Posted on August 18, 2019
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.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on August 8, 2019
I don’t usually write a brand new blog in the middle of a workshop, but I have to share last night’s experience
August 7, 2019
Scanning the southern horizon from the view deck of Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, I saw no sign of lightning. Far to the south was a somewhat promising curtain of rain, maybe 30 miles beyond the South Rim. With nothing to do until I met the group for our sunset departure, I found a composition I liked and pointed my camera (with Lightning Trigger engaged) in that direction.
Soon others joined me—with my lightning app showing activity 50 miles distant in the general direction my camera pointed, I made the call to bag the sunset shoot and put all our eggs in the lightning basket. (A decision I might not have made had this second workshop group already had the lightning success the first had). Turns out that was a good call.
About an hour later, when lightning started firing to the west, I stubbornly stuck with my composition, but instructed the rest of the group to point their cameras toward the more sure thing. My reasoning was that since I had over 100 lightning strikes from the first workshop, I could afford to be selective and take a chance on the composition I preferred, but everyone who hadn’t had a success should play the odds.
My storm completely fizzled, but the storm cell to the west was very active and appeared to be moving closer. I finally admitted defeat and gave up on my cell, turning my attention to the active cell just about the time we started hearing thunder. Within minutes the storm was on top of us and suddenly we couldn’t tell which thunder went with which bolt.
Huddled in relative safety beneath the lodge’s lightning rods, the next 20 minutes provided the most jaw-dropping electrical this California boy has ever seen—maybe all lightning storms are this spectacular, but I’ve never been that close. We gave everyone the option of retreating to the lodge’s enclosed viewing deck, but everyone steadfastly stuck to their tripods. The lightning was firing two or three times per minute, each strike so close that we couldn’t couldn’t fit the entire bolt in our frame. Then the wind kicked up and soon thereafter the sky opened, so we grabbed our cameras and headed inside.
As the lightning flashed in the pictures windows, we reviewed our captures on our LCDs and shared our bounty with each other. Everyone had multiple lightning captures, and it seemed like virtually all in the group had some version of this bolt striking Oza Butte, about one mile away. It was interesting to compare the differences between each person’s capture—not only did they vary with the composition, they also varied with the exposure time (more or fewer strokes and filaments) and camera type (some cameras trigger their shutters faster than others).
This image is a perfect example of what I love about still photography: It freezes an instant in time that is already memory by the time my brain registers it, allowing me to spend as much time as I want scrutinizing detail I’d never see otherwise. I can’t tell you how long I’ve studied this image already, and I’m still find new things.
Posted on August 5, 2019
In a day of surprises, I think the most surprising thing was finding myself completely alone on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—in the middle of a workshop. The sun had set, the tourists had gone to dinner, and the rest of my group, thanks to an unexpected turn of events (stay tuned), was with my workshop partner Don Smith at Desert View, about ten miles east. I love leading workshops, but the opportunity to enjoy a summer sunset alone at the Grand Canyon was too rare to not to appreciate. And as if that wasn’t enough, I was being treated to one of the most spectacular lightning displays I’d seen in all my years of photographing the Grand Canyon monsoon.
The weather gods had been messing with us since the workshop’s start two days earlier. The forecast for our first two days was so good, Don and I had virtually guaranteed everyone a lightning bolt (or ten, or 20, or…) on their memory cards by the time we headed to the South Rim on Day 3. But on Day 1 we got too much rain and not enough lightning (not unprecedented), a loss largely assuaged by a gorgeous rainbow at sunset (phew). No worries, the Day 2 lightning forecast was even more promising.
While we did see a bolt or two on the second day, we got nothing close to the classic lightning displays the North Rim frequently serves up during the Grand Canyon Monsoon. Even without any lightning photos, the day was salvaged by the night’s fantastic Milky Way shoot at Cape Royal—an evening so warm that most of us kept the jackets packed and did the whole thing in T-shirts.
But lighting is this workshop’s Holy Grail, and the pressure was building for Don and me. For a few reasons, the North Rim is usually generates about 80 percent of our lightning success. But after being shut out for our two North Rim days, now it was time to motor to the much more crowded South Rim, where the crowds are oppressive and weather forecast called for a measly 10 percent chance of thunderstorms. Suddenly my optimism was waning.
