My Favorite Things

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Triple Lightning, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Sunset Triple Lightning, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/4 second
F/11
ISO 320

Maria von Trapp had them, you have them, I have them. They’re the favorite places, moments, and subjects that provide comfort or coax a smile no matter what life has dealt. Not only do these “favorite things” improve our mood, they’re the muse that drives our best photography. Sometimes they even inspire dreams about making a living in photography.

But sadly, turning a passion into a profession often comes at the expense of pleasure because suddenly earning money is the priority. When I decided to make photography my livelihood, it was only after observing other very good (formerly) amateur photographers who, lulled by the ease of digital photography, failed to anticipate that running a photography business requires far more than taking good pictures. Rather than an opportunity for further immersion in their passion, their new profession forced them to photograph not for joy, but to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. And with the constant need for marketing, networking, bookkeeping, collections, taxes, and just plain keeping customers happy, these newly minted photographers soon found that precious time remained for the very thing that led them to become photographers in the first place.

Nearly 20 years ago (yikes), armed with these observations I changed from photographer to Photographer. After seeing what this change had done to others, my transition was founded on a vow to photograph only my favorite things.

It shouldn’t take much time in my galleries to figure out where I find my photographic joy. I could point to locations like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and New Zealand, but even more important to me than locations are the natural phenomena that fascinate me. Whether celestial or terrestrial, I find myself inexorably drawn to the natural processes that created and affect the world we share.

The why of this starts with growing up in a family that camped for our vacations—I just have lots of great memories of nature. But the other significant factor behind my favorite photographic subjects comes from a fascination with the physical sciences that started in my single-digit years with an interest in comets, and quickly grew to include pretty much anything in the night sky. But even then I wasn’t satisfied with simply looking at the night sky, I wanted to understand what was going on up there. And with that came a realization that Earth is actually part of the cosmos, and soon I was reading about geology and meteorology and pretty much any other ology that had to do with my place in the Universe.

All of this came before I ever picked up a camera. But it might explain why I feel so strongly actually understanding the things I photograph—if they give me join, they’re worth knowing. Whether it’s lightning, reflections, the Milky Way, rainbows, a beautiful location, or whatever, I’ve reached the point where I simply won’t post an image of something I don’t understand.

And because I enjoy writing as much as I enjoy photography, you may have noticed that I also virtually never share an image without writing something about it. I know a lot of people just follow my blog to see my images, and that’s totally fine. But these really are my favorite things in the world, and I truly appreciate that you’ve taken the time to view, and (especially) to read this far.

Keeping in that spirit, here’s a little information about lightning, excerpted from my Lightning Photo Tips article:

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 water (both raindrops and ice) 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, with more positively charged molecules at the top than at the base.

Nature really, really wants to correct this imbalance, and always takes the easiest path—if the easiest path to electrical equilibrium is between the cloud top and cloud bottom, we get intracloud lightning; if it’s between two different clouds, we get intercloud lightning. And the 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 instant as the lightning flash, and the speed both travel, we can calculate the approximate distance of the lightning strike. While we see the lightning pretty much instantaneously, regardless of its distance, thunder takes about five seconds to cover a mile. So dividing by 5 the number of seconds between the instant of the lightning’s flash and the arrival of the thunder’s crash gives you the lightning’s approximate distance in miles (divide by three for kilometers).

But anyway…

About this image

As a lifelong Californian, lightning was just something to read about, and maybe see in movies, but rarely viewed in person. And photographing it? Out of the question.

That changed in 2012 when Don Smith and I traveled to the Grand Canyon with our brand new Lightning Triggers and absolutely no clue how to photograph lightning. We returned with enough success to be completely hooked on lightning photography, and a plan to offer Grand Canyon photo workshops focused on the Grand Canyon monsoon and (fingers crossed) lightning. After a few years Don cut back on his schedule and dropped most of his domestic workshops (we still partner for New Zealand and Iceland workshops), but I’ve continued with the Grand Canyon Monsoon workshops. This year I did two Grand Canyon Monsoon workshops, the second of which was probably my most memorable lightning workshop so far—if not for the quantity of the lightning (very good but not record breaking), certainly for the quality.

The image I’m sharing today came on that workshop’s penultimate evening, and came the day after a similarly spectacular lightning show at Cape Royal (I blogged about it two weeks ago). At Cape Royal I commented that this was one of the top five lightning shoots I’ve ever had. Little did I know…

The following night we rode the shuttle out Hermit’s Rest Road, stopping first at the very underrated Pima Point. After spending nearly an hour at Pima, pointing at a potential cell that only teased us, we packed up and headed to Hopi Point for sunset. There really wasn’t much going on when we got there, but the clouds were nice and the sky looked promising for a good sunset.

As sunset approached, what may have been the remnants of the cell that had disappointed us at Pima Point seemed to regroup and start moving from left to right across our scene and toward the canyon. The first reaction to this development was, “No big deal” (fool me once, …). But just one relatively weak bolt was enough to send us all scrambling for our Lightning Triggers. Everything after that is pretty much a blur because as the storm slowly advanced, some unseen force turned the lightning up to 11—both its frequency and intensity.

In my July 31 post I shared an image of a rogue Hopi Point lightning bolt that was somehow perfectly placed above the canyon right at sunset. As the only lightning we saw all evening, this one felt like a gift from heaven. This evening’s lightning was similarly positioned, but much bigger, and I lost track of the number of bolts we saw: double strikes, triple strikes, serpentine strikes—pretty much a lightning photographer’s entire wish list all in one show.

Hopi Point access is by shuttle-only, which means if we miss the last shuttle we’re walking more than 2 miles back in the dark. The lightning was still going strong when we hopped onto the final shuttle in growing darkness, but given what we all knew we had, no one was too disappointed.

