outdoor Photographer” magazine article on photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon, I’ve been revisiting the images from my August workshop with Don Smith. While I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with the trip’s lighting images, it’s clear that at least half of my captures came on that amazing final morning, when we witness two hours of virtually nonstop lightning punctuated by a vivid section of rainbow balanced atop Powell Point. The first image I posted from that morning included the rainbow sharing the rim a trio of simultaneous, parallel strikes. The difficulty I’m having now is choosing which of the other pretty spectacular images to feature (FYI, this is a great problem to have).
Fortunately, I varied my compositions enough that many of my favorite captures are different from each other. Here, a single strike lands just east of the rainbow, close enough that they somehow seem related. This image is an example of why I’m constantly preaching to my workshop participants to switch between horizontal and vertical, even (especially) when one orientation seems more obvious than the other. Fortunately, I practiced what I preached (not always a sure thing) throughout the morning—instead of having one great capture of lighting with that morning’s rainbow, I now have two (and counting) that are different enough from each other to share.
Another byproduct of my magazine article is the research I’ve been doing on lightning. I’ve always been something of a weather geek, but it seems each time I revisit a topic, I learn something new. So, while I doubt you’ll find this stuff quite as fascinating as I do, here are some cool lightning facts I just can’t resist sharing:
Here are a couple of lightning safety websites:
Are you interested in risking your life to photograph lightning? Join me in a Grand Canyon photo workshop.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on September 12, 2013
If you’ve ever taken off in a violent storm, watched the exploding sky just beyond your window, felt the plane buck until you verged on panic, then suddenly broken through the clouds into utter peace, you might appreciate the dichotomy depicted in this scene.
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Overwhelmed by the euphoria the Grand Canyon workshop’s final sunrise was this moonlight experience on the South Rim a couple of nights earlier, the highlight of the workshop until that unforgettable morning. Don Smith and I had planned all along for this to be the group’s moonlight night, always a workshop highlight, but we got much more than we bargained for when we found the North Rim under a full scale assault from multiple electrical cells. The moonlit tranquility of our South Rim vantage point was a striking contrast to what was happening across the canyon. Several times per minute the clouds would strobe with lightning hidden by the clouds, and once or twice each minute a bolt would land near the rim for all to see. Above all this activity, the stars twinkled peacefully, clearly indifferent to the violence below.
Unlike the moonless experience at Kilauea a couple of weeks later, photographing with a full moon is pretty straightforward. Not only does the moon make a great focus point (just don’t forget to turn off autofocus before clicking your shutter), you can actually see your camera, its controls, the scene itself, and all potential obstacles (photographers, tripods, camera bags). And because exposures are generally short, do-overs are easy. So my job was easy, pretty much reduced to wandering around reminding everyone to vary their compositions, and making sure they’d all had a success.
Everybody got something that excited them that night, and the variety of images was amazing. I saw vertical and horizontal frames, wide and tight, most aimed north like this one, but there were also some great lightning captures to the east, up the canyon. My own favorite was this one that captured a bolt’s origin through a window high in the clouds, and its forked impact with the rim. While a wide composition would have increased the likelihood of capturing a strike somewhere in my frame, it would have also further shrunk the already distant lightning. My 73mm focal length in this case reflects my desire to make the lightning more prominent, and my confidence in the frequency of strikes in this direction (the more disperse the strikes, the wider I compose). Usually my night exposure decisions are designed to minimize star motion, but in this case I opted for 30 seconds to maximize the chance for capturing a strike (or more) during the exposure—a close look at the stars here clearly shows the onset of motion blur despite the fact that I was aimed north, where star motion is minimal.
This image reminds me why video is no substitute for still photography. Video’s benefits are undeniable, but the ability spend forever in a single instant like this is priceless.
Posted on August 27, 2013
Nature photographers plan, and plan, and plan some more, but no amount of planning can overcome the fickle whims of Mother Nature. So when all of nature’s variables click into place, euphoria ensues. On the other hand, few things are more disappointing than a long anticipated and perfectly executed shoot washed out by conditions beyond my control. (For a photo workshop leader, with the happiness of other photographers in the balance, the emotions of these planning successes and failures are magnified many times.) But just as Mother Nature can thwart our best laid plans, sometimes she takes us by complete surprise and more than compensate for the myriad disappointment.