Mother Nature is fickle, and I’m pretty sure she was punishing me for being a little too cocky at the beginning of the workshop. Because on the road to the South Rim (about the time I started to admit serious doubts about our lightning chances), she started filling my windshield with billowing cumulus clouds—not friendly cotton-ball puffs, these clouds were dark, angry towers. By the time we checked into our hotel, our lightning app was showing signs of sneaking activity sneaking up from the south (behind us).
Though nothing was happening near the canyon yet, experience has taught us to be proactive when the storms are building. So rather than wait until the planned sunset departure time, Don and I herded the group to the cars and we bolted for the rim as soon as we could get everyone assembled. Turning east on Desert View Road toward our sunset destination, Desert View, we pulled over at the very first vista. We hopped out to take a look and as Don and I surveyed the view, someone spotted lightning directly across the canyon. Showtime.
This was indeed a great show, with at least one or two bolts per minute for nearly an hour. Within 15 minutes it was pretty clear that everyone had captured multiple strikes and Don and I could relax—everyone would go home with the lightning photos they came for. The storm was still active when increasing wind and threatening clouds led us to decide it would be prudent to move on.
The next stop on the way to our way to Desert View was Grandview Point, and that’s where things took an unexpected turn. First, when I went to change the precariously low battery on my Sony a7RIII, I realized my backup battery was at home on the charger (gone are my Sony a7RII days when I carried six batteries). But that crisis was soon set aside when one of the members of the group had an emergency that required her to return to the hotel. After a bit of discussion and a little math (Do we have enough seats for the rest of the group to continue to Desert View for sunset? Answer: Yes, with none to spare), I drove her back while everyone else continued on to photograph sunset.
Back at the hotel I did a bit more math and realized there was no way I could make it all the way out to Desert View in the 50 minutes remaining until sunset. But seized by FOMO*, I grabbed my a7RII, checked the battery (fully charged—yay!), and headed back to the rim with no particular plan—even if I couldn’t make it back to the group, I just wanted to be somewhere for sunset. At the junction with Desert View Road I headed east again, away from the Grand Canyon Village congestion and toward some of the less crowded vistas.
The entire sky was gray and at first I thought sunset might be a dud, but then I caught a thin layer of brightness in my rearview mirror and realized there was a hole on the horizon—when the sun drops into it, everything might just light up for a few minutes. I checked my watch and goosed the accelerator hoping to make it as far as Grandview Point. Unfortunately, in the national parks you can only go as fast as the next Winnebago, and sunset was less than 10 minutes away when I dove into my Grandview parking space. I grabbed my camera bag and dashed down the trail to my favorite view atop an exposed rock outcrop, not realizing until headed off-trail that I was still in my flip-flops. But with no time to go back for more sane footwear, I continued slip-sliding my way down to my destination and (barely) made it with all limbs intact.
The color was starting but as soon as my camera was set up, but I took a few seconds to get my adrenalin under control. The first thing that struck me was the quiet, most unusual for a Grand Canyon summer sunset. I attributed it to the storm, which had just moved on from here, and the fact that Grandview isn’t heralded as a sunset location (because most non-photographers like their sunset views to face west, and there are better spots at Grand Canyon for that).
As expected, there was indeed great color that evening, but even more exciting was all the lightning in the east: Cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, cloud flashes, multiple bolts, extreme zig-zags—pretty much a who’s who of lightning, several times per minute. Most of the lightning was firing somewhere in the empty desert beyond Desert View, but it looked far enough away that the group was safe. From my perspective there was no canyon or anything else interesting in the direction of extreme activity, so I pointed my camera at a somewhat promising curtain of rain that aligned better with my view of the canyon—and hoped.
Photographing lightning is more thrilling than I can describe, and I can think of no better place for it than Grand Canyon. The distance of the views here relieves (most of) the anxiety that comes with viewing lightning—so far on this trip I’ve captured 116 frames with lightning (yes, I count them) and still haven’t been close enough to any of them to have heard their thunder. And Grand Canyon puts the actual lightning experience on steroids because during the long peaceful periods between strikes you’re gazing upon one of the most breathtaking views on Earth. When a bolt explodes from the clouds, its metaphorical jolt to my psyche seems to match it’s actual 50,000 (ish) volt electrostatic jolt.