Here are a couple of images from Cape Royal the night before this image

And here are the two images I’ve processed so far from this night’s shoot at Hopi Point

I realize that I get far more excited about lightning than the average person. And I’m truly sorry for sharing so many lightning images, but you’ll just have to understand that not only is lightning a novelty for me, and (please) recognize my good fortune for being able to make my living photographing nothing but my favorite things.


These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

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

Beam Me Up

Gary Hart Photography: Evening Glory, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Evening Glory, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/100 second
F/20
ISO 100

I won’t lie: The primary reason I go to the Grand Canyon in monsoon season—and for that matter, the primary reason most people sign up for my Grand Canyon monsoon workshops—is to photograph lightning. But as we all know, lightning is a fickle phenomenon, even during the Grand Canyon’s usually electric monsoon season. Because lightning is never guaranteed, I always do my very best to moderate my own expectations, and to let people who sign up for a workshop know I can’t promise it. But still…

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon in any season is pretty spectacular, and especially so during the monsoon. The carved sediment’s enduring beauty, combined with billowing cumulus clouds that turn some shade of pink, red, and/or orange at sunrise/sunset, and sometimes (fingers crossed) deliver vivid rainbows, makes the Grand Canyon summer monsoon my favorite time to be on the rim, even without lightning. But still…

The forecast the for the final day of this year’s second (and final) workshop was “Sunny,” the first such forecast I’d seen in my nearly two weeks at the Grand Canyon. But I’ve learned that a monsoon “Sunny” forecast just means fewer clouds, and rarely no clouds. And you never know—even with no rain or clouds in the forecast, I made sure everyone in the group packed a Lightning Trigger because I can share multiple stories of similar Grand Canyon forecasts that nevertheless resulted in lighting. Alas…

If you were expecting one of those plot-twist happy endings, you’ll be disappointed. Because as you might infer from this image, we did not get any lightning this evening. But as you can also see, we had no reason to be disappointed.

After a short stop at Moran Point, the group and I spent the rest of that afternoon and evening photographing my three favorite Grand Canyon vistas, first at Lipan and Navajo Points, before setting up for our final sunset at Desert View.

All three of these views stand out for their view of the Colorado River’s 90 degree detour from a north/south trending river to an east/west trending river. Standing on the rim at any of these vistas offers expansive views north, upstream and into Marble Canyon, and west, downstream toward what’s arguably Grand Canyon’s most iconic stretch. I can’t think of any other rim view that offers bigger, better views of the canyon than these east-most South Rim vistas. (But Hopi Point is close.)

Despite lowered expectations, we departed this afternoon hoping for lightning (which, I should add, given the two sunset lightning shoots that preceded this sunset, was downright greedy). Instead we found the canyon walls bathed in warm light shafting through scattered clouds hang above the western horizon. Not lightning, but too shabby either.

Even before the light started to warm, I decided that the best show this evening would be to the west, featuring the canyon’s receding ridges below the setting sun. And with a slight haze hanging in the canyon, what excited me most was the potential for sunbeams streaming through openings in the clouds and gaps in the ridges.

I digress

This might be a good time to explain the difference between some popular but different phenomena popular among landscape photographers: sunstars (or sunbursts, starbursts, and probably some other labels I’ve missed), sunbeams, and crepuscular rays.

  • Sunstars are diffraction spikes that are created in the lens when sunlight is bent by the slight change of direction at the intersection of the lens iris’s blades (that comprise the aperture). They’re a photographic phenomenon, visible in the viewfinder and resulting image, but not to the unaided eye.
  • Sunbeams are atmospheric phenomena caused when sunlight passes through openings in clouds or landscape features like tree branches or mountain peaks. They’re visible to the unaided and most prominent when the atmosphere is filled with water or dust particles that scatters the sunlight.
  • Crepuscular rays are sunbeams that happen at twilight, only when the sun is below the horizon and its light passes through clouds, mountain peaks, or some other unseen obstruction beneath the horizon. As a subset of sunbeams, crepuscular rays are also atmospheric phenomena visible to the unaided eye, and benefit from airborne dust or water vapor.

So anyway…

Expectations reset, I shifted to the dual potential for both a large sun and sunbeams, and prepared accordingly: already on my Sony a7RIV was my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens; to my Sony 𝛂1 I added my Sony 100-400 GM lens and Sony 2X Teleconverter. I started shooting as soon as the sunbeams appeared, using the wider setup to capture as much canyon and shafting light. Early on I occasionally switched to the telephoto; once the sun dropped below (most of) the clouds and the sunbeams faded, I finished up entirely with the telephoto combination.

The trick to exposing a scene like this with one click (always my goal) is to make sure I don’t blow out (overexpose) the highlights. While I had no expectation of capturing detail or color in the sun (it was too bright to prevent from blowing out), I knew the surrounding clouds and sky had the potential to turn a rich yellow-gold before the sun dropped below the horizon. Saving the sky color would mean underexposing the canyon, but closely monitoring my histogram enabled me to capture just enough foreground light to retain the outline of the ridges shrinking in the distance, at the same time preventing that great sky color from washing out.

The result is this image, with a sky that’s remarkably close to what I saw and a foreground that’s much darker than my eyes saw. Since this image is all about the sky and sunbeams, letting the canyon go dark (-ish) aided that emphasis. Even though the canyon looked nearly black on my camera’s image-review screen, a moderate Lightroom Shadow-slider increase confirmed later that the dark foreground contained exactly the amount of detail I wanted. Score another win for the histogram. (And if you’re wondering why I used f/20, it’s because I’d set up for a possible sunstar and forgot to switch back to the f/11 I usually default to.)

One more thing

Lest you feel sorry for my second workshop group for not getting lightning, let me reassure you that this group did not lack for quality lightning. At Cape Royal two nights before this, we witnessed what I instantly called one of the top-5 lightning shoots of my life. Then at Hopi Point the next night, we witnessed a lightning display that arguably topped it. I have so many excellent lightning images from these two shoots that I haven’t had time to go through them and decide which ones to process. And since I shared a lightning image (from the first workshop) last week, I figured I’d share something that’s not lightning. But rest assured, I’ll be sharing more lightning soon. Lots more.

