Breaking Murphy’s Law

Gary Hart Photography: Rain Curtain Lightning, Lipan Point, Grand CanyonRain Curtain Lightning, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
F/9
ISO 160

Things go wrong. Or, as more succinctly attributed to 20th century aerospace engineer Edward Murphy, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

In my previous post I wrote about some of the physical hardships nature photographers endure while chasing their shots. This got me thinking about all the things that can go wrong for a photographer, in the field for sure, but also at home, in the office, and on the road. I’m talking about lost, stolen, or broken gear, computer crashes, failed memory cards, and so on. I’ve personally experienced my share of these crises, and in workshops have witnessed firsthand the mishaps of others, ranging from amusing, to frustrating, to devastating.

In Iceland four photographers who believed they were being cautious lost cameras and lenses to a sneaker wave. In my most recent Yosemite workshop, a woman dropped her telephoto lens and cracked its body, then a little while later (in a completely unrelated mishap) discovered that none of the data on her memory card was readable. I’ve had workshop students lose cameras and computers to theft, and have a friend who drove off with his camera bag on top of his car and when he returned just a couple of minutes later, it was gone. I once had a memory card with an entire workshop’s worth of images somehow slip from my pocket while I was on a walk near home. The one thing each of the victims in these mishaps had in common was none of us believed anything would go wrong when we set out that day.

But yes, things do in fact go wrong. My trademark move seems to be leaving gear behind. I’ve done it several times, usually when I’ve set something down while working with a group, then forgetting about it when it’s time to move to the next location. My most recent such offense occurred on last May’s Grand Canyon raft trip, but there have been others before that. I usually rationalize this carelessness by playing the “I was distracted by my workshop group” card, but how then do I explain the time I reached into the trunk of my Lyft and realized I’d left my entire camera bag on the sidewalk in front of the Las Vegas Marriott?

Another source of trauma inflicted on our expensive gear is our own fumble-fingers. Here I don’t think I’m any better or worse than the average photographer—drops happen. In my many decades as a photographer, I’ve had a couple of drops that cost me a body and lens, but nothing that compares to the trauma I witnessed in a Yosemite workshop a few years ago.

This was during the peak of a record-breaking spring runoff, when every river and creek in the park flowed savagely high and fast. We were at Bridalveil Creek, beneath Bridalveil Fall. Normally this is a fairly benign creek, with photogenic cascades that tumble musically between reflective pools. But on this morning the creek was a roaring white torrent, higher than I’ve ever seen it, with no distinct cascades or pools—just a frothing churn.

In typical springs my groups leave the trail and wander upstream and down among the cascades, but this morning each person had safely set up somewhere along the paved trail. I was on the middle of three stone bridges that span the creek, and could feel the water’s vibration in my legs, something I’d never imagined was possible. About 15 feet to my left was one of my workshop students, a recent college graduate in the midst of a cross-country photo trip with his dad. He’d set up near the spot where the creek accelerated and disappeared beneath the bridge.

While marveling at the scene, I became aware of sudden movement on my left and looked just in time to see my student’s tripod, camera, and lens tip into the water (I learned later it had been an inadvertent hip-check as he bent for his bag) and get sucked faster than a flushing toilet under the bridge to downstream points unknown. I could see by his forward lean and the flex in his knees that his first reflex was to leap after his gear, a decision that very likely would have been fatal. He came to his senses before I could reach him or even call out, and instead let out the most pained wail I think I’ve ever heard. For the next 30 minutes he was literally inconsolable as he processed the loss of his camera, favorite lens, only tripod, and memory card containing I don’t know how many days worth of images, not to mention the ramifications of all this loss on his trip with his dad.

I’m sharing all this not to frighten you, but to remind you that being careful is only half the equation, and that you can act now to minimize the trauma of the inevitable unexpected equipment loss or failure. We all tend to get excited enough about a trip, or distracted by a scene, that our judgement suffers—we skip steps, leave things out, underestimate risks, and so on. And sometimes technology simply fails.

