(More) Lightning Lessons

Gary Hart Photography: Downpour and Lightning, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Downpour and Lightning, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 50

This post is all about different aspects photographing lightning—some of the stuff I write about here is covered in much more detail in my Lightning Photo Tips article, so you might want to start there

I’ve been photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon (especially) and elsewhere for 10 years, but I’m happy to say that I’m still learning. While going through my images from this year’s recently completed Grand Canyon monsoon workshops, it occurred to me that now might be a good time to share a couple of this year’s insights.

Lightning Trigger (where it all begins)

You simply can’t photograph daylight lightning consistently without a lightning sensor that detects the lightning and triggers your shutter. And if you follow my lightning photography at all, you’ve no doubt heard me singing the praises of the Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Colorado. (There are a lot of lightning sensors out there, but since Lightning Trigger is trademarked, this is the only one that can legally use “lightning trigger.”) I don’t get anything from Stepping Stone for my endorsement, I just know it’s in my best interests to give everyone in my groups the best chance to photograph lightning, and so far I haven’t found anything that comes close the the success of the Lightning Trigger.

But despite my strong advice to the contrary, every year one or two people will show up with a sensor that’s not a Lightning Trigger. And every year, these are the people who have the poorest lightning success. Sometimes the reason for failure is obvious—like a sensor that allowed the camera to go to sleep after 30 seconds of inactivity. But usually the reason isn’t quite so obvious—I just know that the people with the “other” sensors are much more likely to get shut out. This year was no exception.

The first workshop (of three) started with a bang, with an active storm building across the canyon, about 12 miles away, just before the workshop orientation. Because lightning trumps everything in these monsoon workshops, I cancelled the orientation and herded everyone to the view deck behind Grand Canyon Lodge (I’d advised them to show up with their gear for this very reason), frantically flying around from person to person to introduce myself, help them set up, and make sure their cameras were clicking with each lightning strike.

After about 15 minutes, all but one seemed comfortably settled in, excitedly reporting that their camera was responding to each bolt. In addition to my one participant who wasn’t having success, there was a woman who wasn’t in my group trying to photograph lightning with a sensor—she too was growing frustrate because her camera seemed be ignoring the lightning too. The one thing these two people had in common? Perhaps you already guessed: they were the only two not using a Lightning Trigger.

I actually tried to help both of them troubleshoot the problem, starting with confirming that everything was plugged in right, then quickly moving to lots of fiddling with camera settings, cables, and batteries. But since I could make their sensors respond with the TV remote I always have nearby when I photograph lightning (the easiest way to test a Lightning Trigger in the field), I wasn’t real optimistic—if the remote triggers the camera, the problem is unlikely to be the connection, power, or camera. That leaves the sensor itself as the most likely culprit.

When leading a workshop I don’t have lots of time to get too scientific with my troubleshooting, but think I solved the mystery the next day, when a similar storm started up at about the same time in more less the same place. For the second day in a row we all set up on the Grand Canyon Lodge view deck, and for the second day in a row, the only person in the group whose camera wasn’t responding was the person with the off-brand sensor. (The woman from the prior day wasn’t there.)

While the prior day’s storm moved laterally across the canyon, this storm moved in our direction, approaching to within a couple of miles (and eventually driving us all for cover in the lodge). When, as the storm got closer, the rogue sensor started triggering its camera, I realized that what sets the Lightning Trigger apart from its competition is most likely its range.

My superior range theory got more confirmation on the South Rim a couple of days later. Driving out toward the South Rim’s eastern-most views for our sunset shoot, my eyes were drawn to a massive thunderhead blooming in the distance. With the forecast offering no hope for lightning to chase, that evening’s plan was to make a couple of quick stops at Lipan and Navajo Points, before finishing with sunset at Desert View. But pulling into Lipan Point it was instantly apparent that the thunderhead was straight up the canyon—we weren’t there long before we could also see it was delivering lightning. (One reason I tell everyone to always carry their Trigger, regardless of the forecast.)

Because this turned out to be a spectacular show that lasted until sunset, we never left Lipan Point. Unlike the previous storms, where the lightning was front-and-center in every composition, the lightning this evening was much farther away—between 22 and 25 miles distant, according to the My Lightning Tracker app on my iPhone. While all the Lightning Triggers didn’t seem to miss a single bolt (“not missing” in this case just means firing when there’s a visible bolt—you’ll see below that this is by no means a guarantee that the bolt will be capture), our rogue sensor not seem to see the lightning at all.