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops


More Monsoon Magic

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

 

Wait for it…

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Sunset, Hopi Point Lightning, Grand Canyon

Electric Sunset, Hopi Point Lightning, Grand Canyon
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 24-105 G
.4 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

Landscape photographers have a couple of ways to make nice images. By far the most important is the ability to see the special but less obvious, then know how to compose and expose that special vision in ways that clarify and convey the previously unseen beauty. But sometimes we just need to know when to show up and where to point the camera, and the patience to wait for the special to come to us.

Pretty much any sunrise or sunset at a nice location qualifies for the show up and wait approach, as can popular classics such as Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall in February, or the midday shaft of light in Upper Antelope Canyon’s main room. But whether it’s a planned sunset that went even better than hoped, or a rainbow that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, in their own way these gifts from Nature that don’t require great vision are just as thrilling as the hidden discoveries we work so hard for.

Lightning photography requires a lot of the show up and wait approach, because all the compositional skill in the world can’t make a great lightning image if the lightning doesn’t happen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been photographing lightning and seen a beautiful composition—some perfect combination of landscape and conditions—in a different direction, and said to myself, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if the lightning fired right there.” Unfortunately, lightning is a fickle phenomenon that rarely does what photographers want it to do. In fact, it sometimes feels like the lightning is consciously avoiding the composition I want, always in favor of something much less interesting. Sigh…

Right now I’m at Grand Canyon, trying to take advantage of its expansive vistas that frequently provide views of multiple rain cells with lightning potential. While the vast majority of these potential lightning sources never deliver, my original approach to photographing them was to maximize my chances by identifying and targeting the cell with the most potential, without concern for the composition. An alternate approach to photographing lightning is to target the rain cell with the nicest composition, regardless of the strength of its potential—then hope.

Because I’ve learned that lightning neophytes are usually thrilled to capture any lightning, I generally encourage my workshop students, most of whom have never captured great (or any) lightning images, to favor success over the best composition by simply pointing in whatever direction the lightning is most likely to fire.

I’ll never forget the first time I traveled to the Grand Canyon with the sole desire to photograph lightning, and those first few fruitless days on the rim, pointing my camera toward a promising cell only to see it fizzle. I’d have given anything to have just one frame with lightning, composition be damned. And I also never forget the thrill the first time my camera captured lightning.

Ten years later, I’ve reached the point in my lightning photography where I’ve had enough successful captures that I can afford to be a little more selective. In recent years I frequently find myself pointing at the potential lightning spot that has the composition I like most, shunning the one that appears most likely to produce lightning. It’s often a recipe for failure, but the infrequent successes more than compensate.

I got my most recent dose of compensation last Wednesday evening, in this year’s first (of two) Grand Canyon monsoon photo workshops. My group had already enjoyed several lightning shoots from various locations on the South Rim, but nothing spectacular so far. For sunset Wednesday evening, we took the shuttle out Hermit’s Rest Road (no cars allowed). There are many vistas on this route, so I gave my group enough time to visit as many stops as the wanted to, with the understanding that we’d all gather back at Hopi Point to shoot sunset together there.

Soon after arriving at Hopi Point about 45 minutes before sunset, I checked my My Lightning Tracker app and saw that all of the activity was at least 50 miles away and didn’t really align with anything interesting. While the view at Hopi Point is one of my favorites, I’ve photographed here so much that now I only bring out my camera when there’s potential for something spectacular—either lightning, or great color and/or clouds. So my camera stayed in the bag.

With almost 100 percent cloud cover, my decision seemed reasonable, but as the sun dropped, a small opening appeared on the western horizon, directly in the sun’s path. “Hmmmm,” I said, inching toward my bag. I looked again. A sky filled with clouds and a hole on the horizon is the ideal combination for a colorful sunset, so I pulled out my Sony α1, already loaded with my Sony 24-105 G lens, and set up shop along the rail to wait with the rest of my group.

As we chatted, it became pretty clear that the opening would persist through sunset, and that something nice was in store. A few minutes later, when a small rain curtain spread just to the right of the sun’s path, I said out loud, “All this scene needs is a lightning bolt.” I was half joking, but this thought prompted me to check my lightning app one more time. Still nothing really exciting, but there were hints of distant, minor lightning activity in the general direction of the sunset, so I pulled out my Lightning Trigger—just in case. I encouraged the rest of the group to get theirs out too, then quickly scanned the horizon for other rain curtains with potential for lightning—I saw a couple that might produce, but nothing promising enough to justify anyone diverting from the sunset.

Then we waited and clicked as the sun dropped and started to light the sky. It turned out that the opening wasn’t as open as we’d hoped, so not enough sunlight made it through to color the entire sky, and we never actually even saw the sun. But all was not lost, as the clouds near the horizon throbbed a brilliant reddish orange and I could tell by all the clicking that everyone was pretty thrilled.

When a few higher clouds lit, I oriented my camera vertically and angled farther upward for more sky than I usually include here (Pro tip: the Grand Canyon is usually more interesting than the sky.) Already pretty content with what I had so far, imagine my surprise when, just as the color reached its crescendo, a streak of light darted from the clouds and kissed the horizon. My first reaction was that it came from higher in the sky than I’d have expected, but it happened so fast and unexpectedly that I really wasn’t sure what I’d seen. In fact, if the rest of the group hadn’t exclaimed in unison, I might not have believed I’d seen it at all.

The unified exclamation quickly turned to joyful laughter from those who had taken the time to attach their Lightning Triggers, and regretful moans from those who hadn’t. When a couple of people defied my recommendation to not check to see if they’d captured the bolt (you have to turn off the Trigger to review images, and often lightning’s not as visible on the review screen as it is on a computer) and reported success, I couldn’t resist and checked mine too.