I have enough experience, both my own and witnessing others, to feel comfortable offering practical suggestions for preserve not just the wellbeing of your gear and images, but more importantly, your own mental wellbeing. Below are some of the things I do to keep myself sane when the unexpected tries to ruin my day:

  • Insure your gear: I’ve lost track of the number of times someone in one of my groups has damaged or lost a piece of equipment in one of my workshops, and told me it’s not insured. At the very least, add your equipment to your homeowner’s insurance policy. Better still, get a completely separate policy, so when you file a camera gear claim, your entire homeowner’s premium doesn’t go up. For 20 years my gear has been insured through my membership in NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association)—the premiums are reasonable, the claims service is fantastic, and (because it’s a group policy) my claims don’t affect my rate. They even insure my computers. One time I lost a lens in the middle of a trip (set it down at a location and it somehow walked away before I returned—sigh)—I filed a claim right on the spot, ordered a new lens that was delivered the next day, and my check was waiting for me when I got home.
  • Backup gearCamera: If you’re serious about photography, you really should have more than one camera body. For those photographers whose work is close to home and not time critical, I suppose if something breaks you could just go home and wait for it to be fixed, or for its replacement to arrive. But most of us shoot in situations where being without a camera for even a few hours or minutes means missing opportunities that will never come again. Full frame shooters on a budget should consider an APS-C (cropped sensor) backup body. They’re less expensive, more compact, and give you 50% more reach on all your lenses. I’ve been known to set down a full frame body in favor of my APS-C backup camera to make the moon as big as possible.
    • Lens: Duplicating every lens in your bag is a luxury few can afford, but no matter how convenient that 18-300 lens is, you should never go on an important photo trip with only one lens.
    • Tripod: If you’re as obsessive about using the tripod as I am, you’ll have more than one (I’m embarrassed to say how many I own). It’s a luxury I can’t afford when I fly, but when I drive to a location I always have a second tripod in my car. For workshops I don’t have to fly to, I also bring a loaner tripod and have lost track of the number of times someone has needed to borrow it.
  • Image management—backup, backup, backup. And then backup some more. Below is my own image management workflow—I’m not saying you need to do what I do, I’m just saying that your image management needs to be organized, regular, and redundant.Because all my cameras take two cards (something I highly recommend), my image backups start with each click. I know there are several options for handling these extra cards, but I don’t think any is as important as insuring against data loss. Cards do fail (see above), and as rare as that might seem, cards go missing too (see above). When I lost my card, my reaction was, “Oh crap, I need to buy a new card,” not, “OH CRAP! I’VE LOST AN ENTIRE WORKSHOP WORTH OF IMAGES!”
    • When I travel to a shoot, I try to import my images every day (and always when I think I’ve captured something special, but during a workshop I sometimes don’t have the time or energy at the end of the day). Because I like the option of processing on either of my two computers, my import destination is a 4TB SSD drive that lives in my computer bag. And even if I have imported my images, I never delete my cards until I get home. Those times I’m especially excited about what I’ve captured, before flying home I take the time to copy my images to a second SSD drive that stays in my suitcase. That means for the duration of my trip, I have two copies of my images in my camera (which lives in my camera bag), one copy on an SSD drive in my computer bag, and one copy on an SSD in my suitcase. Having them in so many locations while I travel makes it very unlikely I’d lose every copy.
    • As soon as I’m home, I copy all of the trip’s images to a 10TB spinning drive that lives on my desk and is automatically backed up to the cloud using Backblaze. And finally, I also copy those images to a RAID 6 NAS (network attached storage) that lives in my office.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Rain Curtain Lightning, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Rain Curtain Lightning, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

I captured this lightning strike during the same storm that produced the thunderhead in the image I shared last week. It came nearly 40 minutes later, when the sun was near the horizon and the light was noticeably warmer. The rain curtain that’s so visible here was just starting to form in the earlier image, but once it did form it remained pretty stationary and continued to dump like this for at least 45 minutes—no doubt generating flash floods up the canyon.

Something I’ve learned when photographing lightning is to keep my eye on the sky. There’s so much waiting, long lulls where nothing happens, that it’s easy to get distracted by the view, fellow photographers, or a smartphone. As much as I try to advise everyone in my groups to keep watching, attention usually wanes until one or two people exclaim excitedly about a bolt—but by the time the rest of the group looks up (no matter how fast they are), it’s too late. By staying vigilant, you get a good idea of where your camera should be aimed, when the activity is waining, the direction the cell is moving, and whether activity is picking up elsewhere.

One of the cool things about photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon is the breadth of the view, which often provides multiple active cells to choose between. While this cell remained active for quite a while, most of its lightning was behind the rain and we were only aware of it when it registered in our lighting app (usually within a minute or two after the strike).

There were actually a couple of cells delivering more visible lightning, but one was more distant, and the other was out over the Painted Desert and away from the best view. So I stayed zeroed in on this cell, hoping to capture a bolt against the rain curtain. I got a couple that were close, but this is the only one to pierce the rain curtain during its peak.