As many of you know, 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 “designed” to give everyone the opportunity to photograph the Grand Canyon, day and night, under the influence of its annual Monsoon season: billowing clouds, vivid rainbows, and lightning. 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.
But back to that planning thing. When organizing a workshop schedule (or, for that matter, 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 Southwest Monsoon thunderstorms usually don’t develop before midday, Grand Canyon summer sunrises usually lack the clouds and pristine air necessary for the vivid color photographer’s covet. Therefore our photography emphasis for this trip was always on getting our groups out from mid-morning through (and sometimes after) sunset. That doesn’t mean we blew off sunrise, it just means that the sunrises are generally better for exhausted, sleep-deprived photographers to skip than the sunsets are.
Nevertheless, Don and I rallied the troops at 5 a.m. Friday for the final workshop’s final shoot at Bright Angel Point, a five minute walk from our rim-side cabins. We’d already had so many wonderful shoots that we knew everyone would be going home with great images—this final shoot was just a little bonus, the cherry atop an already delicious sundae. 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….
What followed was what Don and I later agreed was probably the single most memorable workshop shoot either of us had ever experienced. The lightning was already exploding the darkness across the canyon as we set up at the Bright Angel Point rail. Not just the single, infrequent strikes we’d been photographing all week, but numerous, violent strikes in multiple directions illuminating the black canyon several times per minute. The 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 rainbow fragment materialized on the canyon’s rim and hung there like a target for the lightning to take potshots at it. This was more than just good photography, this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of weather, location, and light would for everyone present likely become the standard against which all future natural phenomena would be compared.
Rather than bore you with more words, I’m just going to let the morning’s images speak for me:
The energy of each person in the group that morning was like that of a five-year-old at Disneyland. And even Don and I, the seasoned pros who get to witness nature’s magic all the time, remained giddy for the entire 800 mile drive home. These unexpected gifts of nature are important reminders that photography is so much more than a job to us.
Posted on August 22, 2013
After wrapping up our first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop, Don Smith and I stayed a couple of extra nights on the North Rim to check-out potential locations for the second workshop. Saturday morning Don and I left our cabin with every intention of scouting (I swear) some remote, west-facing vista points, but black clouds and rolling thunder in the east (which we already knew quite well) gave us pause. The farther we drove, the blacker the clouds became, and the weaker our resolve. A jagged bolt on the ridge north and east of the highway (a sign?) was more than enough to convince us to scuttle the scouting plan and beeline to Point Imperial.
With a 200 degree-plus east-facing panorama that includes the Vermillion Cliffs, the sheer west wall of the Grand Canyon, and many named and unnamed red ridges and monuments, Point Imperial is one of my favorite North Rim vistas. By the time we arrived, the lightning was firing every thirty seconds north of us, well beyond the closest ridge. Gear in hand, I scrambled quickly down onto the rocks beneath the designated vista point for a better view—nobody moves faster than a photographer who feels like he’s missing the show (or so I thought). Don, a month out from knee replacement surgery, stayed up above, near the railed vista area.
Soon my Lightning Trigger had my camera firing away, usually at unseen bolts (it detects flashes obscured by clouds, or too distant for the eye), but occasionally at photogenic strikes too distant for the thunder to reach me. For the first thirty minutes the sky overhead was mostly blue and I watched with very little anxiety as the rain curtain with the most activity drifted slowly eastward. But when a thunder clap rolled across my exposed vantage point I glanced upward and saw nothing but angry clouds. So caught up in the awe of the moment, I’d failed to realize that the lightning frequency had intensified, and now some of the ridges I’d been photographing had disappeared behind an advancing downpour that looked that someone had opened a drain in the sky and released all the water in Heaven. Somewhat uncertain of my safety, I found comfort in the knowledge that the vista point above me still teamed with gaping tourists who surely knew better than this life-long California resident.