There it was. I instantly saw why it had appeared to originate so much higher: the bolt had emerged high, slid across the front of the thunderhead, and weaved through a window in the clouds before disappearing and emerging one last time. And perfectly aligned with the Colorado River, it couldn’t have struck in a more ideal place if I’d have drawn it in myself.

I’ll admit that this image isn’t a creative masterpiece (the composition isn’t much different from several of my other Hopi Point images), but I will take a little credit for being there, and also for the foresight to be ready for lightning when its possibility wasn’t obvious. And honestly, it was simply an honor to be there for something so magnificent—my only job was to wait, and not screw it up.

My Lightning Gallery || My Lightning Photo Tips Article


Worth Waiting For

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

 

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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Frozen in Time

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Strike, Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon
Lightning Strike, Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon

Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/4 second
F/8
ISO 250

I’ve always been intrigued by still photos’ ability to reveal aspects of the natural world that are missed by human vision.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the camera’s ability to, through long exposures, blur motion and reveal unseen patterns in moving water. And last week I shared an image that used a long exposure to capture the Milky Way above crashing Hawaiian surf, a 20-second exposure that blurred that explosive wave action into a gauzy haze.

But I think my favorite still image motion effect is probably freezing a lightning bolt—an ephemeral phenomenon that comes and goes so quickly that it is already a memory before it even registers to my brain. The thrill of seeing a lightning strike always delivers a jolt of adrenalin, but it’s not until I can spend time with an image that froze it in time that I appreciate all that happens in a lightning bolt. Multiple prongs, meandering patterns, delicate filaments—each bolt seems to have a personality of its own.

For me, the holy grail of lightning captures is the splash of light that occurs at the primary bolt’s instant of contact with terra firma. Not only is getting the precise timing difficult, the strike also needs to be fairly close, and on a surface that’s angled to face my vantage point.

The lightning in this image checked those boxes, striking just a couple of miles away on the diagonal slope of Brahma Temple facing me. It was one of many lightning strikes captured on the second day of my first (of three) Grand Canyon monsoon workshops earlier this summer. On the day prior we’d had a nice lightning shoot just as the workshop started, but the storm that afternoon had moved parallel to the rim, staying near the South Rim, at least ten miles away.

This afternoon’s storm started in more or less the same area of the South Rim, but crossed the canyon, approaching less than two miles from where my group had set up on the view decks outside Grand Canyon Lodge. Protected beneath an array of lightning rods, and just a few feet from the safety of the fully enclosed lodge Sunroom, this spot is the location of some of my workshop groups’ closest lightning encounters. This afternoon was added to that list.

I usually prefer photographing lightning that’s across the rim, distant enough that we often don’t hear the thunder. At most locations, when the lightning gets as close as it got this afternoon, I’ve already rounded people up and herded them indoors or to the relative safety of the cars. But here I have (barely) enough cellular service to monitor the distance of each strike with my lightning app, and keep everyone apprised of its proximity, so they can make their own call on when to retreat.

Preparing to photograph lightning is a matter of setting up my tripod with my camera and Lightning Trigger, composing a frame that includes the area most likely to receive the next bolt, focusing and metering the scene, then standing back and waiting for the strike (not unlike fishing).

If everything is set up correctly, lightning photography a hands-off endeavor—when it senses lightning, my Lightning Trigger fires my camera’s shutter, then just waits patiently to do it again with the next lightning. So when this bolt hit, I wasn’t even with my camera—I was checking with others in my group. When it struck, it was the closest we’d seen so far. It was also farther to the left than any previous strike—so far, in fact, that I wasn’t even sure it was in my frame.

It wasn’t until I was processing my images that I found that I had indeed captured it. Not only that, this bolt struck close enough, on an exposed surface that was in perfect view for me to capture the precise point of contact in all of its glory. Unfortunately, it was on the far left side of my horizontal frame. This is when I appreciate having my Sony a7RIV, probably the best lightning camera made today. Not only do the Sony bodies have the fastest shutter lag (the time it take for the shutter to respond after receiving the instruction to fire), but 61 megapixels provides a crazy amount of latitude for cropping.

I usually like to get my crop right before capture, but I sometimes need to make an exception when photographing lightning, because I’m never sure where in the frame the lightning will land. In this case, having my lightning strike so close to the left side of a horizontal frame made the image feel very off-balance. To fix the problem, I simply turned it into a vertical composition, eliminating everything on the right 2/3 or the original composition. But with 61 megapixels to play with, the final product was still more than 25 megapixels—more than enough for pretty much all of my uses, including large prints.

Read my tutorial on photographing lightning


Frozen in Time

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Grand Canyon: North vs. South

Gary Hart Photography: Last Light, Wotan’s Throne, Cape Royal, Grand Canyon

Last Light, Wotan’s Throne, Cape Royal, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/30 second
F/10
ISO 100

North vs. South

When people decide to cross the Grand Canyon off their bucket list, they usually look at a map and see that the South Rim is an easy one hour detour off Interstate 40, or just a little more than three (mostly interstate) hours from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. The North Rim, on the other hand, is nearly five hours from the closest major airport, and isn’t really on the way to anywhere. Not only that, most of the Grand Canyon pictures we see came from the South Rim. Great views, minimal effort? The South Rim is the clear winner, right?

If you prefer experiencing your national parks in wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am visits to jaw dropping, expansive vistas, the South Rim is definitely for you. But here’s a little secret: If your outdoor tastes lean toward an actual relationship with nature, the North Rim is better, and it’s not even close.

I realize that “better” is subjective, and you’re welcome to disagree. But for each of the last 9 years (not including 2020), I’ve led at least two Grand Canyon photo workshops that split time evenly between the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims—if the votes of hundreds workshop participants who spent equal time on both sides mean anything, the North Rim wins in a landslide.

So what gives?