I had one more realization while watching this intense downpour—anyone fortuitously positioned on the North Rim, perhaps somewhere around Roosevelt Point, would be enjoying an absolutely epic rainbow. All you need for a rainbow is direct, low-angle sunlight directly behind you as you look toward airborne water droplets. I had two out of three—low-angle sun striking airborne water droplets (you can clearly see the sunlight illuminating the falling rain)—but I was in the wrong place. Oh well.

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Lots of Lightning

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What Would Michael Scott Do?

Gary Hart Photography: Thunderhead and Lightning, Navajo Point, Grand Canyon

Thunderhead and Lightning, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/10 second
F/9
ISO 100

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. — Wayne Gretzky” — Michael Scott 

Rules are important. The glue of civilization. Bedtime, homework, and curfews constrained our childhood and taught us to self-police to the point where as adults we’re so conditioned that we honor rules simply because we’ve been told to. (Who among us doesn’t always wait for the signal to change, even with no car or cop in sight?)

As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of civil society, rules can sometime keep us from taking shots that might have turned out to be special. Rather than trusting their own instincts, less than confident photographers are often held back by blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended photography “experts” proliferating online, in print, and maybe even in your very own camera club. These self-proclaimed authorities love nothing more than to issue edicts for their disciples to embrace. But my general advice to anyone seeking photography guidance is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit. The truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography. (Remove the lens cap?)

A more insidious hindrance to photographers is our own rules—things we truly believe to be true. These are like training wheels that served us so well at the start that we never considered removing them: the rule of thirds, never blow your highlights, don’t center the horizon, everything sharp from front to back, avoid bright sunlight, just to name a few. But they’re insidious because, while they may be founded on some basic truth, they also hinder our growth. Like walls that give comfort by protecting us from intruders, photographic rules obscure the horizons of our creativity.

The truth is you often don’t know whether an image will work until you click the shutter—and sometimes not even until you get home and look at it on your computer. The more you’re able to turn off that internal editor (who keeps repeating all the rules spewed by others), the better your results will be. Just remember this: If you’re not breaking the rules, you’re not being creative.

The image I share above might never have happened had I followed a couple of rules—one I hear all the time from well-intended photo judges, another I often impose on myself: A photo judge might ding it for the centered lightning bolt and (more or less) centered horizon; and I may have never had the opportunity to photograph this beautiful thunderhead at all had I not overcome my personal aversion to photographing in midday light.

The afternoon I captured this came during one of three Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops last summer. The sky was blue and the forecast for lightning not so great, but we headed out toward Desert View that afternoon anyway. Shortly after pointing east along the rim on Highway 64, I saw this towering thunderhead blooming in the distance. Given all the twists and turns on the road, I wasn’t even sure at first it would be in our scene at Desert View. And since our destination was still about 30 minutes away, I was even less confident that even if the thunderhead was over the canyon, it would still be active by the time we got there.

I was assisted in this workshop by my friend and fellow photographer Curt Fargo. I can always count on Curt, realtime lightning app open, relaying instant reports on the activity as we drive, and it wasn’t long before he determined that thunderhead had to be where the app showed a lot of lightning activity about 15 miles up the canyon from Desert View—not exactly close, but at least the viewing angle would work. At that point all we could do was drive, watch the cloud, and pray it didn’t peter out before we got there. (Why is the speed of the car in front of you always inversely proportional to the amount of hurry you’re in?)

As you can see, we made it. Rather than drive all the way out to Desert View, we stopped at the first good view of the canyon and thunderhead—Lipan Point, about two miles closer with a much shorter walk to the rim. By the time we were set up the lightning activity had peaked, but we still got a few strikes. We also got to watch this cell absolutely dump an ocean of water on one spot for nearly an hour, no doubt creating a significant flash flood for whatever canyon drained it. This is the only image I captured that included the entire thunderhead.

The moral is, whenever you find yourself basing composition or exposure decisions on pre-conceived ideas (either your own or others’) of how things should be, just slow down a bit and challenge yourself to break the rules. Go ahead and get your standard shot, but then force yourself to try something outside your comfort zone. And remember Michael Scott.

Here’s my guide for photographing lightning


Breaking the Rules

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Vive la Différence

Gary Hart Photography: Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
F/16
ISO 50

I’m often awed by the powerful differences between the two locations I photograph most, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. In Yosemite Valley you’re in the midst of the scenery, surrounded on all sides by the view. But for visitors to the rim of the Grand Canyon, the view is both distant and vast. Each location offers its own one-of-kind experience, and I honestly can’t pick a favorite. In Yosemite the eye is first drawn to commanding features like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. At the Grand Canyon, instead of specific features, the visual draw is the overwhelming expansiveness and depth.

