Nuts and bolts at the Grand Canyon

Gary Hart Photography: Too Close, Parallel Lightning Bolts, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Too Close, Twin Lightning Bolts, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1/8 second
ISO 100

The bolts started around 1:15; the nuts showed up about ten minutes later. There were 14 of us. We were stationed on the outside viewing deck of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, tripods, cameras, and lightning triggers poised and ready for action. The “action” we were ready for was lightning, and more specifically, the opportunity to photograph it.

The storm had started fairly benignly, poking at South Rim a comfortable distance away, far enough in fact that we heard no thunder. But as often happens, we became so caught up in the intensifying pyrotechnics that we failed to appreciate how much our sky was darkening and that the bolts were in fact landing closer. We continued in exhilarated ignorance until a tripod-rattling thunderclap and simultaneous white flash returned us to the reality of the moment. Hmmm.

By the time the raindrops started plopping, the lightning show had reached such a crescendo that we found all kinds of rationalizations for persistence in the face of potential death: “I think it’s moving west of us,” or, “The lodge’s lightning rods will protect us,” or, “If it were really that dangerous, the hotel staff would make us leave.” (Ummm: When the strikes are that close, it doesn’t matter where the storm is heading; lightning rods are to protect the (smart) people inside the lodge; the hotel staff isn’t paid enough to go outside for anything that risky.) I wish I could say it was common sense that eventually drove us all inside, but the reality is that when the heavy rain finally arrived, it became impossible to keep the front of our lenses dry.

So what is it about danger that brings out the stupid in photographers? I used to be able to use the “I’m from California and we don’t get lightning so I don’t know any better,” defense, but that won’t fly anymore because I do know better: I know a lightning strike can be fatal, and those who survive are often left with a life-long disability; I know that lightning can hit 10 miles from its last strike; I know that if you can hear the thunder, you’re too close.

And it’s not just lightning that brings out the stupid. While chasing potential shots, I know of a photographer who scaled a cliff far beyond my his skill level, drove without hesitation into (but not out of) a raging creek, and became hopelessly mired in mud on a narrow jungle track. And we’ve all read news reports about the photographer plummeting to her death while angling for a better view, or of the partial remains of a photographer discovered in the stomach of an unfortunate grizzly?

We each have our own safety threshold, a comfort zone beyond which we won’t venture. I have a really tough time getting within three feet of any vertical drop greater than 50 feet, but I know photographers who can spit into the Colorado River from the 1,000 foot vertical rim at Horseshoe Bend. On the other hand, I’ve lived in California my entire life and am always disappointed when I miss an earthquake, but I’ve had people tell me they’ll never set foot in the Golden State for fear of a fault slipping.

But back to this lightning thing. It’s not as if I stand on a peak shaking my fist at the sky and dodging bolts like Bowfinger crossing the highway. I will go inside when lightning gets too close—I just think I probably don’t do it quite as soon as I should, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll be sorry (or worse). But I’m happy to report that the score on this particular afternoon was: Photographers—250-ish (the number of images with lightning), Lightning—0 (the number of photographers lost). Next year? Tornados.

A Grand Canyon lightning gallery

The right stuff with the left brain

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Night, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Electric Night, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
Canon 24-105L
15 1/2 minutes
ISO 200

Left versus right

Writing about “The yin and yang of nature photography” a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that most photographers are limited by a tendency to strongly favor the intuitive or logical side of their brain (the so-called right-brain/left-brain bias). Today I want to address those intuitive (right brain) thinkers who feel it’s sufficient to simply trust their compositional instincts and let their camera do the thinking.

It was a dark and stormy night

There is absolutely nothing creative about this lightning image from last Monday night at the Grand Canyon. This single click image (one frame—no blending) was captured from the viewing deck of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim during a nighttime thunderstorm across the canyon. Compounding the darkness of night and the Grand Canyon’s dark pit were dense clouds that obscured a waning gibbous moon—the canyon so dark that I couldn’t see well enough to create anything. To compose, I simply aimed my camera in the general direction the lightning was most active, clicked, and hoped. The original raw file needed cropping for balance, to remove a few lights from the South Rim Village, and to correct a severely tilted horizon.