Further confirmation of the Lightning Trigger’s range came in the third workshop, when we were photographing lightning more than 30 miles away. I’ve had success with the Lightning Trigger and distant lightning in the past, but this was the first time I’ve had an app (and cellular connectivity) to actually pinpoint the location and distance.

Slower than the speed of lightning (or, About this image)

One of the most frustrating things about photographing lightning is not capturing a spectacular strike. The first half of the capture equation is a sensor that sees the lightning and triggers the camera (see Lightning Trigger discussion above); the other half is having a camera that responds quickly enough to the click instruction from the sensor. And as I’ve said before, all the three major camera brands are fast enough, but where lightning is concerned, the faster the better—and it’s impossible to be too fast. FYI, according to Imagining Resource, Sony Alpha camera’s are the fastest, followed closely by Nikon, with Canon a fair amount slower (but usually not too slow).

I can confirm the Imaging Resource data. While I had good success while using Canon my first few years photographing lightning, my success rate has been noticeably higher since switching to Sony in 2014 (my first Sony lightning shoot was in 2015). But despite a faster camera, the frustration with missed lightning hasn’t disappeared completely. Usually it’s just one or two here and there—I just shrug my shoulders because I know I’ll probably get the next one. But in this year’s third workshop, one especially frustrating shoot got my attention.

The third group didn’t have any lightning luck on the North Rim for our first two days, but the forecast looked more promising for the South Rim half of the workshop. Unfortunately, the best chances were forecast for the day of our 4-hour rim-to-rim drive. Since it’s such a nice drive, I usually give everyone the whole day to make it, suggesting stops then setting them free after the sunrise shoot—we don’t gather as a group again until late afternoon on the other side. But with such a promising lightning forecast, this time I had everyone meet me at Desert View, the first South Rim vista when driving from the North Rim, at 1:00 p.m., hoping that we’d get the workshop’s first shot at lightning.

Setting up on the rim just west of the Desert View Watchtower, we just hung out for awhile, waiting for something to happen. Our patience was rewarded after about an hour, when a few people in the group saw lightning in the east. This was out toward the Painted Desert—not actually over the canyon, but close enough to get lightning and the canyon in one frame. Better yet, it soon became clear that the storm was moving, not just toward the canyon, but toward one of my favorite Grand Canyon views.

This whole shoot lasted at least a couple of hours. Standing there on the rim, we watched the lightning first migrate north, eventually intersecting the canyon just beyond the Little Colorado River confluence. It then started to shift westward, crossed the canyon, continued drifting west, and everyone was pretty excited. That is, until we realized that it was also getting closer. We were preparing to retreat when a bolt hit inside the canyon, less than two miles away, sending our sense of urgency into overdrive.

Since this was this group’s first lightning, everyone was especially excited when their camera clicked with each lightning bolt. Though I knew no one would get every single bolt, with several dozen visible strikes, I was pretty confident everyone’s success numbers would be in the double digits—mine included.

But checking my images in my room that night, I was disappointed to count only three frames with lightning. I was just going to write it off as one of those things—perhaps my LT battery was weak, or maybe I was too focused on working with others in the group (in other words, doing my job) to adjust my composition frequently enough to track the continuously shifting storm.

But when I mentioned my poor success to Curt, my assistant on this trip, he expressed similar results. And talking to the group the next day, we learned that no one else got more than a (very small) handful of strikes. How could a dozen people using a lightning sensor that years of experience proves works reliably, on a variety of cameras, have such similarly poor results on just one shoot? Adding to the mystery, it became clear by the images shared in the image review that the lightning everyone did capture, was all the same strikes. What’s going on?

One of the things I love most about working with Curt is that he’s as inquisitive and bulldog-tenacious tracking down these mysteries as I am. We got to work researching what could be going on, both on our own, and together on a one-hour conference call with Rich at Stepping Stone, the mastermind behind the Lightning Trigger.

Rich suggested that it could be that we encountered a storm that was mostly positive lightning. Positive lightning, which comprises about 5 percent of lightning strikes, usually spends all of its energy in a single stroke, making that one stroke very bright, but also much faster from start to finish. He thought that maybe the lighting was done before everyone’s cameras could react. That made sense.

But after a little research on positive lightning, I (tentatively) ruled it out as our culprit because: 1) I saw nothing that indicates that positive lightning is storm-specific (though I’m open to correction); 2) positive lightning originates near the top of the cloud, and I saw no sign of that in this storm; 3) positive lightning tends to come near the end of the storm, and we photographed this one from start to finish; and finally, 4) positive lightning typically strikes outside the main rain band, and we saw very little of this.