Distinct Perspectives

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The feel at the Grand Canyon is expansive, while standing amidst Yosemite’s towering monoliths, the feel is more intimate

I love photographing weather, and because Yosemite’s and the Grand Canyon’s distinctions affect the way their weather is experienced, their weather very much factors into the way I photograph them. In Yosemite Valley I feel like I’m actually in the weather, which is why, for better or worse, when a storm rages in Yosemite, I like to venture out into it. From swirling clouds to fresh snow, these adventures are the source of many of my favorite Yosemite images

At the Grand Canyon, on the other hand, the best photography happens when I feel like I’m photographing someone else’s weather, so when a storm approaches, I try to retreat to a place where I can observe it from a distance. Even when lightning doesn’t make this a safety choice, I like to stand back and observe the weather. Standing on the rim, I can be high and dry beneath bland skies while photographing some of the most exquisite beauty I’ve ever seen. Often that’s lightning, rainbows, or a vivid sunrise/sunset, but sometimes it’s just the play of clouds and light in and around the layered red rocks and tributary canyons.

Gary Hart Photography: Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Last month my brother and I traveled to the Grand Canyon, primarily to photograph lightning and Comet NEOWISE. NEOWISE came through wonderfully, but the lightning not so much. I lost track of the number of times I trained my camera on a promising cell that didn’t deliver, but thankfully lightning is not a prerequisite for great Grand Canyon photography.

This image is the product of one such disappointing lightning shoot. I’d watched the cell move toward the rim from the south and would have bet money that it was bringing lightning with it. I set up my tripod, mounted my Sony a7RIV and Lightning Trigger, and waited with my eyes locked on the rain curtain, willing with all the effort I could muster the lightning to manifest. But alas, as happened far too frequently on this trip, the lightning fizzled. But lightning or not, I couldn’t help appreciate the drama unfolding when a band of heavy rain sped across the canyon. It only took about four minutes for this rain band to span the width of my frame and fizzle as it approached Wotan’s Throne on the North Rim (just out of the frame on the right).

I’d be lying if I said I rushed back to my room and instantly downloaded and processed this image, but working on the images from this trip, this moment stuck in the back of my mind. After I’d gone through the lightning images (exactly one worthy of processing), and the NEOWISE shoots (far more productive), I did another pass looking for some of the beautiful clouds and light that had blessed us, including this wet cell’s brief sprint across the canyon. When I found it I was pleased to see that the moment was indeed as dramatic as my memory.

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Vive la différence

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Chasing Lightning at the Grand Canyon (Again)

Gary Hart Photography: Rain and Lightning, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Rain and Lightning, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
F/18
ISO 50

Ten days ago my brother and I drove to the Grand Canyon to photograph the monsoon—you can read the story of our trip in my previous blog post.

I don’t get tired of photographing lightning. My brother Jay and I timed last month’s trip because the forecast promised lots of lightning, and though we did indeed see a lot of lightning, most of it was actually too close to photograph. Each day Jay and I headed out right after breakfast, stayed out most of the day, and returned to our room around dinnertime with lots of nice images, but no lighting to show for our effort.

I like to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and photograph lightning up, down, or across the canyon, but most of the lightning we saw was either coming up behind us, or right on top of us. The frustrating reality of lightning photography is that when there’s too much, it’s usually too close. How close? Fixing dinner one evening, we saw a bolt hit about 50 yards from our room. And one afternoon on the rim, while watching a storm approach from the south and hoping it would hold together long enough to make it over the canyon, I reached to adjust my camera and got a shock—we were back in the car within five seconds.

Given all the lightning we dodged on the South Rim, had we been on the North Rim, we’d have had a field day—but on the South Rim, all we got was wet. Despite our frustration, on our last day the forecast was again promising, so we went back out filled with optimism. As we had on our previous days, we pointed our cameras at lots of promising cells with no success. Lots of dry frames—shutter clicks when the Lightning Trigger detects lightning that wasn’t visible or in my frame (I could have turned down the sensitivity, but don’t usually do that until I’ve had some success)—but just one meh lightning strike I knew I’d never process. That’s just the way lighting photography goes.

