Hurry up and wait

Gary Hart Photography: Diagonal Lightning Strike, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Diagonal Lightning Strike, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/13 second
ISO 50

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.

Nuts and bolts at the Grand Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Grand Canyon lightning gallery

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