I only captured a half-dozen or so strikes over the canyon that evening, but all I need is one. This one touched down several minutes after sunset, about 30 miles away. It came right at the peak of the color and couldn’t have been more perfectly timed or placed. And as I waited for the next bolt to trigger my camera, I got to enjoy this view the same, infinitely more spectacular, light show the rest of the group was enjoying—in glorious, absolute quiet.
Posted on April 17, 2019
The annual Grand Canyon monsoon is known for its spectacular electrical storms, but let’s not forget the rainbows that often punctuate these storms. A rainbow requires rain, sunlight, and the right viewing angle—given the ephemeral nature of a monsoon thunderstorm, it’s usually safe to assume that the sun probably isn’t far behind. To experience a rainbow after a Grand Canyon monsoon storm, all it takes is some basic knowledge, a little faith, and some good fortune.
To help with the knowledge part, I’m sharing the how-and-why of rainbows, excerpted from my just updated Rainbow article in my Photo Tips section. For the faith and good fortune part, read “The story of this image” at the bottom of this post.
Most people understand that a rainbow is light spread into various colors by airborne water drops. Though a rainbow can seem like a random, unpredictable phenomenon, the natural laws governing rainbow are actually quite specific and predictable, and understanding these laws can help photographers anticipate a rainbow and enhance its capture.
Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (and every wavelength in between). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar energy we receive are ultra-violet rays that burn our skin, infrared waves that warm our atmosphere, and a very narrow range of wavelengths the human eye sees.
These visible wavelengths are captured by our eyes and interpreted by our brain. When our eyes take in light comprised of the full range of visible wavelengths, we perceive it as white (colorless) light. Color registers when some wavelengths are more prevalent than others. For example, when light strikes an opaque (solid) object such as a tree or rock, some of its wavelengths are absorbed; the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered (reflected). Our eyes capture this scattered light, send the information to our brains, which interprets it as a color. When light strikes water, some is absorbed, some passes through to reveal the submerged world, and some light is reflected by the surface as a reflection.
To understand the interaction of water and light that creates a rainbow, it’s simplest to visualize what happens when sunlight strikes a single drop. Light entering a water drop refracts (bends), with different wavelengths refracting different amounts, which separates the originally homogeneous white light into the myriad colors of the spectrum.
But simply separating the light into its component colors isn’t enough to create a rainbow—if it were, we’d see a rainbow whenever light strikes water. Seeing the rainbow spectrum caused by refracted light requires that the refracted light be returned to our eyes somehow.
A raindrop isn’t flat like a sheet of paper, it’s spherical, like a ball. Light that was refracted (and separated into multiple colors) as it entered the front of the raindrop, continues through to the back of the raindrop, where some is reflected. Red light reflects back at about 42 degrees, violet light reflects back at about 40 degrees, and the other spectral colors reflect back between 42 and 40 degrees. What we perceive as a rainbow is this reflection of the refracted light—notice how the top color of the primary rainbow is always red, the longest visible wavelength; the bottom color is always violet, the shortest visible wavelength.
Every raindrop struck by sunlight creates a rainbow. But just as the reflection of a mountain peak on the surface of a lake is visible only when viewed from the angle the reflection bounces off the lake’s surface, a rainbow is visible only when you’re aligned with the 40-42 degree angle at which the raindrop reflects the spectrum of rainbow colors.
Fortunately, viewing a rainbow requires no knowledge of advanced geometry. To locate or anticipate a rainbow, picture an imaginary straight line originating at the sun, entering the back of your head, exiting between your eyes, and continuing down into the landscape in front of you—this line points to the “anti-solar point,” an imaginary point exactly opposite the sun. With no interference, a rainbow would form a complete circle, skewed 42 degrees from the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point—with you at the center. (We don’t see the entire circle because the horizon usually gets in the way.)