But I’m nothing if not persistent, which is how we found ourselves out near Lipan Point late that final afternoon. Despite our lack of lightning success, we’d had a lot of the otherwise spectacular photography that the monsoon often delivers—billowing clouds, dark curtains of rain, light shafts, dappled light, and gorgeous sunset color—and this afternoon was no exception. I was composed on a broad area of falling rain that looked moderately promising, resigned to the fact that it too would probably fizzle (but nevertheless appreciating the gorgeous light and clouds), when a single bolt fired across the canyon. It caught me so off guard that I almost didn’t believe it, but I heard my camera click and Jay exclaim, so I marked the frame (took a picture of my hand to make it easier to find among the hundreds of empty frames) and crossed my fingers.

We saw two more lightning bolts that afternoon, but this turned out to be the only one I deemed worthy of processing. On the drive home Jay and I agreed that our trip was a great success—while we didn’t get as much lightning as we’d have liked, we got lots (and lots) of beautiful storm images, photographed a vivid sunset, and had two great Comet NEOWISE shoots. This lighting strike on our final afternoon was simply icing on the cake.


Lightning photography isn’t hard, but it does take a little education and preparation

Below is the just updated (August 2, 2020) Lightning article from my Photo Tips section


How To Photograph Lightning

Gary Hart Photography: Forked Lightning, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

Forked Lightning, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
Lightning Trigger LT-IV
ISO 400
f/7.1
.4 seconds

Few things in nature are more dramatic than lightning. Or more dangerous. And if “safety first” is a criterion for intelligence, photographers are stupid. Because lightning is both dangerous and unpredictable, the more you understand lightning, how to anticipate it and stay safe in its presence, the greater your odds of surviving to take more pictures.

The shocking truth about lightning

A lightning bolt is an atmospheric manifestation of the truism that opposites attract. In nature, we get a spark when two oppositely charged objects come in close proximity. For example, when you get shocked touching a doorknob, on a very small scale, you’ve been struck by lightning.

In a thunderstorm, the up/down flow of atmospheric convection creates turbulence that knocks together airborne molecules, stripping their (negatively charged) electrons. Lighter, positively charged molecules are carried upward in the convection’s updrafts, while the heavier negatively charged molecules remain near the bottom of the cloud. Soon the cloud is electrically polarized, more positively charged at the top than at the base.

Nature always takes the easiest path—if the easiest path to electrical equilibrium is between the cloud top and bottom, we get intracloud lightning; if it’s between two different clouds, we get intercloud lightning. Less frequent cloud-to-ground strikes occur when the easiest path to equilibrium is between the cloud and ground.

With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding explosively when heated by a 50,000-degree jolt of electricity. Thunder travels at the speed of sound, a pedestrian 750 miles per hour, while lightning’s flash zips along at the speed of light, more than 186,000 miles per second—nearly a million times faster than sound.

Knowing that the thunder occurred at the same time as the lightning flash, and the speed both travel, we can calculate the approximate distance of the lightning strike. While we see the lightning instantaneously, thunder takes about five seconds to cover a mile: Dividing by 5 the number of seconds between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash gives you the lightning’s distance in miles (divide by three for kilometers).

Lightning safety

The 30 (or so) people killed by lightning in the United States each year had one thing in common with you and me: they didn’t believe they’d be struck by lightning when they started whatever it was they were doing when they were struck. The only sure way to be safe in an electrical storm is to be in a fully enclosed structure or metal-framed vehicle, away from open windows, plumbing, wiring, and electronics.

Unfortunately, photographing lightning usually requires being outside. And though there’s no completely safe way to photograph lightning, it doesn’t hurt to improve your odds of surviving enough to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Most lightning strikes within a ten-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—if you can hear the thunder, it’s safe to assume that you’re in lightning range.

But if you absolutely, positively must be outside with the lightning firing about you, or you simply find yourself caught outside with no available shelter, there are few things you can do to reduce the chance you’ll be struck:

The thousands of humans killed by lightning each year had one thing in common with you and me: none believed they’d be struck by lightning. The safest place in an electrical storm is a fully enclosed structure or metal-framed vehicle (it has nothing to do with the tires), windows closed, away from windows, plumbing, wiring, and electronics.

The surest way to be struck by lightning is to be outside in an electrical storm, but photographing lightning usually requires being outside. And while there’s no completely safe way to photograph lightning, it doesn’t hurt to improve your odds of surviving.

Most lightning strikes within a six-mile radius of the previous strike, but strikes have been known to happen much farther from the storm. Since thunder isn’t usually audible beyond ten miles, if you hear thunder, you should go inside and stay there until at least 30 minutes after the thunder stops.

