Some assembly required

Rainbow, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Double Rainbow, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
California Sunset, Sierra Foothills
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/5 second
32 mm
ISO 100

Putting together material for the Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop that Don Smith and I do each August, I came across this image from the  first shoot of our first workshop. With so many pictures in the two weeks we were there (for two workshops), and given the incredible events that followed, it’s amazing to me how well I remember the specifics of this early shoot (especially given how poorly I remember so many other things).

When Don and I pulled the group into Lipan Point that afternoon, a handful of puffy clouds floated overhead. But, as if on cue, within  minutes of our arrival the clouds organized into a seething, dark gray tower; five minutes after that, a few drops fell—marble-size projectiles that landed with an audible splat at one- or two-second intervals. We ignored the rain and kept shooting, but when a lightning bolt struck a quarter mile away, we couldn’t get out of there quickly enough, retreating to the cars just as all hell broke loose. For the next we were assaulted with a pounding rain that obliterated the view and required shouting to be heard. As suddenly as it started, the rain stopped and the Canyon reappeared, bathed in sunlight. And with the sunlight came a full double rainbow. I mean, what could be more perfect, the Grand Canyon plus a rainbow? Unfortunately, from our vantage point on the rim, the rainbow beautifully framed nothing but sagebrush south of the canyon.

Understanding the physics of rainbows, I knew that there’s nothing random about their position—to get the rainbow above the canyon, I simply had to be on the other rim. With a choice between A: A four hour drive, and B: A twenty mile hike, I chose C: Get as far out into the canyon as the nearby terrain allows and hope for the best.

The “Point” part of Lipan Point refers to  a rock protuberance that juts into the canyon. Scrambling onto the rock, I was able to change my angle of view enough to put the north-most end of the rainbow in the canyon before I ran out of point. Not the complete, rim-to-rim view I’d have liked, but at least something to work with. With the Grand Canyon as my background, a rainbow for the middle-ground, all I lacked was a foreground.

Scanning my surroundings, my eyes fell immediately on a group of shrubs side-lit by pristine, warm, late afternoon light. A horizontal composition would have given me too much foreground and too little rainbow, so I went vertical. At a focal length of 32mm, my depth of field app told me I could achieve the 8-foot hyperfocal distance I needed at f14. Spot metering on the brightest shrub, I dialed my shutter speed until the shrub was +2, and clicked.

** Because our 2014 Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop filled so quickly, Don and I added a second one, August 15-19. **

Looking back at 2013, and ahead to 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shocking truths about lightning

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

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

While working on an upcoming “Outdoor Photographer” magazine article on photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon, I’ve been revisiting the images from my August workshop with Don Smith. While I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with the trip’s lighting images, it’s clear that at least half of my captures came on that amazing final morning, when we witness two hours of virtually nonstop lightning punctuated by a vivid section of rainbow balanced atop Powell Point. The first image I posted from that morning included the rainbow sharing the rim a trio of simultaneous, parallel strikes. The difficulty I’m having now is choosing which of the other pretty spectacular images to feature (FYI, this is a great problem to have).

Fortunately, I varied my compositions enough that many of my favorite captures are different from each other. Here, a single strike lands just east of the rainbow, close enough that they somehow seem related. This image is an example of why I’m constantly preaching to my workshop participants to switch between horizontal and vertical, even (especially) when one orientation seems more obvious than the other. Fortunately, I practiced what I preached (not always a sure thing) throughout the morning—instead of having one great capture of lighting with that morning’s rainbow, I now have two (and counting) that are different enough from each other to share.

Another byproduct of my magazine article is the research I’ve been doing on lightning. I’ve always been something of a weather geek, but it seems each time I revisit a topic, I learn something new. So, while I doubt you’ll find this stuff quite as fascinating as I do, here are some cool lightning facts I just can’t resist sharing:

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

Here are a couple of lightning safety websites:

Are you interested in risking your life to photograph lightning? Join me in a Grand Canyon photo workshop.

A Lightning Gallery

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

The reason I do this

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

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

Nature photographers plan, and plan, and plan some more, but no amount of planning can overcome the fickle whims of Mother Nature. So when all of nature’s variables click into place, euphoria ensues. On the other hand, few things are more disappointing than a long anticipated and perfectly executed shoot washed out by conditions beyond my control. (For a photo workshop leader, with the happiness of other photographers in the balance, the emotions of these planning successes and failures are magnified many times.) But just as Mother Nature can thwart our best laid plans, sometimes she takes us by complete surprise and more than compensate for the myriad disappointment.