Because the anti-solar point is always at the center of the rainbow’s arc, a rainbow will always appear exactly opposite the sun (the sun will always be at your back). It helps to remember that your shadow always points toward the anti-solar point. So when you find yourself in direct sunlight and rain, locating a rainbow is as simple as following your shadow and looking skyward—if there’s no rainbow, the sun’s probably too high.
Sometimes a rainbow appears as a majestic half-circle, arcing high above the distant terrain; other times it’s merely a small circle segment hugging the horizon. As with the direction of the rainbow, there’s nothing mysterious about its varying height. Remember, every rainbow would form a full circle if the horizon didn’t get in the way, so the amount of the rainbow’s circle you see (and therefore its height) depends on where the rainbow’s arc intersects the horizon.
While the center of the rainbow is always in the direction of the anti-solar point, the height of the rainbow is determined by the height of the anti-solar point, which will always be exactly the same number of degrees below the horizon as the sun is above the horizon. It helps to imagine the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point as a fulcrum, with you as the pivot—picture yourself in the center of a teeter-totter: as one seat rises above you, the other drops below you. That means the lower the sun, the more of its circle you see and the higher it appears above the horizon; conversely, the higher the sun, the less of its circle is above the horizon and the flatter (and lower) the rainbow will appear.
Assuming a flat, unobstructed scene (such as the ocean), when the sun is on the horizon, so is the anti-solar point (in the opposite direction), and half of the rainbow’s 360 degree circumference will be visible. But as the sun rises, the anti-solar point drops—when the sun is more than 42 degrees above the horizon, the anti-solar point is more than 42 degrees below the horizon, and the only way you’ll see a rainbow is from a perspective above the surrounding landscape (such as on a mountaintop or on a canyon rim).
Of course landscapes are rarely flat. Viewing a scene from above, such as from atop Mauna Kea or from the rim of the Grand Canyon, can reveal more than half of the rainbow’s circle. From an airplane, with the sun directly overhead, all of the rainbow’s circle can be seen, with the plane’s shadow in the middle.
Not all of the light careening about a raindrop goes into forming the primary rainbow. Some of the light slips out the back of the raindrop to illuminate the sky, and some is reflected inside the raindrop a second time. The refracted light that reflects a second time before exiting creates a secondary, fainter rainbow skewed 50 degrees from the anti-solar point. Since this is a reflection, the colors of the secondary rainbow are reversed from the primary rainbow.
And if the sky between the primary and secondary rainbows appears darker than the surrounding sky, you’ve found “Alexander’s band.” It’s caused by all the light machinations I just described—instead of all the sunlight simply passing through the raindrops to illuminate the sky, some of the light was intercepted, refracted, and reflected by the raindrops to form our two rainbows, leaving less light for the sky between the rainbows.
Understanding the optics of a rainbow has practical applications for photographers. Not only does it help you anticipate a rainbow before it happens, it also enables you to find rainbows in waterfalls.
Unlike a rainbow caused by rain, which requires you to be in exactly the right position to capture the incongruous convergence of rainfall and sunshine, a waterfall rainbow can be predicted with clock-like precision—just add sunshine.
Yosemite is my location of choice, but there’s probably a waterfall or two near you that will deliver. Just figure out when the waterfall gets direct sunlight early or late in the day, then put yourself somewhere on the line connecting the sun and the waterfall. And if you have an elevated vantage point, you’ll find that the sun doesn’t even need to be that low in the sky.
Understanding rainbow optics can even help you locate rainbows that aren’t even visible to the naked eye. A “moonbow” (lunar rainbow) is a rarely witnessed and wonderful phenomenon that follows all the natural rules of a daylight rainbow. But instead of resulting from direct sunlight, a moonbow is caused by sunlight reflected by the moon.
Moonlight isn’t bright enough to fully engage the cones in your eyes that reveal color, though in bright moonlight you can see the moonbow as an arcing monochrome band. But a camera on a sturdy tripod can use its virtually unlimited shutter duration to accumulate enough light to bring out a moonbow in full living color. Armed with this knowledge, all you need to do is put yourself in the right location at the right time.