If you absolutely must be outside with lightning nearby, or you simply find yourself caught outside with no available shelter, there are things you should know and do to be safer:

  • A lightning strike is often preceded by static electricity that makes your hair stand on end
  • Avoid high ground
  • Avoid exposed areas
  • Avoid metal and electronics
  • Avoid concrete, which is often reinforced with metal
  • Avoid tall isolated objects such as trees and open structures (and tripods)
  • Avoid water
  • Stay at least fifteen feet from other people
  • Do not lie down
  • If you’re surrounded by trees, position yourself near shorter trees, as far from trunks as possible
  • Rubber soled shoes provide no protection
  • As a last resort, crouch on the balls of your feet, with your feet together and your hands covering your ears
Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

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

Lightning How-to

If, after factoring in all the risks, you still like the idea of photographing lightning, you need to gear up. The extreme contrast between darkness and brilliant lightning means photographing lightning at night is mostly a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction with a multi-second shutter speed and hoping the lightning fires while your shutter’s open—pretty straightforward.

Photographing daylight lightning is more problematic. It’s usually over before you can react, so any success just watching and clicking is probably dumb luck. And using a neutral density filter to stretch the exposure time out to multiple seconds sounds great in theory, but in daylight, a lightning bolt with a life measured in milliseconds, captured in an exposure measured in seconds, will almost certainly lack the contrast necessary to show up in an image.

Lightning Trigger: The best tool for the job

Most lightning sensors (all?) attach to your camera’s hot shoe and connect via a special cable to the camera’s remote-release port. When engaged, the sensor fires the shutter (virtually) immediately upon detecting lightning, whether or not the lightning is visible to the eye or camera. With so many lightning sensors from which to choose, I did lots of research before buying my first one. I ended up choosing the sensor that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At around $350 (including the cable), the Lightning Trigger is not the cheapest option, but after many years leading lightning-oriented photo workshops, I can say with lots of confidence that lightning sensors are not generic products, and the internal technology matters a lot. Based on my own results and observations, the Lightning Trigger is the only one I’d use and recommend (I get no kickback for this). On the other hand, if you already have a lightning sensor you’re happy with, there’s no reason to switch.

I won’t get into lots of specifics about how to set up the Lightning Trigger because it’s simple and covered fairly well in the included documentation. But you should know that of the things that sets the Lightning Trigger apart from many others is its ability to put your camera in the “shutter half pressed” mode, which greatly reduces shutter lag (see below). But that also means that connecting the Trigger will probably disable your LCD replay, so you won’t be able to review your captures without disconnecting—a simple but sometimes inconvenient task. You also probably won’t be able to adjust your exposure with the Lightning Trigger connected.

The Lightning Trigger documentation promises a range of at least a 20 mile, and after using mine at the Grand Canyon for years, I’ve seen nothing that causes me to question that—if anything, without actually testing it, I’d guess that its range is at least 30 miles. The LT documentation also says you can expect the sensor to fire at lightning that’s not necessarily in front of you, or lightning you can’t see at all, which I will definitely confirm. For every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning I didn’t see, or that were outside my camera’s field of view. But when visible lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that the Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time (that is, even though I got lots of false positives, the Lightning Trigger missed very few bolts it should have detected). Of these successful clicks, I actually captured lightning in at least 2/3 of the frames.

The misses are a function of the timing between lightning and camera—sometimes the lightning is just too fast for the camera’s shutter lag. In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts of longer duration, and multiple strokes that are easier to capture. And my success rate has increased significantly since switching from a Canon 5DIII to the much faster Sony Alpha bodies (more on this in the Shutter Lag section).

The Lightning Trigger documentation recommends shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/20 second—shutter speeds faster than 1/20 second risk completing the exposure before all of the secondary strokes fire; slower shutter speeds tend to wash out the lightning. To achieve daylight shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/20 second, I use a polarizer and usually set my ISO to 50 and aperture to f/16 or smaller. Of course exposure values will vary with the amount of light available, and you may not need such extreme settings when shooting into an extremely dark sky. The two stops of light lost to a polarizer helps a lot, and 4- or 6-stop neutral density filter is even better with fairly bright skies (but if you’re using a neutral density filter, try to avoid shutter speeds longer than 1/4 second).

Shutter lag

Lightning is fast, really, really fast, so the faster your camera’s shutter responds after getting the command to fire, the more success you’ll have. The delay between the click instruction (whether from your finger pressing the shutter button, a remote release, or a lightning sensor) and the shutter firing is called “shutter lag.”