Don Smith and I had just brought our workshop group back from a sunset shoot at Point Imperial. Some headed back to their cabins to recover from a day that had started at 4:30 a.m., while a few veered to the “saloon” (it’s not quite as raucous as it sounds) for a beer or glass of wine. Lugging my gear back to my cabin, flashes in the clouds above the lodge indicated lightning was firing somewhere in the distant south and I detoured down to the lodge’s viewing deck to check it out. Through the two-story windows of the inside viewing room and before I even stopped walking I saw bolts landing due south across the canyon, and along the rim down the canyon to the west—violent, multi-stroke bolts that illuminated the clouds and canyon walls with their jagged brilliance.

I set up on the west viewing deck with just enough twilight remaining to compose, starting with a composition I liked—it wasn’t in the direction of the most activity, but I’d already seen a couple of strikes in that direction and was hoping I’d catch a bolt or two. But as the sky darkened and my exposures failed to capture anything, it became clear the activity was shifting west and I’d need to adjust my composition. By then the darkness was nearly complete and I simply centered my frame on the black outline of Oza Butte in front of me, going wide enough to ensure maximum lightning bolt captures.

While finding focus for my earlier compositions had been a little tricky, there had been enough light to make focus manageable. But now the absence of any canyon detail made getting a sharp frame extremely problematic using the conventional focus methods. (Contrary to a misconception that lingers from the old film days, when everyone used prime lenses, you can’t simply dial a zoom lens to infinity and assume you’ll be sharp.)

Once I decided on my composition (and focal length), I pointed my camera (still on the tripod) in the direction of the Grand Canyon Village lights on the South Rim centered the brightest light in my viewfinder. I engaged live-view, magnified the scene 5X, re-centered the target light, magnified 10X (5X and 10X are the two magnification options on my 5DIII), and slowly turned my focus ring until the cross-canyon light shrunk from a soft blur to a distinct point. I then swung my camera back toward my the butte and recreated my composition (without changing my focal length).

Because my earlier exposures had been 30 seconds at ISO 1600 ISO, designed to capture just one or two strikes in a composition I liked, but short enough to adjust things relatively frequently. But since my new strategy was to fire directly into the mouth of the beast, and lacking a composition in which I had any confidence, I decided on a long exposure that would capture enough lightning to overcome the unknown but likely relatively bland composition. Instead of 30 seconds, I wanted at least 12-15 minutes of exposure in Bulb mode (instead of a shutter speed that’s fixed at the moment of the click, in Bulb mode the shutter remains open until I decide it’s time to close it).

“You didn’t tell me there’d be math…”

Doing the math: Because each doubling of the shutter speed adds one stop, a 15 minute exposure would add about (close enough to) 5 stops of light to my original 30 seconds:

  1. 30 seconds x 2 = 1 minute—1 stop
  2. 1 minute x 2 = 2 minutes—2 stops
  3. 2 minutes x 2 = 4 minutes—3 stops
  4. 4 minutes x 2 = 8 minutes—4 stops
  5. 8 minutes x 2 = 16 minutes—5 stops

Adding five stops of exposure time meant that keeping the amount of light in my next image unchanged, I’d need to subtract a corresponding 5 stops of light in ISO and/or aperture. But since I thought that my previous exposure was at least a stop too dark, and I guessed that the sky would be darkening even more, I decided to drop only 3 stops, from ISO 1600 to ISO 200 (halving the ISO reduces the light by 1 stop). I made my ISO adjustment, clicked my shutter and locked it open on my remote, checked my watch, then sat back and enjoyed the show.