Following a nice sunrise at the always beautiful Point Imperial, the Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop group spent two hours near Bright Angel Point photographing a spectacular electrical storm that delivered multiple lightning captures to everyone in the group. When the storm moved too close and drove us to safety (we’re resilient and adventuresome, not stupid), it would have been easy call it a day and tally our bounty. I mean, who likes getting rained on? Photographers, that’s who.
Don Smith and I herded our group into the cars and headed to Cape Royal Road, where we could follow the Grand Canyon’s East Rim above Marble Canyon all the way to Cape Royal. Knowing that monsoon showers are fairly localized, the plan was to drive out of the cell that was dumping on us at the lodge and either shoot back at it, or (more likely) find another cell firing out over the canyon. In the back of my mind though was the hope for a rainbow above the canyon—dropping in the west, the sun was perfectly positioned for rainbows in the east.
The rainbow appeared just after we passed the Point Imperial Road junction, arcing high above the forest. Climbing through the trees toward the rim (and its views of Marble Canyon), my urgency intensified with the rainbow’s vivid color, but we were stuck behind a meandering tourist who clearly had different priorities. As tempted as I was to pass him, I knew that would be a mistake with three more cars following me. So we poked along at a glacial pace. After what felt like hours, screeched to a halt at the Vista Encantada parking area with the rainbow hanging in there—I swear everyone was out of the car and scrambling for their gear before I came to a complete stop.
With a full rainbow above an expansive view, I opted for my Sony 12-24 lens on my a7RII, but immediately began to question that choice. While Vista Encantada offers a very pretty view, it’s not my favorite scene to photograph because of the less-than-photogenic shrubbery in the foreground—a telephoto lens definitely would have worked better to eliminate the foreground, but I wanted more rainbow. So after a few failed attempts to find a composition at the conventional vista, I sprinted into the woods to find something better. This turned out to be a wise choice, as the shrubs here were replaced with (much more photogenic) mature evergreens.
In a perfect world I’d have found an unobstructed view into the Grand Canyon, but as photographers know, the world is rarely perfect. Committed to my wide lens, I decided to use the nearby evergreens as my foreground, moving back just far enough for the rainbow to clear their crowns. Composing wide enough to include the trees top-to-bottom also allowed me to include all of the rainbow—suddenly my 12-24 lens choice was genius!
After finishing at Vista Encantada we continued down the road and photographed another rainbow from Roosevelt Point, then wrapped up the day with a sunset for the ages at Cape Royal. A great day indeed, all thanks to monsoon weather that would have kept most tourists indoors.
Click an image for a closer look and to view slide show.
Posted on August 18, 2018
Lightning (at a safe distance) is pretty cool. It has always fascinated me, partly for the ephemeral power that can explode a tree and disappear before my brain can register its existence, but also because lightning is a rare sight for these California eyes. What what exactly is going on in a lightning bolt? I thought you’d never ask….
The shocking truth about lightning
Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes negative/positive polarization between two objects. For example, when you get shocked touching the doorknob in your bedroom, you’ve been struck by your own personal lightning bolt. You got zapped because, courtesy of that carpet you just dragged your fuzzy slippers across, you picked up a few extra electrons that the doorknob was more than happy to relieve you of.
While the polarization process that happens in an electrical storm isn’t as thoroughly understood as the one in your bedroom, it’s generally accepted that a thunderstorm’s vertical, convective air motion shuffles electrons in the atmosphere. To jar your high school science memories, convection occurs when a fluid substance heats, becomes less dense, and rises until it cools and becomes dense enough to sink. (You initiate convection when you boil water.)
The is up/down circular flow of atmospheric convection happens when air near the ground warms, expands, and rises. The rising air carries water vapor; since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, the ascending water vapor eventually condenses into clouds. The convective motion jostling the water and ice molecules inside the clouds strips the molecules of electrons. Electrons are negatively charged and more dense than the surrounding air; freed of their conventional bonds, these electrons fall earthward. Overhead, the clouds relieved of many electrons are suddenly positively charged, while the ground below has been rendered negatively charged by virtue of its new electron surplus.
Because nature abhors any imbalance, these opposite charges attract each other. The extreme polarization in a thunderstorm—positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground—is quickly (and violently) equalized: lightning! So I guess you could say that lightning is God’s way of telling Earth, “Stop being so negative!”