My comfort turned to concern when a rapid series of pulses drilled all the way down to the canyon floor just off to my right: One-thousand-one, one-thou… Boom! Hmmm. Maybe just a couple more frames…. Then I got the idea that, since it wasn’t raining on the point, I would leave my camera out to capture the action while waited in the car for the lightning to pass. About two steps into my controlled retreat the sky exploded. While I was pretty sure I’d broken land speed records descending the rocks when I arrived, that feat didn’t come close to the speed with which I flew back up to the car. Phew. Then the rain arrived, and suddenly my idea of leaving the camera out didn’t seem quite so brilliant. So, with rain (mixed with marble-size hail) falling, for the second year in a row, I performed a heroic rescue. Once again, with no regard for my personal safety, I dodged raindrops, hailstones, and lightning bolts (well, two out of three) to liberate my camera from the jaws of death.
Shortly thereafter the advancing column of water marched over us and set up camp. We eventually decided to move on to other locations, and while we saw lots of lightning, some of it too close to even start counting the seconds, we weren’t able to find a vantage point far enough removed from the action for photography. But for nearly an hour on Point Imperial, we had it as good as I could have imagined.
Posted on August 12, 2013
After a marathon drive (that included four states and one unscheduled visit with a Utah Highway Patrol officer) from Northern California to St. George, Utah, Don Smith and I arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on Saturday afternoon. Our goal was advance scouting for our back-to-back Grand Canyon Monsoon workshops, which start this afternoon (Monday). Though we’re both pretty familiar with the North Rim, we wanted to check the conditions there (the wildflowers are gorgeous right now), and since these would be our first workshops at the North Rim, we also wanted to get a better handle on the drive times to our various locations.
Another motive was to scrape the rust on our lightning triggers, which hadn’t been used since last summer. Unfortunately, the Grand Canyon weather reports were less than promising, so when we headed out to shoot sunset Saturday night, lightning wasn’t on our mind. But shortly after arriving at our sunset destination, Walhalla Point, we saw a bolt strike across the canyon, above the Painted Desert. So out came the lightning triggers, and we spent the entire shoot bouncing between the (occasional) lightning in the east and truly gorgeous sunset color and sidelight along the rim to the south.
Don and I had much better luck with the sunset than we did with the lightning triggers (it turns out the rust was more on the photographers than the triggers). Our lightning attempts targeted one area in particular, but as the light faded, so did the lightning our target zone, and we became resigned to chalking this first night up to experience. But about the time we were ready to wrap up (ever notice how many stories of successful images start with those words?), we started seeing more lightning strikes farther north. Though it was getting cold up there at 9,000 feet, we thought we’d give it one more shot and move a few miles north to Roosevelt Point.
Twilight was in full bloom by the time we arrived at Roosevelt Point; fortunately, so was the lightning. I started with my lightning trigger, but soon switched it off in favor of long exposures. It seemed that one out of every two or three 30-second exposures seemed to capture a bolt, but with the light fading quickly, I needed to adjust my exposure after each frame. Soon I found myself in bulb mode, with exposures measured in minutes. The image here is my penultimate frame, a nearly nine-minute exposure captured forty-five minutes after sunset. The long exposure was able to wring out just enough light to reveal detail in the canyon. (The final frame, though exposed 2 1/3 stops brighter, was even darker than this one.)
This image perfectly illustrates the difference between the camera’s reality and ours. The scene my eyes saw was dark: not only was the Grand Canyon’s rich red completely lost to my eyes, its ridges and chasms were reduced to barely perceptible dark shapes. And the bolts you see here were not simultaneous—the one on the right fired early in the exposure, the two on the left came together toward the end. But through my camera’s unique vision, I was able to reveal the Grand Canyon in a way we human’s can only imagine.
Posted on August 20, 2012
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The bolt was so close that I saw its jagged collision in my rearview mirror, its deafening crack shaking the car less than a second later—three hundred yards, max. “Holy crap!” was our simultaneous (eloquent) response.