For both workshop participants and myself, an oft-cited North Rim benefit is just plain peace and quiet. Its relative remoteness, limited accommodations and dining, combined with a dearth of luxury amenities that today’s travelers take for granted (like wifi and reliable cellular), work better than a border wall to keep the masses away. But these “hardships” are actually a feature for those of us who prefer communing with nature, rather than simply gawking at it.

Another bonus: As a photo workshop leader, it’s wonderful not having to stress over parking strategies for every shoot, or having to negotiate prime photography real estate with selfie-obsessed tourists (does a tripod possess some kind of cloaking magic that makes a photographer invisible to tourists?). When I’m with a group on the South Rim, I can’t wait to get over to the North Rim to recharge my psyche.

I do love the South Rim’s views—a lot—but I literally cannot think of a single thing on the South Rim that I’d consider scenic that isn’t a canyon view. On the other hand, the North Rim’s canyon views are surrounded by thousands of acres of dense evergreen forest that’s marbled with aspen, and green meadows sprinkled liberally with wildflowers. You could spend an entire North Rim visit surrounded by peaceful beauty without getting a single glimpse of the canyon. (And if you’re lucky, you might even enjoy a view of the bison herd that hangs out near the entrance station.)

And the North Rim’s views, while not as plentiful or expansive as those on the South Rim, are still world class. For lightning photography, there’s no better spot than Grand Canyon Lodge. Protected by an array of lightning rods, with the fully enclosed lodge Sun Room right there for immediate retreat, the Grand Canyon Lodge view faces south, across the canyon, in the direction from which most thunderstorms approach. Rather than chasing the lightning, we can just wait for it to come to us.

But for beautiful views, my two favorite North Rim vistas are Point Imperial and Cape Royal. At nearly 9000 feet above sea level, Point Imperial is the Grand Canyon’s highest scenic view point. It also provides the park’s best view of the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Canyon’s Marble Canyon. And picturesque Mt. Hayden, a prominent spire that stands front and center against a host of ridges and towers that recede in the distance, makes a perfect visual anchor for Point Imperial scenes.

Cape Royal has the North Rim’s most expansive view, and is probably the best spot on the North Rim to photograph the setting sun. It also offers the closest view of Vishnu Temple, one of the Grand Canyon’s most recognized landmarks. But what really sets Cape Royal apart for me is that it is hands down the Grand Canyon’s best view of Wotan’s Throne, a massive sedimentary monolith rising nearly 3000 feet above the Colorado River.

Even though it stands out as a large, flat-top structure that’s clearly visible from most of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim vistas, when viewed from the South Rim Wotan’s Throne isn’t nearly as interesting as its neighbor, Vishnu Temple. Which probably explains why Wotan’s Throne doesn’t get the love I’ve always felt it deserves. But at Cape Royal, Wotan’s Throne looms just a mile away, and the close view from this side reveals it to be so much more than it appears to be from the South Rim.

About this image

Maybe the best thing about the Cape Royal Wotan’s Throne view is the way it seems positioned, as if by Devine hand, to catch the warm light of the setting sun. Which is exactly what I was thinking about when my third workshop group arrived for the final North Rim sunset shoot of this year’s trip.

The cloudy vestiges of the afternoon’s thunderstorms were scattered across the sky, broken by just a few blue patches. The clouds were beautiful, but what excited me most was the lack of clouds on the western horizon, which would (fingers crossed) provide a perfect path for the sun’s last rays to slip through to color the sky and canyon.

After making sure everyone else was settled, I set about trying to find something for myself. It was pretty clear that the scene both west and south was going to be spectacular at sunset, but I decided that finding a single composition in one direction and would allow me to park my tripod and move around and help people between shots.

I chose the view to the south, for the potential sunset light on Wotan’s Throne, over the view of the actual setting sun in the west. I was drawn to a dead tree precariously perched near a vertical drop of undetermined height (I wasn’t super motivated to find out), and worked hard to safely position myself to balance the tree between Vishnu Temple and Wotan’s Throne, and to get my camera high enough to prevent the tree from intersecting the horizon. While I ended up having to dig my shoes into a steep slope a few feet from the edge, I  felt safe.

Being so close to the tree, I chose my Sony 12-24 GM lens. This would allow me to include lots of sky and canyon. Normally I try to avoid too much sky in my Grand Canyon images, but there was potential this night = for some very special color that would demand a lot of sky.

Waiting for the show to start, I just started composing and clicking to familiarize myself with all the composition possibilities. When the sun finally dropped beneath the clouds to light up Wotan’s Throne, I was ready. Many of my shots were wider, including Vishnu Temple and more sky, but for the few minutes the tree got beautiful light, I tightened my composition a little to better emphasize it.

Even though the tree was just a few feet away, I knew that at 20mm I could comfortably use f/10 (to avoid diffraction) if I focused just a little beyond the tree. Since there was nothing beyond the tree to focus on, I used one of the shrubs on the right that I estimated to be just a little farther away than the tree. Dynamic range was extreme, but well within the bounds of my Sony a7RIV. With my focal length, f-stop, and focus point set, I dialed my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram. Click.

This was probably the nicest sunset I’ve ever seen at Cape Royal. I have more colorful images from this evening, and many that include more clouds, and Vishnu Temple, but I chose this one because it’s the best example I’ve ever captured of the spectacular Wotan’s Throne sunset light I love so much.

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A North Rim Gallery

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More Monsoon Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning V, Grand Canyon

Lightning V, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/10 second
F/8
ISO 160

Greetings from the Grand Canyon. It’s pretty hard to post a blog in the middle of a workshop, and downright near impossible when the Internet is down and your cellular carrier has capped your roaming data at 200 megabytes (which I ripped through in 3 days, with only 12 days to go—thank you very much, T-Mobile). But here I am, a day late, with some thoughts on improving your lightning photography and an update on the Grand Canyon monsoon activity so far.