With lightning comes other atmospheric changes. The sudden infusion of a 50,000 degree electric charge displaces the surrounding air very suddenly, creating an audible compression wave that we know as thunder.
The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second. But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a mere 750 miles per hour (or so)—a million times slower than light.
Because lightning and its thunder are simultaneous, and we know how fast each travels, we can compute the lightning’s approximate distance. (Thunder’s speed varies slightly with atmospheric conditions; light’s speed is non-negotiable.) From our human perspective the lightning arrives instantaneously, but moving at 750 miles per hour, thunder takes around five seconds to travel a mile. So, dividing by five the number of seconds to elapse between the lightning’s flash and its thunder’s crash gives you the lightning’s distance in miles (divide the interval by three for the approximate distance in kilometers). For example, if ten seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about two miles away, fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away, and so on.
This speed difference also explains why lightning comes and goes in milliseconds, while its thunder can rumble and roll for several seconds. Because a lightning bolt can travel many miles, the thunder from its nearest portions reaches you much sooner than its most distant components.
About this image
Each summer moisture from the Gulf of Mexico makes its way up into the American Southwest. The combination of moist air and extreme heat (to kick off convection) makes August ripe for thunderstorms at the Grand Canyon. For the last six years, Don Smith and I have scheduled two photo workshops hoping to photograph these thunderstorms and their effects (clouds, rainbows, and especially lightning).
Bit with unseasonably dry air in place, the forecast at the start of this year’s first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop wasn’t especially favorable for lightning. I told the group during the orientation that I wasn’t concerned, that I’ve often seen forecasts like this change suddenly—then anxiously monitored every subsequent NWS forecast update with crossed fingers. In the meantime, we were all quite content photographing incredible smoke effects, courtesy of three nearby wildfires.
By the end of our second day I started seeing hints of moisture returning to the forecast toward the end of the workshop, with each forecast looking a little more promising than the one prior. By day four, the workshop’s final full day, I was downright optimistic.
We’ve always had better lightning success on the North Rim. Partly because the view faces south, the direction from which the storms tend to arrive, and partly because our cabins at Grand Canyon Lodge are right on the rim. Grand Canyon Lodge also has a pair of view decks, shielded by lightning rods, that are ideal for photographing lightning.
The lightning started firing early on our final evening. We all rushed to the rim, attached our Lightning Triggers, and pointed toward the most promising clouds. Much to my relief, it wasn’t long before everyone in the group had at least one lightning image, and most had many more than just one.
But feeling a bit greedy, with nice clouds overhead, and the smoke that had set up camp in the canyon for most of the week suddenly scoured by heavy rain, I realized that all we needed to ignite a sunset lightshow was a little sunlight. I glanced westward and saw signs of clearing. Dare I hope for a sunset to go with this lightning? As if by divine intervention, the sun emerged from the clouds just a few minutes before sunset, infusing the canyon and its diaphanous rain bands with light that started amber and reddened with each passing minute.
When the choice is between a (relatively) bland scene most likely to get lightning, and better a composition with just a slight chance for lighting, I usually take my chances and opt for the better composition. In this case the lightning had shifted a little north of the canyon, but I pointed my camera toward the better light over the canyon and crossed my fingers. So irresistible was the light that while waiting (and not wanting to change my composition and miss a lightning strike), I pulled my a7RII from my bag and clicked a couple of handheld frames due south, where no lightning was possible but the light was especially sweet. (Anyone who knows me will be shocked to hear that I took a picture without a tripod.)
Though several bolts fired during the five or so minutes before the sun disappeared, the one in this image was the only lightning I captured with the great sunset light. But all I wanted was one sunset strike, and I felt extremely lucky that it arrived just as the magenta glow reached its crescendo.
The lightning waxed and waned for several more hours. With the sun down the sky soon darkened enough for me to remove my Lightning Trigger and switch to long exposures in Bulb mode. I stayed until after 10:00, wrapping up with a couple of 20+ minute exposures that captured more than a dozen strikes each.