The 12-15 minute plan was just a guideline—since the difference between 10 minutes and 20 minutes would only be 1 stop, my decision for when to close my shutter had quite a bit of wiggle room. In this case after about 15 minutes I noticed the lightning was slowing down and shifting further west, so I wrapped my exposure and recomposed for my next shot. As it turns out, the next frame only captured a third of the number of strikes this one got because the most intense part of the show was winding down.

The worst is over

If you’re one of those “I have a good eye for composition, but…” folks, congratulations for sticking with me this long. I hope this illustrates for you how important understanding metering and exposure basics, and managing them with your camera, is to maximizing your capture opportunities. This technical aspect of photography isn’t something that should intimidate you—if you can multiply and divide by 2, you have all the math skills you need to figure things out on the fly.

I suspect, and in fact have observed, that most “intuitive” photographers are limited more by their belief that they can’t do the technical stuff than they are by an actual inability to it. What seems to have happened is that they’ve been buried by an avalanche of well-intended but less significant technical minutia covering everything from exposure (e.g., “RGB histograms” and “exposing to the right”), to focus (e.g., “circles of confusion” and “hyperfocal distance”), to printing (e.g., “colorspace” and “monitor calibration”). Many of these things are indeed quite important, but nobody should be expected to tackle them until they have a firm grasp on the basics of metering and exposure, and managing the complementary relationships connecting shutter speed, aperture (measured by f-stops), and ISO. I recommend that you ignore all the other technical buzz until this basic stuff makes sense—not only will you be a better photographer for it, you’ll find that the more “complex” stuff isn’t nearly as complex as it sounds.

Want to learn more?

Try these links:

Exposure basics

Manual exposure

Then go out in your backyard and practice!

But let’s not forget why we go out with our cameras in the first place

You can’t imagine how thrilling it was to watch these bolts firing several times per minute. Not only were they landing in the direction of my composition, they were also going all along the rim to the west. Witnessing this display was an experience I’ll never forget, and photographing it was a highlight of my photography life.

An Electric Gallery

Looking back at 2013, and ahead to 2014

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

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
This is a single, 1/3 second click that managed capture three simultaneous lightning strikes. Set up on a tripod, I’d composed to balance the frame between the rainbow and the area receiving the most strikes. Rather than try to manually react when I saw a lighting flash, I let my Lightning Trigger detect the lightning and click for me. I got many one and two bolt frames, but this is the only frame that captured three.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
ISO 100
24-105 f4L lens

While I’ve been taking a little Holiday break from my blog, I have spent some of my non-family time reviewing my 2013 images. Given the number of trips I take, and images I click, it always amazes me how well I remember every detail of my favorites—who I was with and what the circumstances were, not to mention composition and exposure decisions that are still as clear in my memory as the day I took the picture. I’m guessing it’s that way for other photographers too, because I’m convinced that our best photography comes when we concentrate on those things that move us emotionally. For example, since I’ve always been something of a weather geek, it stands to reason that several of my favorites feature active weather. And another lifetime passion is astronomy, and while I didn’t consciously bias this year’s selections toward the celestial, that sure seems to be how it worked out.

I have lots of great stuff planned for 2014: my regular annual workshops in Death Valley, Yosemite, Hawaii, the Eastern Sierra; my second annual Grand Canyon monsoon workshop with Don Smith; a raft trip down the Grand Canyon in May (bucket list item). And on any photo trip, whether it’s a workshop or a personal trip, I research and plan to make sure the odds for something special are as high as they can be, but it’s usually the unexpected moments that thrill me most—those times when I set out with one intention and found something else, or was disappointed when weather or other conditions beyond my control derailed the original plan.

Case in point: I scheduled an entire workshop around Comet ISON, and while ISON fizzled, if I hadn’t been in Yosemite to photograph it, I never would have witnessed Valley View, decked out in ice, glistening in the light of a full moon. Or the Maui workshop, scheduled before I had any idea of Comet PanSTARRS, that just happened to coincide with the comet’s post-perihelion conjunction with the new moon. But the one that thrill me most was the above sunrise at the Grand Canyon, the final morning of our second workshop—Don and I were going to start the thirteen hour drive home later that morning, and others in the group had flights to rush off to. Given the bland weather forecast, it would have been easy to blow off the shoot and let everyone sleep in. But we got up in the cold and dark, all of us, and were treated to a two hour electric show that started in blackness and culminated with a rainbow as the sun peeked above the canyon’s east rim.