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

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

Nevertheless, Don and I rallied the troops at 5 a.m. Friday for the final workshop’s final shoot at Bright Angel Point, a five minute walk from our rim-side cabins. We’d already had so many wonderful shoots that we knew everyone would be going home with great images—this final shoot was just a little bonus, the cherry atop an already delicious sundae. In fact, as Don and I exited our cabin in the pre-dawn darkness, I predicted that I wouldn’t even take my camera out of my bag that morning—my words as I turned the doorknob were, “But if I leave my bag here, we’ll probably get lightning and a rainbow.” Little did I know….

What followed was what Don and I later agreed was probably the single most memorable workshop shoot either of us had ever experienced. The lightning was already exploding the darkness across the canyon as we set up at the Bright Angel Point rail. Not just the single, infrequent strikes we’d been photographing all week, but numerous, violent strikes in multiple directions illuminating the black canyon several times per minute. The pyrotechnics continued for over two hours, awing us first in the dark, then through twilight, and finally into and beyond a magenta sunrise. And as if that wasn’t enough, as the sun crested the horizon behind us, a small but vivid rainbow fragment materialized on the canyon’s rim and hung there like a target for the lightning to take potshots at it. This was more than just good photography, this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of weather, location, and light would for everyone present likely become the standard against which all future natural phenomena would be compared.

Rather than bore you with more words, I’m just going to let the morning’s images speak for me:

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

The energy of each person in the group that morning was like that of a five-year-old at Disneyland. And even Don and I, the seasoned pros who get to witness nature’s magic all the time, remained giddy for the entire 800 mile drive home. These unexpected gifts of nature are important reminders that photography is so much more than a job to us.

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops

Read about photographing lightning

A Lightning Gallery

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

Nature is only as random as our ability to understand it

Yosemite Rainbow, Tunnel View

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
ISO 100
17 mm

Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind. It was one of Ansel Adams’ favorite quotes. But, as appropriate as the quote is, I’m sure Adams cited Pasteur only after enduring countless “Wow, you were so lucky to be there for that” reactions.

To the casual observer, nature’s wonders do indeed feel random. Who doesn’t feel lucky when a full moon pops over the mountains just as the  monotonous highway bends east, or when dirty snow and bare trees are suddenly glazed in white by an unexpected snowstorm? (Or when Yosemite Valley is suddenly framed by an arcing double rainbow?) But there’s nothing random about any of these phenomena. Some natural phenomena can be predicted with absolute precision—for example, it’s easy to pinpoint the position and phase of the moon for any location and time, past or future. And while weather can sometimes (usually?) appear random, every weather condition, from temperature to the most violent storms and purest blue skies, is a precise function of  atmospheric conditions, ocean currents, and terrain; we perceive weather as random only because its complexity overwhelms our current capabilities.

Nature photographers should feel blessed by these natural wonders over which we have no control, but our good fortune is not random. By taking the time to understand our subjects and study our environment, we do our best to anticipate image-worthy events. While we can never guarantee that the sky will be clear enough to reveal the rising moon we counted on, or that the predicted convergence of moisture, temperature, and barometric pressure will manifest to transform our world from crusty brown to pristine white (or that the setting sun will find the perfect path to the falling rain), we can put ourselves in position to be there when it happens.

None of this stuff makes me unique—though we all approach our photography in our own way, most successful nature photographers do everything they can to minimize the randomness in our efforts, to maximize the chance for “special.” My own path was fairly organic. My entire life, beginning long before my first camera, I’ve been drawn to science, to the how and why of nature. As a child I devoured books by Herbert S. Zim and Isaac Azimov (he wasn’t just a science fiction writer). In school I took every possible astronomy, geology, meteorology class. I even started college as an astronomy major, then geology, before the (necessary) quantification of the concepts I loved so much threatened to sap my passion (that is, I couldn’t handle the math beyond calculus). Fortunately my passion survived and I’ve been able to find a career that rewards me for understanding and anticipating natural phenomena. (It hardly seems like work.)

About this image

Which brings me to today’s Yosemite Valley rainbow image, an incredible stroke of good fortune that I (proudly) take credit for anticipating. This was a May evening a few years ago. May is usually the beginning of California’s interminable blue sky summer, but this year a persistent low pressure system that had set up camp off the coast pumped daily impulses of moisture into Northern California. I was in Yosemite to meet a private workshop customer and his girlfriend for dinner so we could plan the following day’s photo tour of the park. That afternoon’s drive from home had been a mixture of sun and showers; I entered Yosemite Valley in the midst of a steady rain that had been splashing my windshield for at least thirty minutes. But despite  clinging rainclouds that obscured the surrounding granite walls, I knew the broken sky I’d recently driven through was headed this way and would probably arrive before sunset, about two hours away—and with that clearing would come the potential for openings that could allow sunlight to reach the still falling rain. With the sun already low and dropping, and its angle pointing any Tunnel View shadow in the direction of Yosemite Valley, I had the potential for all the rainbow recipe ingredients.