Posted on February 18, 2018
When the weather gets crazy, do you sprint for cover or reach for your camera? Your answer may be a pretty good indicator of your success as a landscape photographer. It’s an unfortunate fact that the light, color, and drama that make the most memorable landscape photos all come when most sane people would rather be inside: at sunrise, when the rest of the world is asleep; at sunset, when everyone else is at dinner; and during wild weather, when anyone with sense is on the sofa in front of the fire.
Not only do clouds keep tourists at bay, they’re usually a prerequisite for the best nature photography. Whether they simply diffuse sunlight to subdue extreme contrast into something much more camera-friendly, or contort themselves into diaphanous curtains and towering pillars that are subjects themselves, clouds are a photographer’s friend.
And with clouds, often comes rain. But the photographer willing to go out in the rain is also the photographer who captures lightning, rainbows, and vivid sunsets and sunrises. The key to photographing in rain is preparation. Regardless of the forecast, I never travel without my rain gear duffel that contains everything necessary to keep me dry and focused on photography: waterproof hat, gloves, parka, rain pants, and boots for me, and an umbrella for my camera. My go-to rain cover is a plastic garbage bag that keeps my camera and lens dry when I’m searching or waiting for a shot. The final essential wet weather accessory is a towel or chamois to dry any gear (especially the front of my lens) that gets wet.
Covered head-to-toe with my waterproof wardrobe, I’m ready to photograph whatever Mother Nature delivers. When I’m ready to shoot, my umbrella always comes out first, then off comes the bag and into a pocket. With one hand managing the umbrella, I have one hand free to compose, expose, focus, and click.
When the wind blows it’s often difficult to manage an umbrella and keep my lens free of water droplets. Since my Sony bodies are sufficiently sealed (as are many other mirrorless and DSLR bodies and lenses), I don’t worry about raindrops (but make sure you have the hot-shoe cap in place). Sometimes, when the wind is too extreme, I even briefly set the umbrella aside (but not too far). Once my composition, exposure, and focus are set, I point the umbrella’s convex side into the wind and lower it until it’s right on top of the camera (for maximum rain protection), pull out my towel and dry the front of the lens (and the rest of the camera and lens too if it’s raining hard), then lift the umbrella and click simultaneously (before more droplets land on my lens).
About this image
Last summer’s Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop group had already had a great day. Following a nice sunrise at the always beautiful Point Imperial, we spent two hours on the Grand Canyon Lodge view deck photographing a spectacular electrical storm that delivered multiple lightning captures to everyone in the group. Here’s a sample of the day’s bounty to this point:
When the storm moved too close and drove us inside to safety (we’re resilient and adventuresome, not stupid), it would have been easy to rest on our laurels and call it a day. I mean, who likes getting rained on?
Photographers, that’s who. Don Smith and I herded the group into the cars and headed to Cape Royal Road, where we could follow the Grand Canyon’s East Rim above Marble Canyon all the way to Cape Royal. Knowing that monsoon showers are fairly localized, the plan was to drive out of the cell that was dumping on us at the lodge and either shoot back at it, or (more likely) find another cell firing out over the canyon. In the back of my mind though was the hope for a rainbow above the canyon—dropping in west, the sun was perfectly positioned for rainbows in the east.
The rainbow appeared just after we passed the Point Imperial Road junction, arcing above the forest. Climbing through the trees toward the rim and its views of Marble Canyon, my urgency intensified with the rainbow’s vivid color, but we were stuck behind a meandering tourist who clearly had different priorities. As tempted as I was to pass him, I knew with three more cars following me, that would be a mistake. So we poked along at a glacial pace. After what seemed like hours, the rainbow was hanging in there as we pulled into the Vista Encantada parking area and screeched to a halt—I swear everyone was out of the car and scrambling for their gear before I’d come to a complete stop.
With a full rainbow above an expansive view, I opted for my Sony 12-24 lens on my a7RII, but immediately began to question that choice. While Vista Encantada offers a very pretty view, it’s not my favorite view to photograph because of all the less-than-photogenic shrubbery in the foreground—a telephoto lens would have worked better to eliminate the foreground. But I wanted more rainbow. So after a few failed attempts to find a composition at the conventional vista, I sprinted into the woods in search of something better. This turned out to be a wise choice, as the shrubs here were replaced with (much more appealing) mature evergreens.