But that conversation with Rich convinced me that our problem this afternoon had to indeed be a caused by lightning that was too fast for our cameras. And after mulling that thought for awhile, then digging deeper into my lightning resources, I theorized that we’d probably just encountered a storm that didn’t have as much juice as the typical monsoon storms I’m accustomed to.

This makes sense if you understand that a typical negative lightning strike that looks like a single bolt to the eye (or camera), is actually a series of strokes following the same channel. The number of strokes in a single lightning bolt varies with the amount of energy the lightning needs to release—the more strokes, the longer the strike seems to last. (As an interesting aside, earlier in the trip Curt got accidental confirmation of lightning’s multiple stroke aspect when, with his camera set to Continuous rather than the Single Shot that I use, he got the same lightning bolt in two, and at least once, three contiguous frames.)

The jury is still out on this theory, but it makes sense. If I learn anything more, I promise to share it. Right now I’m in the process of updating the Lightning Photo Tips article with this and more insights gained since the last update, so that’s the best place to check for new information.

Oh, and the image I share here was one of my three successes that afternoon, so I’m not really complaining.


2021 Grand Canyon Monsoon Highlights (processed so far)

Spoiler Alert: It’s not just lightning

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More Monsoon Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning V, Grand Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the present

So anyway…

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Canyon Monsoon Lightning Success

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Vive la Différence

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

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

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

Distinct Perspectives

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

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

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

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

Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

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

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

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

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Vive la différence

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A Lot Like Fishing—Until It’s Not

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

Diagonal Lightning Strike, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RII
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 50

Photographing lightning is about 95 percent arms folded, toe-tapping, just-plain-standing-around-scanning-the-horizon—interspersed with random bursts of pandemonium. Usually, after all that waiting waiting around, with the first bolt usually comes the realization that you anticipated wrong and either, 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. Followed by more waiting. And waiting. And waiting….

I’ve always thought that the waiting part of lightning photography is a lot like fishing (spiced up by the understanding that these fish have the ability to strike you dead without warning). Both are an intoxicating mix of serene communing with nature and an electric current of anticipation. And whether you’re fishing for trying to photograph lightning, the strike far from a guarantee that you’ll reel anything in. Just as fish somehow slip the hook, you a lightning strike can come and go before even the fastest cameras can respond. Most of my lightning “the one that got away” stories turn out to be something I’ve done wrong (and my list of stupid mistakes is too long, and embarrassing, to detail here).

One frustration that I’ve learned to deal with is that when a Lightning Trigger is attached and turned on, the camera is in pre-focus mode (to allow the fastest shutter-lag), which disables LCD review—and I guarantee that the surest way to ensure another lightning strike is to turn off your Lightning Trigger because the second you turn off your Lightning Trigger to see if you got that last strike, a spectacular triple-strike will fire right in the middle of your frame. Guaranteed. (This is an extension of the axiom every photographer knows: The best way to make something you’ve been waiting for happen, is to put away your camera gear.) Though there’s no way to know, I would bet that each time you pull the line out of the water to make sure the worm is still there, the “big one” you’ve been dreaming about swims right by.

Read the lightning photography tutorial in my Lightning Photography photo tips article.

About this image

Still reeling from Saturday’s 12-hour drive to the Grand Canyon for our 2015 Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop, and with clear skies in the forecast for Sunday, Don Smith and I planned to take the day to recharge for the workshop that started Monday. But dark clouds after lunch sent us racing up to the rim (a 15 minute drive) to see what was going on (see Keystone Cops reference above).

Starting at Grand View Point, we quickly set up our tripods, attached our Lightning Triggers to our cameras, and aimed toward promising clouds in the east, up the canyon, and waited. Soon these distant clouds weakened, but a new batch of clouds overhead darkened, and a breeze picked up—usually a sign that rain is coming. Aside from the spectacular beauty, another great thing about photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon is the expansive vistas that allow you to photograph distant lightning. Basically, we want to be photographing someone else’s storm—if you’re in the storm you’re photographing, you’re too close. So when the rain started falling we packed up and bid a hasty retreat; by the time we made it to the car, the rain had turned to hail we could hear thunder. Since the storm appeared to be moving west, we drove east to get on the back side of it, eventually ending up at Lipan Point—one of my favorite spots for lightning because it has long views both up and down the canyon.