In general, interchangeable lens cameras (mirrorless and DSLR) have the fastest shutter lag. But even with an ILC, it’s surprising how much shutter lag varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, and even between models from the same manufacturer.

Ideally, your camera’s shutter lag should be 60 milliseconds (.06 seconds) or faster, but 120 milliseconds (.12 seconds) is usually fast enough. Most of the top cameras from Sony, Nikon, and Canon are fast enough—currently, Sonys are fastest, Nikon is a close second, and Canon is third.

And shutter lag can vary with the manufacturer’s model: While my Sony a7RIV may be the fastest camera out there, my original a7R was unusably slow, so you need to check your model’s shutter lag.

Unfortunately, shutter lag isn’t usually in the manufacturers’ specifications. The best source I’ve found is the “Pre-focused” time in the Performance tab of the camera reviews at Imaging Resource.

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Other equipment

In addition to a lightning sensor and fast camera, you’ll need:

  • Solid tripod and head: Don’t even think about trying to photograph lightning hand-held. And contrary to popular belief, a carbon fiber tripod is no safer than an aluminum tripod.
  • Rain gear that keeps you dry from head-to-toe
  • Umbrella (a.k.a., Wile E. Coyote Lightning Rod) to shield your camera and lightning sensor (many sensors, including the Lightning Trigger, aren’t waterproof) while you compose and wait in the rain. The umbrella is for when you’re photographing storm cells at a great distance, such as on the rim of the Grand Canyon and the lighting is across the canyon. Obviously, when the lightning gets within 10 miles, put the umbrella down and run for cover.)
  • Lens hood to shield some of the raindrops that could mar the front element of your lenses
  • Neutral density filter and/or polarizer to slow shutter speed into the ideal range (1/4 – 1/20 second)
  • Garbage bag (my choice) or rainproof camera jacket (haven’t found one I like) to keep your camera and sensor dry during a downpour
  • Extra lightning sensor batteries: Better safe than sorry
  • Extra memory cards: When a storm is very close or active, your lightning sensor could detect 20 or 30 strikes per minute (even when little or no lightning is visible to the eye)
  • Infrared remote to test your Lightning Trigger; I sometimes borrow the remote from my hotel room, but the Apple TV remote works great and is extremely compact (fits nicely into the Lightning Trigger pouch)
  • Towel 

Lightning app

I’ve used a few lightning apps, but I finally think I’ve found one worthy of recommending: My Lightning Tracker. I have the “pro” version, which just means I paid a few dollars so I don’t have to see ads.  This app has too many useful features to list here, but the most important thing it does is give me a good idea where the lightning is firing now (as long as I have a cellular or wifi connection), and how far away it is. It will also alert me of any strikes within a user-specified radius. It’s easy to use and seems to be reliable.

Getting the shot

Even if you can photograph lightning from your front porch, it’s usually best to pick a nice scene, then monitor the weather so you can be there to capture lightning with a great foreground. I strongly recommend that you scout these lightning scenes in advance, not just for possible compositions, but for safe places to set up, escape routes, and a place to retreat to if the lightning gets too close. I try never to shoot more than a quick sprint from my car.

Once you’re there, don’t wait until you see lightning before setting up your gear. If the sky looks even a little promising, get everything ready: tripod out, camera and lens mounted, lightning sensor attached. Then test your lightning sensor to make sure it fires your camera—I can’t tell you how easy it is to overlook one little thing and wonder why the lightning is firing but your camera isn’t. I test my Lightning Triggers, with a TV remote, or with the flash from my iPhone camera.

As I said earlier, the trickiest part of lightning photography is getting the right shutter speed. Too fast and you risk missing all of the strokes; too long and you risk washing out the lightning. My target shutter speed is usually 1/8 second, +/- 1/8 second—long enough to include multiple pulses, but not so long that I risk washing out the lightning.

When the sky is relatively bright, dropping to 1/20 second can help the lightning stand out better than 1/8 second, but risks losing secondary strikes. Conversely, when the sky is extremely dark and the lightning is firing like crazy, extending to 1/4 second might increase your chances for capturing multiple pulses.

Even with a polarizer on, getting the shutter speed to my sweet spot usually requires dropping to ISO 50 and stopping down to f/16 or smaller. In these situations, a neutral density filter is a big help, but take care not to let the shutter speed go longer than necessary.

Lightning is most likely to strike in or near the gray curtains that hang beneath dark clouds (clearly recognizable as distant rain)—not only near the center, but often on the fringe or just outside. And the darkest and tallest clouds are usually the most likely to fire lightning. If you’re in the storm that you’re photographing, you’re too close.