Subtracting one year lost to COVID, this is my eighth year doing at least two monsoon workshops at the Grand Canyon—this year it’s three. In previous years I’ve done these workshops in partnership with my friend and fellow Sony Artisan Don Smith; this year I’m flying solo, grateful for the assistance of my friend (photographer, sensor cleaning guru, and essential lightning tracker) Curt Fargo.

Being solely responsible for the success and wellbeing of a dozen photographers isn’t without its stress. Despite the always breathtaking beauty that comes with the Grand Canyon monsoon, make no mistake about it: people sign up for these workshops for the lightning. And while I make it very clear that enrollment comes with no guarantees, and do my absolute best to prepare everyone well in advance, I still stress until each person in my group has captured at least one bolt.

Many factors contribute to lightning success, but when you measure success by the results of a dozen other people, things get even more complicated. And since we’re in the midst of lightning season for most of the Northern Hemisphere, I thought I’d share my thoughts on maximizing lightning success. In no particular order, here are my essential lightning preparation tips:

  • The right equipment
    • Mirrorless or DSLR camera with minimal shutter lag: Sony is the fastest, followed closely by Nikon; Canon is fast enough. I don’t have enough experience with the other brands to know which work well and which don’t. And new cameras come out so fast, my information isn’t necessarily current, so the other manufacturers could have upped their shutter-lag game (or not). One more thing: it helps to have a camera that goes down to ISO 50 (this often needs to be turned on in the menu).
    • 24-105 (ideal) or 24-70 lens: Since you don’t know exactly where the lighting will land, it’s best to compose a little loose and crop in post, making long telephotos of limited use. And if you find yourself needing to go wider than 24mm, you’re too close (trust me).
    • Lightning sensor: No one is fast enough to consistently capture lighting without a device that detects lightning and triggers the shutter. Period. There are a lot of lightning sensor options, but the only one I’ve seen work reliably, at a range of up to 40 miles, is the Lightning Trigger. (FYI, this name is trademarked, so it’s the only lightning sensor that can legally be called Lightning Trigger.) I recommend Lightning Trigger to all of my workshop students, and always hold my breath when someone shows up with something different. (I get no kick-back or other benefit from this recommendation—it just makes my life much easier when workshop participants use something I know works.)
    • Polarizer or (even better) a 3- to 6-stop neutral density filter: For lightning, sometimes you need a little help getting to a slow enough shutter speed. I use a 6-stop Dark Polarizer from Breakthrough Filters.
    • Sturdy tripod: You’ll be shooting at shutter speeds no faster than 1/15 second. Not only that, there’s a lot of waiting in lightning photography, and your camera must be primed for action at all times, making hand-holding impractical (and downright uncomfortable).
    • Wet weather gear: I rarely get wet photographing lightning because I try not to be in the storm I’m photographing (which is one thing that makes the Grand Canyon, with its distant views, such a great lighting location), but sometimes  I get caught out in the rain.
      • Waterproof hat, parka, pants, shoes
      • Umbrella
      • I haven’t found a rain cover for my camera gear that isn’t more trouble than it’s worth, a problem compounded by having my Lightning Trigger mounted atop my camera. In the rare situation that I decide to stay out in the rain and shoot, I just use my umbrella (AKA, portable lightning rod).
  • Equipment knowledge: When photographing something as fickle and ephemeral as lightning, all the equipment in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t know how to use it without conscious thought.
  • Exposure knowledge: Lightning photography requires very specific shutter speeds that vary with conditions. Not only do you need to get the exposure right, you have to know how to do it in a very specific shutter speed range.
  • Weather/lightning knowledge
    • Learn how to identify the cells will deliver lightning.
    • Recognize the direction the lightning is moving.
    • The faster you can recognize and respond to potential lightning, the better your results will be. If you wait until a strike hits before heading in that direction, you’re asking for disappointment.
  • Weather/lightning resources
    • National Weather Service: There may be other reliable sources, but most use the NWS data. The NWS is far from perfect (like all weather forecasting entities), but it’s more consistently reliable than any other source.
    • Real-time lightning reporting app: This is a huge benefit that allows me to monitor storm and lightning activity, on a scale ranging from macro (national) to micro (local). Many apps offer this service, but the one I use and consider absolutely essential is My Lightning Tracker Pro. (I’m not a tester, so like all of my recommendations, this endorsement is based on personal experience and comparison to other apps I’ve used and observed, not any systematic tests.)
  • Location knowledge
    • Know when the lightning tends to start.
    • Know where the lightning is most likely to strike.
    • Know the best/safest vantage points and how to get to them quickly.
    • Escape routes: Don’t photograph a location without knowing where to retreat when lightning gets too close.

I do my best to fill my groups with all this knowledge and more, before we start. Even though we’ve been been shut out a few times, I’ll take a little credit for the overall success rate—so far my workshop lightning batting average (everyone in the workshop gets at least one strike) is probably somewhere around .700, and in a few workshops some, or even most, had a success.

But really, regardless of the preparation, the biggest factor in capturing lightning in a workshop that was scheduled more than a year in advance, comes down to just plain luck, and like all weather phenomena, lighting is random. But preparation does give you the best possible chance of success if you’re lucky enough to get a chance. And honestly, it’s the unknown that makes chasing lightning so much fun.

Read my complete lightning photography how-to guide in my Photo Tips Lightning article. 

Back to the present

So anyway…

This morning I wrapped up the first of three consecutive Grand Canyon monsoon workshops. To say that we started with a bang would be an understatement. For just the second time since I started doing this, we postponed our 1 p.m. orientation because the lightning started around noon. Fortunately, a couple of days before our start I’d sent an e-mail letting everyone know this was possible, and to show up at the orientation with gear and prepared to hit the ground running. And that’s what we did.

For the workshop’s first two hours, we photographed a very active electrical storm across the canyon from our North Rim perch at Grand Canyon Lodge. By the time we were done, I’d captured 35 frames with lightning, only one person in the group didn’t have at least one lightning strike (most had many more)—the person who showed up with a lightning sensor that wasn’t a Lightning Trigger.