Don Smith and I had just negotiated fifteen minutes of natural pyrotechnics unprecedented in our benign, California-sky lifetimes. Obliterating our windshield, flooding the highway, firing warning shots on both sides of the car, Mother Nature was clearly angry at our trespass. This parting shot came just after the rain had eased from opaque sheets to large, individual pellets and we’d started to relax. To these two Californians, rain is a background phenomenon, faint static on the roof and hissing tires on wet blacktop. Earthquakes, which announce their arrival with a rumble and roll that builds slowly enough to allow quick retreat beneath a desk or door jam, are bland compared to the these random explosions that have done their damage and vanished before your brain can register what just happened.
We were in the final miles of a morning’s journey from the Grand Canyon’s popular South Rim to its more isolated North Rim. Safely stashed in the back of the car was the week’s bounty: memory cards, laptops, and backup drives brimming with the Grand Canyon monsoon images we’d come to photograph, including our holy grail, a dozen or so daylight lightning frames apiece. This four-hour detour to the North Rim was a last minute decision with no expectations—whatever we got here would be gravy.
A few minutes later we rolled into the North Rim parking area still buzzing with adrenaline. The thunderstorm we’d just survived had given way to blue skies, so we decided to leave the camera gear in the car and explore. While the lightning was gone, the storm’s rumbling vestiges reminded us not to get too comfortable.
After a quick peek into the Visitor Center to orient ourselves, we headed down to the Grand Canyon Lodge. The cornerstone feature of the lodge, which is perched precariously on the canyon’s north rim, is a large picture window overlooking an expansive deck with an IMAX view across the canyon to the South Rim, ten miles away.
Descending the stairs to the viewing area, we saw people lined up at the window, and stacked two-deep on the deck beyond, all gazing toward the South Rim. It didn’t take long to realize that what had everyone’s attention was a light show dancing across the rim’s entire length. While Don and I had spent the week photographing isolated lightning bolts separated by at least ten minutes, this storm was firing several times per minute. Time to get back to work.
In the short time since our arrival more clouds had organized overhead and Don and I found ourselves dodging juicy raindrops as we hustled back to the car. In less than ten minutes we were tiptoeing back out onto the rim, cameras and tripods in hand. Is this safe? Not only was the storm we were trying to photograph no more than eight miles distant, it was clearly advancing. And there seemed to be other strikes landing much closer somewhere behind us.
Atop a particularly exposed outcrop (with an awesome view!) just below the lodge, I tried to rationalize away all the lightning admonitions I’d read: “Avoid exposed, elevated areas”; “The next bolt can strike ten miles from its last strike”; “If you hear thunder, you’re too close”; “If you see it, flee it”; “If you hear it, clear it”; and so on. At first we set up our cameras as quickly as possible and rushed to (assumed) relative safety beneath a more sheltered ridge while our lightning triggers did the work. But soon, emboldened by the observation that other (presumably lightning-savvy) gawkers were unfazed by the storm’s proximity, we decided to remain with the cameras.
The show lasted about ninety minutes, though the lightning frequency dropped a bit after an hour or so. For variety we’d stay fifteen or twenty minutes at one spot, then move on to a different perspective, eventually making our way all the way out to Bright Angel Point, an elevated knife of limestone sediment protruding a hundred yards or so into the canyon. (In case Bright Angel Point’s elevation and isolation get didn’t get Mother Nature’s attention, the National Park Service has rimmed it with with an iron railing.) And there I stood, as happy as if I had a brain, until the show wrapped up and we went off in search of a sunset location before starting the long drive home.
The above image, taken from the trail to Bright Angel Point, came about twenty minutes into the shoot. The primary bolt is striking Angel’s Gate, about 7 1/2 miles from where I stood. That sounds like a pretty safe distance until you realize that the second fork of this bolt is striking the South Rim near Grandview, also about 7 1/2 miles from Angel’s Gate. The closest strike I recorded that afternoon was about 2 1/2 miles away. I’m sure those with more lightning experience than I will scoff at my hand wringing, and can no doubt share many harrowing tales of far closer encounters, but you gotta walk before you run (and I reserve the right to chuckle as I unpeel them from beneath their desk when that 5.0 tremor strikes.)