So, without further adieu, and in no particular order, here are my current 2013 favorites (click a thumbnail for a larger version with more info, and to start the slide show):

Shocking truths about lightning

Lightning and Rainbow, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Color and Light, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
ISO 100
24-105 f4L lens

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:

  • Earth is struck by lightning eight million times each day.
  • While lightning is still not completely understood, scientists know that the rapid upward and downward motion of raindrops in a thunderstorm creates extreme electrical polarity—a negative/positive imbalance within a cloud, between clouds, or between a cloud and the ground. Nature abhors any imbalance and will remedy the problem as efficiently as possible: Lightning.
  • The visible portion of a lightning strike originates on the ground and travels up to the cloud.
  • In a lifespan measured milliseconds, a lightning bolt can release 200 million volts and heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees. More than enough to fry a photographer.
  • Most of us know that lightning and thunder occur simultaneously. What many don’t know is that you can’t have one without the other—it’s the lightning that causes the thunder, and if you see lightning but hear no thunder, you’re just too far away. This even applies to what is often called “heat lightning,” which still generates thunder you’d hear if you were close enough.
  • The fact that lightning and thunder occur simultaneously, but light travels much faster than sound, allows us to roughly establish the distance of the lightning. For all intents and purposes, we see the lightning the instant it happens, while the thunder pokes along at the speed of sound, a pedestrian 1,100 feet per second. That works out to about five seconds to travel one mile. So, if you start counting as soon as you see lightning (one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, …), dividing by five the number you’re at when the thunder arrives gives you the approximate distance in miles.
  • Let’s say you get all the way to fifty before the thunder arrives—that would be ten miles. You’re safe, right? Wrong. Lightning bolts exceeding one hundred miles in length have been documented, as have bolts with no rain and even with blue skies overhead. That’s why we’re warned to stay inside whenever you can see lightning or hear thunder. (It’s also why I say do as I say, not as I do.)
  • A car is not a magic lightning sanctuary, and the safety a car does offer is because of its metal frame, not its rubber tires. (Don’t believe me? Go stand on a couple of rubber tires in the next lightning storm and have your next of kin report back to me.) Even when you’re inside a car, you need to keep the windows up and don’t touch anything metal. And stay away from convertibles.

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.

A Lightning Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

The calm above the storm

The Calm Above the Storm, Grand Canyon

The Calm Above the Storm, Grand Canyon and Lightning by Moonlight, Mather Point
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
30 seconds
ISO 200
73 mm

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.

*    *    *    *

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.

The reason I do this

Gary Hart Photography: Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
ISO 100

August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightning Before Dawn, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

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


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

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


Lightning and Rainbow, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

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


Incoming Storm, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

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

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops

Read about photographing lightning

A Lightning Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Too close for comfort

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Downpour, Point Imperial, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Electric Downpour, Point Imperial, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon 16-35 f/2.8L
1/8 second
ISO 50

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 to go scouting. 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 Painted Desert, the sheer walls of the Mosaic 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.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


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

Grand Canyon monsoon

Twilight Lightning, Roosevelt Point, Grand Canyon North Rim

Twilight Lightning, Roosevelt Point, Grand Canyon North Rim
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
8.6 minutes
ISO 200
85 mm

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.

More Grand Canyon lightning (no photographers were harmed in the making of this image)

Lightning Strikes Angel’s Gate, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon North Rim

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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).

The Grand Canyon, lightning, and lots (!) of people

Lightning Strike, Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon

Lightning Strike, Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/15 second
75 mm
ISO 50

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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.)

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