The next day we got our morning shoot and training session in, but the afternoon training session was almost immediately preempted by another crazy lightning storm. This storm started fairly mild, then intensified as it moved much closer and eventually chased us inside. This time everyone captured multiple lightning strikes, which makes me think that one of the things that distinguishes the Lightning Trigger from the other brands is its range. But whatever the reason, I could finally relax.

Of course throughout the workshop we photographed a lot of nice stuff that wasn’t lightning, so by our last night I think everyone was pretty satisfied with their bounty. Which of course didn’t prevent us from being greedy. Departing for our final sunset with low expectations, we were instead treated to maybe the best show of the workshop. This storm wasn’t as prolific as the earlier two, and the lightning was more than 20 miles away, but it happened above some of my favorite Grand Canyon scenery, and was accompanied by a towering thunderhead, beautiful sunset color, and a massive rain curtain to catch the sunset color and light.

I wish I could tell you that I have photographic proof of all this drama to share right now, but I’ve been just a little busy. So I’m sharing the only image from the workshop that I’ve processed so far. This V-shaped pair came toward the end of the first afternoon’s storm, and while I’m always happy to get multiple lighting bolts in one frame, I’m pretty sure I ended up with captures I like even better. But we’ll just have to wait…

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Grand Canyon Monsoon Lightning Success

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Monsoon Madness

Gary Hart Photography: Serpentine Lightning, Mather Point, Grand Canyon South Rim

Serpentine Lightning, Mather Point, Grand Canyon South Rim
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/6 second
F/10
ISO 100

Every August for the last seven years, good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I have done a Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop where we attempt to, among many other things, photograph lightning. I say “many other things” because Grand Canyon doesn’t need lightning to be spectacular. And even without lightning, the monsoon storms that build above the canyon most afternoons add beautiful clouds, rainbows, and sunsets to the magnificent vistas. (We also try to include a Milky Way shoot.) But as nice as all that other stuff is, most people come for the lightning. Don and I do our best to establish realistic expectations, because as reliable as the summer monsoon is in the American Southwest, nothing weather related is a sure thing.

This year I got a reminder of that fact by watching the weather forecasts leading up to our workshops. Each year in the weeks before first workshop’s start date, I regularly (obsessively) monitor the Grand Canyon weather forecast. This is a futile exercise that does nothing but add stress because no matter what the forecast is, I get anxious. No lightning? Oh no! This year’s monsoon is a dud (a “nonsoon”). Lots of lightning? Oh no! All the good stuff will be over before we get there. Sigh.

Coming into this year’s workshops, Don and I had done 12 (two per year for six years). For the first few years, I’d estimate that in about half, everyone in the group captured multiple lightning strikes (in some groups the number of successes approached or exceeded 100). In many of the less successful workshop, a few people got lighting and a few didn’t. And a few were a complete shutout. But the last two years had been great, with everyone in both groups getting multiple strikes.

Part of this recent success I attribute to just plain good luck, and part I attribute to experience—Don and I have gotten better at preparing the groups, teaching lightning photography, troubleshooting Lightning Trigger and camera problems, reading and responding to the conditions, and simply knowing where to be and when to be there.

This year’s first workshop would start on July 31, but as July wound down, each day’s forecast called for blue sky. Blank. Blue. Sky. Maybe our run of good luck was about to end. Fire up the anxiety engines. Compounding my stress was the realization that this would be our 13th monsoon workshop. And we had 13 participants—I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but still…. (We normally cap our groups at 12, but a small administrative hiccup resulted in an extra enrollee.)

But, to make a long story just a little shorter, we needn’t have worried. On the day our first workshop started, Mother Nature flipped the lightning switch and by the end of the third day (of five), everyone in Group 1 had their lightning. Phew. As it turned out, that group ended up with multiple lightning opportunities. Halfway there….

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

The second group had to wait until the fourth day, and only got one good shot at it, but theirs was one of the most spectacular lightning storms I’ve ever witnessed (Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte)—both for its intensity and its proximity.

Don and I usually use the day between workshops to “recharge” (pun unavoidable), but at dinner that evening we’d been monitoring our (fantastic) lightning app, My Lightning Tracker Pro, we saw that lightning was firing nearby and just couldn’t resist going out on our own.

Picking the lowest hanging fruit, we ended up at easily accessible Mather Point. The show was well underway when we arrived, but didn’t need to wait long before our Lightning Triggers started firing. I captured a dozen or so frames with lightning that evening, some with multiple bolts, but the unique, circuitous path followed by one I share above was my favorite.

I recently rewrote the lightning explanation portion of my Lightning Photo Tips article. As you’ll read below, lightning always follows the easiest path to resolve its polarity discrepancy, so I wonder what atmospheric machinations caused this serpentine bolt.

Lightning Explained

A lightning bolt is the 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.

The primary process at work in an electrical storm is convection, the circular, up/down flow that happens when heat is applied to a fluid. As air warms, it becomes less dense and rises. The rising air cools with altitude and becomes more dense, causing it to sink. But the sinking air warms as it loses altitude, eventually rising again, and the cycle continues…. (Convection is also the process behind the bubbling of boiling water.)

Convection’s up/down flow creates turbulence knocks together airborne molecules, striping 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 it is at the base.

Extreme polarity can also happen when a negatively charged cloud base hovers above the positively charged ground. Either way, nature resist this charge disparity and tries to resolve it as fast as possible: a lightning bolt.

Nature always finds 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. A cloud-to-ground strike occurs 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. The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (from the human perspective, that’s virtually instantaneous, regardless of your distance on Earth). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light.

Knowing that the thunder occurred at the same time as the lightning flash, and the speed both travel, we can estimate distance of the lightning strike. At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel about a mile in about five seconds: Dividing the number of seconds between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash by five gives you the lightning’s distance in miles; divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers. If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away.