But of course I had dinner plans, and no phone number to reach my customers. So I beelined to Yosemite Lodge to meet them as planned, plotting my sales pitch the entire way. I was pleased to find them waiting when I arrived—while in my mind I was jumping up and down, pointing and shouting (“Rainbow! Soon! Hurry!”), I maintained the illusion of calmness through our introductions, then explained as cooly as possible that there was a chance for a rainbow, if they were interested. Fortunately they were open to the change of plans and I wasn’t forced to resort to begging.

On the twenty minute drive back to Tunnel View I’d calmed enough to remind myself that we could very well be chasing wild geese and did my best to moderate their expectations, explaining that a rainbow is far from a sure thing, and that what we’re doing is merely putting ourselves in position in the event that does happen.

At Tunnel View the rain was still falling, but I could see signs of clearing to the west. So far, so good. I guided my customers to my favorite Tunnel View vantage point, above the parking lot and away from the crowds, where we sat on the granite in the rain and waited. Despite their positive attitude, as the cold and wet began to seep in, it dawned on me that convincing new customers to skip dinner to sit in the rain isn’t the most sound business strategy.

The view of had opened considerably from what it had been when I first pulled into the valley, so I encouraged them to go ahead and shoot, rainbow or not. I really can’t remember how long we waited—long enough to get pretty soaked—before a shaft of sunlight broke through to illuminate the rain falling along the north rim of the valley, for about five minutes painting a vivid partial double rainbow in front of El Capitan and disappearing into the clouds above Half Dome. Yay! While this wasn’t a complete rainbow (only one pot of gold), it was definitely the nicest rainbow I’d ever seen at Tunnel View and we clicked without a break until the rain stopped and the rainbow faded.

When the show was over we just sat and marveled at the view, giddy about our good fortune, completely oblivious to the dark cloud approaching from behind. As quickly as the rain had stopped a few minutes earlier, it returned, this time with a vengeance, coming down in diagonal sheets (visible across the top of the frame above). Behind us and out of sight the sun had almost completed its journey to the horizon and, rather than being blocked by clouds as it had been earlier, was able to slide its final rays beneath them to completely illuminate the rain falling across the valley’s breadth. The rainbow appeared almost immediately, intensifying to quickly become a double bow connecting Yosemite Valley’s north and south walls. It lasted so long that I actually started running out of compositions.

We had a great day the next day, but nice as it was, the photography was a bit anticlimactic. Much like starting the Fourth of July fireworks show with the “grand finale” extravaganza, I realized that it would have been nice to have arranged for the rainbow to appear at the end of our session. Back to the drawing board.

Learn a more about rainbows and how to photograph them.

The Road to the Racetrack, Part Deux

Last Light, The Racetrack, Death Valley

Last Light, The Racetrack, Death Valley

*    *    *    *

Previously on “The Road to the Racetrack”

Racetrack Road approaches from the north and skirts the west side of Racetrack Playa in the shadow of Ubehebe (yuba-he’-be) Peak. We crested the saddle above the playa’s north perimeter and dropped out of the gray soup that had confined our world for about two hours. Before us spread the entire Racetrack Playa, its surrounding mountains draped in clouds that cascaded down their slopes like slow motion waterfalls. The light rain that had barely required windshield wipers stopped completely. Descending the saddle’s south side into the basin, our view was monopolized by the Grandstand—a cruise ship size chunk of adamellite (a dark, igneous intrusive rock similar to granite) jutting from the paper-flat playa. This is what the submerged portion of an island looks like. As we rolled past I couldn’t help thinking that the Grandstand would be a far more sought-after subject were it not for the moving rocks that take top bill here.

As much as I’d loved to have stopped to photograph the Grandstand, it was late afternoon and I was anxious to locate the main attraction before the good light came and went. The drive to the south side of the Racetrack is just one mile, but the road’s extreme washboard surface is a natural speed inhibitor; every time my speedometer nudged toward fifteen miles per hour our SUV started bouncing like an off-balance washing machine and I had to back off. Doug, Jay, and I had chuckled when the Stovepipe Wells grocery clerk told us that the rocks had mysteriously disappeared from the Racetrack, but I’ll admit to taking advantage of our slow speed to (anxiously) scrutinize the playa as we skirted its perimeter—what if it was true? Vibrating along, I saw a couple of grapefruit-size rocks trailing short tracks just west of the Grandstand, but nothing like the rocks we’d come for.