In a perfect world I’d have had an unobstructed view into the Grand Canyon, but the world is rarely perfect. I decided to use the nearby trees as my foreground, moving back from the trees just far enough for the rainbow to clear their crowns, then left as far as the terrain permitted, separating the two left-most trees. Composing wide enough to include the trees top-to-bottom also allowed me to include all of the rainbow—suddenly my 12-24 lens choice was genius!
After finishing at Vista Encantada we continued down the road and photographed another rainbow from Roosevelt Point, before wrapping up the day with a sunset for the ages at Cape Royal. A great day indeed, all thanks to weather that would have kept most tourists indoors.
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Posted on August 14, 2015
Photographing lightning is about 5 percent pandemonium, and 95 percent arms folded, toe-tapping, just plain standing around. A typical lightning shoot starts with a lot of waiting for the storm to develop and trying to anticipate the best (and safest) vantage point. But with the first bolt often comes the insight that you anticipated wrong and: 1) The lightning is way over there; or 2) The lightning is right here (!). What generally ensues is a Keystone Cops frenzy of camera bag flinging, tire screeching, gear tossing, tripod expanding, camera cursing, Lightning Trigger fumbling bedlam. Then it’s more waiting. And waiting. And waiting….
In many ways the waiting part is a lot like fishing—except these fish have the ability to strike you dead without warning. And a strike is no guarantee that you’ve landed something—that assurance won’t come until you review your images. Unfortunately, when a Lightning Trigger is attached, LCD reviews are disabled. But to avoid missing the next one, I’ve learned to resist the temptation to turn off my Lightning Trigger and check after every bolt (like pulling the line from the water every few minutes to see if the worm’s still there).
About this image
With clear skies in the forecast, Don Smith and I started last Sunday with plans to recover from the preceding day’s 12 hour drive to the Grand Canyon, and to recharge for our Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop that started Monday. But walking outside after lunch, dark clouds building overhead sent us racing up to the rim (a 15 minute drive) to see what was going on (see Keystone Cops frenzy reference above).
Starting at Grand View, we quickly set up our tripods, cameras, and Lightning Triggers and aimed toward promising clouds up the canyon. But within 10 minutes the clouds overhead darkened; when they started pelting us with hail, we retreated to the car. Since the storm appeared to be moving east-to-west, we drove east to get on the back side of it, eventually ending up at Lipan Point (one of our favorite spots).
We set up west of the Lipan vista, enjoying relative peace and quiet away from the summer swarm. The cell that had chased us from Grand View was diminishing, so much so that we needed sunscreen when we started, but we could see an even more impressive cell was moving up from the south. Meanwhile, the clouds in the canyon were spectacular, but all the lightning was firing above the flat, scrub pine plain to the south. Our hope was that it would reach the canyon in our viewfinders before reaching us.
Of course I wanted lightning firing into the canyon, but at first I hedged my bets and composed wide enough to include the less aesthetically pleasing evergreen forest. As the rain moved across the canyon to our west, our blue sky had started to give way to darkening clouds, and distant thunder rolled through the afternoon stillness.
This was my first lighting shoot (and just my second overall) with my brand new Sony a7R II, so I was quite anxious to test its lightning capture capability. Speed is of the essence with lightning, and the faster the shutter responds to a click command, the better the chances of capturing it. My Canon 5D III had done the job in the past, but I knew I missed a number of strikes due to its only mediocre shutter lag.
The a7R II, like the a7S and a6000 (but not the a7R), has an electronic front curtain shutter that drastically shrinks shutter lag, so in theory its performance would rival the a7S and a6000, both of which I’d already succeeded with. That morning I’d tested the a7R II against the a7S and found its response identical, but you never know for sure until you try. (The other part of this equation is a good lightning sensor, and the only one I’ve seen work to my satisfaction is the Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products.)
That afternoon we enjoyed about a half hour of quality shooting before the storm moved too close for comfort. In that span I saw at least a half dozen canyon strikes; the new camera captured most (all?) of them. The one you see here was from early in the show—subsequent strikes were further north (right) before petering out.
Read more about lightning photography, and see a gallery of lightning captures, on my Lightning Photography photo tips page.