One of the things I love most about photographing lightning at Grand Canyon is the ability to do it in relative safety. With a few notable exceptions (see Lightning Explosion above), most of the lightning we photograph is at least 10 miles away, distant enough that we rarely hear thunder. I won’t pretend that any lightning photography is completely safe because the safest place to be in an electrical storm is always inside. But standing on one Grand Canyon rim while waiting for lightning to fire on the other rim, as we did this evening, feels more like magic than madness.

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Monsoon Madness

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Thanking My Stars (and Moon, and Lightning, and Rainbows, and…)

Gary Hart Photography: Surprise Rainbow, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

Surprise Rainbow, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/4 second
F/8
ISO 100

So lately I’ve been thinking about the things I photograph and why I photograph them. Then the other day, after boarding a plane following my recent Grand Canyon monsoon trip, I squeezed into my seat and rummaged through my computer bag, loading the knee-jamming magazine holder on the seat-back in front of me with the two books I’m currently reading. One was “All About Lightning,” by Martin Uman (published in 1971 and revised in 1986); the other was “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast,” by Andrew Blum. On my AirPods was an astronomy podcast (“Orbital Path”). I have no illusions (anymore) of becoming an astronomer or a meteorologist, and the movie version these books is unlikely to be coming soon to a theater near you—no, I’m filling my mind with this stuff simply because it interests me. A lot.

I think everyone has those things that fascinate them so much that there’s no effort learning them. I have a history of finding something interesting and devouring every possible word on the subject. Some were passing obsessions (handwriting analysis, Lincoln head pennies, and—uhhhhh… The Monkees), and others have stuck with me (baseball, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and certain writers).

Which brings me back to the things I photograph, and the realization that we can probably tell a lot about most photographers’ relationship with the world by viewing their images. Anyone who checks the percentage of my images that have a weather or celestial component wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be surprised by my in-flight entertainment, or to learn that for a few misspent college semesters I majored in astronomy, then geology (and have since kept them as hobbies, where they belong).

The longer I do this, the more I appreciate how lucky I am to actually make my living photographing only the things I love. Nearly 15 years ago I left a good career in the tech industry, naively planning to turn a photography passion into a profession. I can’t tell you how many people since then have told me that doesn’t work—fortunately, I didn’t hear them until it was too late.

For photographers, there’s a fine line between self-employed and unemployed, a line I didn’t fully appreciate when I made my decision to jump into it with both feet. Like millions of other photographers, all I wanted to make a living photographing the beautiful natural world I love so much—how hard could that be? But as many have learned (some sooner than others), not only is there very little market for landscape images, there seems to be pretty much infinite competition—competition that causes landscape photographers to sell digital images for pennies, and prints for little more than their cost. But somehow, for reasons I like to attribute to foresight but must acknowledge dash of shovel full of good luck as well, I’ve managed to make my living photographing only what I love.

Before leaving my tech job, I was doing art shows and making pretty decent money for a weekend’s work. But a weekend art show is so much more than just a weekend of effort, and after doing the math I realized that I’d need to be on the road at least 40 weeks per year to even have a chance to make ends meet through art shows. Gallery sales were a non-starter because the galleries just want too much of the small number of sales they generate, and the stock photography market was already on life support. Open my own gallery? That just sounded like an anchor that would prevent me from taking pictures.

So I started leading photo workshops, which were just starting to catch on and seemed ideally suited to my skillset. Not only was I intimately familiar with Yosemite and other California destinations that pretty much sell themselves, my background was in technical communications (tech writing, training, support), and I genuinely like people.

When I started offering workshop, I still did the art shows, but then came 2008 and the economic downturn. Despite a lot of hand wringing, my workshops continued filling, helped a lot by repeat customers who kept me afloat through the recession. And after one particularly unsuccessful weekend in San Francisco, I decided to drop the art shows altogether and focus on the workshops. I haven’t looked back.

Since making my mid-life career change, I’ve also managed to create a small niche as a writer, both through this blog (which pays nothing but has developed a pretty loyal following), and as a regular contributor to “Outdoor Photographer” and other photography publications (and which earns just slightly more than nothing). Not enough to live on, but at least enough to scratch my life-long writing itch.

So here I am, nearly 15 years into this ride and still going strong. I’m not getting rich, and least financially, but there are better measures of success than dollars. Whether alone or sharing with others, I still get as excited as anyone when the moon rises behind Half Dome, the Milky Way brightens above a New Zealand lake, or the setting sun paints a rainbow against a Grand Canyon sky.

About this image

After a day with a lot more rain than lightning, Don Smith and I took our Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop group up to Point Imperial for sunset. The vestiges of the storm still lingered as we set up, but there was no sign of the lightning that had been in the forecast, or even the rain that had drenched us for most of the day. Though lightning was on everyone’s mind, soft light in the canyon and the play of sunlight and clouds overhead kept everyone happy as we waited for sunset.

We’d been photographing for about a half hour when I noticed a tiny fragment of rainbow balanced atop the rim in the south. Not nearly prominent enough to be a prime subject, I nevertheless pointed it out to others and composed a few frames of my own before moving on to other opportunities in a view filled with them. Since there was no sign of rain, I only occasionally checked on the tiny rainbow, each time fully expecting it to have vanished, but each time noticed that it was hanging in there—not really any bigger, but still somewhere on the continuum from vivid to nearly-faded-to-oblivion.

Just a few minutes before sunset and with no rain visible, that little spot of color intensified and stretched skyward. Those of us with eyes on it alerted the rest of the group, sending everyone into a shooting frenzy that lasted until the light faded with the setting sun. I’ve photographed bigger rainbows, and (slightly) brighter rainbows, but only a few that have thrilled me as much as this one that seemed to come out of nowhere.

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Personal Favorites: Moon, Stars, and Weather

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

 

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