The best lens for lightning is usually a midrange zoom, such as a 24-70 or 24-105. If you find yourself reaching for your 16-35 (or wider), you’re too close.

I generally start fairly wide to increase my margin for error (to avoid missing a bolt just outside my frame), but once I’m sure I’ve captured some good strikes, I often tighten my composition. While this narrower field of view can reduce the number of frames with lightning, the ones I get are much larger in the frame.

Here are a few more composition points to consider:

  • Identify the most likely lightning cell and find the best composition that includes it.
  • The more resolution you have, the looser you can compose, then crop to the best composition later.
  • Don’t include too much room above the lightning—the most frequent rookie mistake I see is too much sky/clouds in the frame. I like my lightning bolts to originate just below the top of my frame.
  • The second most frequent rookie mistake I see is lightning cut off at the top. Note the height from which the lightning originates and try to include enough cloud to get the stroke’s origin point. And if you’re really wide and still can’t get all the lightning, run! (Like I did after the image below.)
  • Don’t forget to try some vertical compositions.
Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

There’s a lot of standing around while photographing lightning, but storms move, so the more you can keep your eyes on the sky (instead of your phone), the better you’ll be at keeping lightning in your frame as the storm moves, and knowing when the activity is picking up or winding down. The light can change by several stops as the storm moves, intensifies, or winds down, so check your exposure frequently. And monitor your surroundings for active cells moving up behind you.

Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, and more than one cell can be active in a given area, so monitor the sky closely—not just the storm you’re photographing, but scan for potential cells that could be sneaking up on you. Sometimes this simply means adjusting your composition to account for shifting lightning; other times it means retreating to the car if the cell threatens your location. No shot is worth your life.

Gary Hart Photography: Forked Lightning, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

One final note: If you check my exposure settings, you’ll see that my shutter speed here was .4 seconds, well outside the 1/20-1/4 second range I suggest. But if you look at the other settings, you’ll see that I’d opened up to f/7.1, and had cranked my ISO to 400, an indication that twilight was settling in. Successful lightning photograph is all about contrast, and the darker the sky, the better the bolt stands out, even in a longer exposure. Had we stayed past dark (and lived), we could have jettisoned the Lighting Triggers and used multi-second exposures.

Join and me in my next Grand Canyon Monsoon Photo Workshop

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A Lightning Gallery

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

Roll over Ansel

Tree and Sunstar, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Solitude at Sunset, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
65mm
1.3 seconds
F/20
ISO 100

A few days ago I was thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine and came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:

“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.” (The underscores are mine.) Wow, this statement is so far off base that I hardly know where to begin. But because I imagine the perpetuation of this myth must send Ansel Adams rolling over in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:

  • “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
  • “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
  • “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!”

Do those sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and its inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that an image is a two-dimensional approximation of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world we miss or fail to appreciate.

You’ve heard me say this before

The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But it’s the perpetuation of the idea that photographers are obligated to photograph the world like they saw it that continues to baffle me.

The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. To try to force images to be more human-like is to deny the camera’s ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world. Limited dynamic range allows us to emphasize shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; the ability to accumulate light in a single frame exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in a static medium.

No, this isn’t the way it looked when I was there

While this sunset scene from Lipan Point at the Grand Canyon is more literal than many of my images, it’s not what my eyes saw. To emphasize the solitude of the lone tree, I allowed the shaded canyon to go darker than my eyes saw it. This was possible because a camera couldn’t capture enough light to reveal the shadows without completely obliterating the bright sky (rather than blending multiple images, I stacked Singh-Ray three- and two-stop hard transition graduated neutral density filters to subdue the bright sky).

To convey a mood more consistent with the feeling of precarious isolation of this weather-worn tree, I exposed the scene a little darker than my experience of the moment. The sunstar, which isn’t seen by the human eye but was indeed my camera/lens’ “reality” (given the settings I chose), was another creative choice. Not only does it introduce a ray of hope to an otherwise brooding scene, without the sunstar the top half of the scene would have been too bland for me to include as much of the shadowed canyon as I wanted to.

I’m not trying to pass this image off as a masterpiece (nor am I comparing myself to Ansel Adams), I’m simply trying to illustrate the importance of deviating from human reality when the goal is an evocative, artistic image. Much as music sets the mood in a movie without being an actual part of the scene, a photographer’s handling of light, focus, and other qualities that deviate from human vision play a significant role in the image’s impact.

A Gallery of My Camera’s World

(Stuff my camera saw that I didn’t)

 

 

 

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