We finally stopped at the playa’s extreme south end where a couple of photographers were photographing a handful small rocks just a couple of hundred feet from the road. These rocks just didn’t seem natural to me—partly because of the nearby tire tracks marring the playa’s surface (the selfish ignorance of humans in nature never fails to disappoint me) and partly because they were so far from any rock source (these things don’t just drop from the sky). Standing there on the playa’s southwest edge, it was clear that the rocks we sought could only originate from the base of the steep mountain abutting the southeast corner. And indeed, looking more closely in that direction, we could just make out a large accumulation of black dots that could only be rocks. The playa’s utter flatness can be disorienting, but given that the Racetrack stretches one mile on its long, north-south axis, I estimated that the east side was about a half mile away. So off we set.

The playa’s color and chalky dust reminded me of a flour tortilla; its surface is a jigsaw of round polygons about three inches in diameter, separated by shallow cracks that have been filled in by the fine dust. When dry like this (there was no noticeable accumulation of the nearby rain) it’s an easy surface to walk. After ten minutes we arrived at the first rocks, toaster- to microwave-size, each with its own straight, curved, or zig-zag track. Eureka! We immediately spread out, claimed a specimen of our own, and went to work. Initially the best light was on the southwest horizon, where a hole in the clouds, obscured by Ubehebe Peak, passed enough sun to illuminate the low overcast (see the image in my previous post).

Soon our attention was drawn to the playa’s north end, toward the Grandstand, where a shaft of golden light had started skimming the dark hills and firing up the clouds there. I quickly circled the rock I was working on to swing my camera in that direction. As the shaft warmed it stretched further, eventually extending from edge to edge. As the light seemed to reach a crescendo Doug, who was set up about a hundred feet away, called out, “That almost looks like a rainbow.” I looked closer and sure enough, there was indeed a (quite faint) prism of color splashed above the sunlit hills bounding the playa’s northeast edge.

The one frame with my polarizer properly oriented for the rainbow that I managed to get off is at the top of the post. You have to look closely to see the rainbow (it’s there, I swear); careful examination reveals that the rainbow moves from green on the outside (left) to red on the inside (the shorter wavelength colors that would be left of green aren’t visible), meaning that our angle of view only gave us the fainter, outer band of a double rainbow. By the time I’d set up my next composition the light faded and with it the rainbow. Visions of a full rainbow arcing above the Racetrack dashed, we nevertheless couldn’t help feel that we’d been granted a very rare treat in this land of interminable blue sky.

The rest of our trip, though not without its moments, was anticlimax. After sunset we walked back to the car and ate dinner (soggy sandwiches for Jay and me, ramen noodles for Doug-the-chef), then went back out in the dark for a moonlight shoot without stars. By then the clouds had thickened and dropped, making it difficult to get anything that really looked like night. After a very restless night (one hour awake for every hour asleep for me), we rose for “sunrise” (or more accurately, “fogdrop”). While not quite spectacular, the low clouds swirling above the playa, spilling down the mountains in the thin light no doubt gave us unique images (that I haven’t had time to get to). And on the drive back we were able to see the terrain that had been completely obscured by clouds on our inbound trip, the highlight of which was several miles of joshua tree forest we’d been completely oblivious to earlier. In fact, despite my extreme need to be back in Furnace Creek in time for my workshop (that started at 1:00 that afternoon), at one point we encountered a scene with nearby joshua trees juxtaposed against distant, fog-wrapped mountains that we couldn’t help stopping to shoot for fifteen minutes or so.

After depositing Jay at his car in Stovepipe Wells, Doug and I made it back to Furnace Creek by 11:45 and managed to clean up, have lunch, and set up for orientation with time to spare. Piece of cake.

2012 Grand Canyon Monsoon Mayhem tour

Rainbow, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

*    *    *    *

The drive from Northern California to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is about twelve hours. When Don Smith and I scheduled our (first annual) 2012 Grand Canyon Monsoon Mayhem tour, the plan was to leave dark-and-early Monday morning, which experience told us would get us to the canyon just in time to photograph sunset Monday night. But with the National Weather Service forecasting waning monsoon conditions as the week progressed, it looked like Monday afternoon might be the best time to capture our prime goal, lightning. So on Sunday morning we decided to leave that evening, drive as far as we could, then drive the rest of the way Monday. Doing it this way would allow us to arrive by mid-afternoon with a full night’s sleep. Fueled by Starbucks and a steady diet of classic rock, Don and I made it all the way  to the acclaimed Route 66 hot-spot, Barstow, California (the gateway to the Mohave Desert).