For those keeping score at home, here’s the final tally: Gary 51 (bolts), Lightning 0 (photographers).
Posted on August 17, 2012
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The thunderheads started blooming at around 11:00 a.m; by noon they were delivering rain and lightning at widely dispersed locations around the rim. It was Grand Canyon day two, the first full day of last week’s monsoon visit with Don Smith. Seeing black clouds to the east, we drove out to Lipan Point, but after an hour or so of nothing much, decided to shake things up and brave the crowds near Ground Zero for Grand Canyon tourist activity, Mather Point.
At Mather, Don and I split immediately—Don headed a little east toward an outcrop away from the crowds; having seen a couple of strikes already, I didn’t feel like exploring and headed to familiar territory right in the teeth of the tourists.
Sharing popular vistas with tourists can be trying, but it’s also lots of fun if I remember that my priorities are different from everyone else’s, and that my desire to get a good photograph in no way entitles me to special consideration. Additionally, because carrying a tripod labels me Photographer, I represent not just myself, but the entire community of photographers. In other words, in the minds of others, if I’m a jerk, it’s not just me who’s a jerk, it’s all photographers. If someone walks through (or stands in) my frame, I wait; if someone kicks my tripod, I simply smile and recheck my composition; if someone asks me questions (“Is that a real camera?”; “Are you a photographer?”; “What’s the best camera?”), I answer politely. And I’m always happy to snap pictures of the family, no matter how many cameras they hand me.
Because an extended tripod can occupy more space than I’m entitled to, and can be a real safety hazard for people gazing out rather than watching their step, I try to plant myself in as unobtrusive a location as possible. At the Grand Canyon, where everyone lines the rail, this isn’t always easy. In these situations I try to identify the ideal spot, then stand back and wait for the current occupant to move—fortunately, gawkers rarely stay long. Once at the rail, I put one or two tripod legs over or through the rail to minimize my footprint on the traffic side.
At the Grand Canyon in particular, where foot traffic seems to flow constantly, I avoid moving around much once I’m set up. This isn’t ideal for someone as concerned about foreground/background relationships as I am, but if I make the right choice to start, I can usually stay happy in one spot for twenty or thirty minutes by simply altering my focal length and orientation.
On this afternoon it wasn’t long before I was set up in a spot that made me happy. Having succeeded capturing lightning with a wide composition the prior day, I tried tighter compositions here at Mather. To maximize my odds for success with each composition, I stuck with a composition for two or three bolts (or until it was clear that nothing more was happening in that part of the sky), at least fifteen minutes in most cases. While waiting I’d just stand back, away from the rail, alternating my view between the target rain cell and the steady stream of tourists. With each bolt I’d quickly check the red light on the back of my camera to confirm that the shutter fired. After forty or fifty minutes in a spot, I’d shift to a different location.
Being fairly tight with the composition, I know I missed a few strikes just outside my frame. Of the four hits I got that day, the one at the top of this post was the best combination of position in the frame and brightness (I cropped it a little in Photoshop to tighten further). In a perfect world I’d have gotten a bolt striking either Brahma Temple (in the back), or Zoroaster Temple (the shorter tower just in front of Brahma), but I was pretty happy to get this one landing right behind Brahma, about six miles away.
In addition to all the quality time absorbing the Grand Canyon’s majesty and the novelty of an electrical storm to my California eyes, I had a blast meeting and talking with people. Lots and lots of people. Between flashes I answered many, many questions: “What are you waiting for?” (“Lightning.”); “What’s that thing on top of your camera?” (“It’s a lightning trigger.”); and, “How does it work?” (“It detects lightning and fires the shutter much faster than I can.”) These questions often led to great conversations with visitors from all over the world, many of whom stood and rooted for lightning right along with me. All in all, a really nice day.
(For a more technical discussion of lightning photography, click here.)