Monday morning we escaped the desert before the heat kicked in, and by 2 p.m. were rolling up to the Grand Canyon South Rim. After surveying the skies, we pointed the car east, along the rim, toward Lipan Point, a favorite photo spot about forty minutes away. Somewhere near Grandview we encountered a cell that delivered lightning and sheets of rain, a harbinger of what was in store. Though the Grandview cell was behind us, Lipan Point greeted us with looming black clouds that spit occasional raindrops that sounded like ripe grapes striking the roof, a car-rocking wind, and thunder separated from its flash by mere seconds. Hell hadn’t broken loose yet, but it was sure rattling the cage.

We’d counted on a little time to recover from the drive, but there’s nothing like urgency to reveal how unprepared you are. As a Californian (at the sound of thunder, bewildered Californians rush outside), I’d never had an opportunity to use my lightning trigger (an electronic device that detects lightning and fires the shutter in milliseconds); Don had forgotten to pack most of his rain gear. And neither of us had given adequate thought to the impracticality of our plan to avoid electrocution by setting up our expensive tripods and cameras at a popular Grand Canyon vista (in the height of tourist season) while waiting out the danger and discomfort of a thunderstorm in the security of the car. With the storm bearing down on us, what followed was a Keystone Cops swirl of activity—out of driving clothes and into wet-weather gear; extract and attach (and figure out) lightning triggers; find a suitable view comfortably removed from teaming tourists; meter and compose a scene—that culminated in a frantic retreat, sans cameras, when a much-too-close lighting bolt ripped a Niagara-size hole in the sky.

For the next five minutes our cameras couldn’t have gotten more wet if we’d have put them in a shower. Warm and dry in the car, I was suddenly gripped by visions of my wind-tossed camera and tripod plummeting into the Colorado River (5,000 feet below), so when the lightning paused, I mustered the courage rush to the rescue. (I think Don did the same thing, but at that point it was every man for himself.)

As I toweled down my gear back in the car, the wind and rain slowed to a more manageable pace. Unsure of how long our window of lightning opportunity would last, Don and I headed back out, this time in different directions and (somewhat) more prepared. I opted for the best composition that offered the possibility of distant lightning, turning my lens toward a gray curtain of rain a fair distance up the canyon, toward Desert View; Don, who was having technical problems with his lightning trigger, headed a little west and pointed his camera toward a nearby cell that was already flashing behind us.

For the next hour or so I heard my shutter respond to a half-dozen or so bolts in the direction of my composition, a good sign, but since the lightning trigger disables the LCD replay, all I could do was cross my fingers for success. When the electrical activity quieted, Don and I reconnected and traded notes. Though he’d resolved his technical issue (I’ll let him elaborate), he was similarly unsure of his success.

Lightning or not, we agreed that the sky was far better than anything we see in California. As we chatted, the sun appeared and a vivid double rainbow arced above Desert View—back to work. Lightning trigger off, I was happy to be back more familiar territory—trying to work a rainbow into an already magnificent scene without dodging raindrops or lightning bolts.

Because the rainbow touched down south of the rim, finding a composition that featured both the canyon and the rainbow required a wide shot that included close foreground elements. I wasn’t crazy about the shrubs and rocks immediately beneath the rock outcrop I was on, so I stood back from the rim a bit and hid them behind the more interesting texture of my grooved and weathered limestone platform.

For the rainbow’s thirty-minute duration, I moved along the outcrop, capturing about sixty combinations of foreground and sky, horizontal and vertical, wide and tight. I finished with many, many images that make me happy, but chose this one because (right now) I think it offers the most balanced combination of all that made the scene special: the warm light on the Grand Canyon’s south wall, the rainbow (duh), the rugged character of the limestone supporting me, and the saturated, arcing raincloud responsible for the moment.


That great start to our adventure was made even more memorable when Don and I, at the risk of spurring an international incident, selflessly declined the advances of two young German women seeking a bed for the night (seriously).

Viewing on my laptop back at the hotel, I was thrilled to find four frames that included lightning. Given all that was in store the rest of the week, my excitement at four frames now seems a little overdone, as was Don’s frustration that his technical problems resulted in a day-one lightning shutout. By week’s end we each had more than fifty lightning captures, most coming at the North Rim on an action packed final day that shrunk the beauty of this first day to a distant memory. Stay tuned….

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