We set up west of the Lipan vista, enjoying relative peace and quiet away from the summer tourist swarm. The cell that had chased us from Grand View was diminishing, but we could see an even more impressive cell moving up to replace it from the south. The first bolts this storm fired were above the flat, scrub pine plain south of the rim, but it was moving toward the canyon so we set up and waited. At first I hedged my bets, composing wide enough to get lightning over the less aesthetically pleasing terrain, along with the canyon. But as the cell moved out over the canyon, my composition moved with it.

When photographing lightning, not only do you need to get the light right, you need to make sure your shutter speed is slow enough to capture secondary and tertiary strikes, but fast enough that the lightning doesn’t get lost in the background. That’s because a long shutter speed, even if the rest of the scene is perfectly exposed, will wash out the lightning (not problem at night, when there’s plenty of contrast). The light this afternoon was particularly schizophrenic, so because I prefer photographing lightning in manual metering mode (I explain in the lightning tutorial linked above), I had to frequently monitor the changes and adjust my exposure accordingly.

That afternoon we enjoyed about a half hour of quality shooting before lightning moved too close for comfort. In that span I saw at least a half dozen canyon strikes, not an especially active storm by Grand Canyon standards, but one that delivered several photogenic strikes like this one (my favorite of the bunch). Lightning photography can be mesmerizing, and when the strikes just keep getting more and more spectacular, it’s easy to lose track of (or not care) how close the storm is. Fortunate for us this afternoon, a second active cell snuck up behind us and jarred us from our trance. It was over less photogenic terrain, so we managed to pull ourselves away before things became too dangerous.

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Grand Canyon Lightning

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Monsoon Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

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

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

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

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

Lightning Explained

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

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

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

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

Nature always finds the easiest path. If the easiest path to electrical equilibrium is between the cloud top and bottom, we get intracloud lightning; if it’s between two different clouds, we get intercloud lightning. A cloud-to-ground strike occurs when the easiest path to equilibrium is between the cloud and ground.

With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding explosively when heated by a 50,000 degree jolt of electricity. The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (from the human perspective, that’s virtually instantaneous, regardless of your distance on Earth). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light.

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

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

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Monsoon Madness

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I Just Have To Share This

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

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
Breakthrough neutral polarizer
Lightning Trigger LT-IV
.4 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

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.

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2019 Grand Canyon Monsoon Highlights (processed so far)

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The Shocking Truth About Lightning

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

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

Every year for the last 10 (or so) years I’ve traveled to the Grand Canyon during the Southwest summer monsoon to photograph lightning. Not only have I captured hundreds of lightning strikes and lived to tell about it (yay), I’ve learned a lot. A couple of years ago I added an article sharing my insights on photographing lightning to my photo tips section. With lightning season upon (or almost upon) us here in the United States, I’ve updated my article with new images and additional info. You can still find the article (with updates) in my Photo Tips section, but I’m re-posting it here in my regular blog feed as well.

Read the story of this image at the bottom of this post, just above the gallery of lightning images.


How to Photograph Daylight Lightning Without Getting Killed (Probably)

Let’s start with the given that lightning is dangerous, and if “safety first” is a criterion for intelligence, photographers are stupid. So combining photographers and lightning is a recipe for disaster.

Okay, seriously, because lightning is both dangerous and unpredictable, before attempting anything that requires you to be outside during an electrical storm, it behooves you to do your homework. And the more you understand lightning, how to avoid it and stay safe in its presence, the greater your odds of living to take more pictures. Not only will understanding lightning improve your safety, a healthy respect for lightning’s fickle power will also help you anticipate and photograph lightning.

Lightning enlightenment

Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes the negative/positive polarization between two objects. In fact, when you get shocked touching a doorknob, you’ve been struck by lightning. The cause of polarization during electrical storms isn’t completely understood, but it’s generally accepted that the extreme vertical convective air motion (convection is up/down circular flow caused when less-dense warm air rises, becomes more dense as it cools with elevation, and ultimately becomes cool/dense enough to fall. Convection is also what causes bubbling in boiling water. Convection in a thunderstorm carries positively charged molecules upward and negatively charged molecules downward. Because opposite charges attract each other, the extreme polarization (positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground) is quickly (and violently) equalized: lightning.

With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding explosively when heated by a 50,000 degree jolt of electricy. 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 (virtually instantaneous regardless of your distance on Earth). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light. Knowing that the thunder occurred at the same time as the lightning flash, and how fast both travel, we can compute the approximate distance of the lightning strike. At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel about a mile in about five seconds: Dividing the time between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash by five gives you the lightning’s distance in miles; divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers. If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away.

Lightning safety

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

While there’s no completely safe way to photograph lightning, it doesn’t hurt to improve your odds of surviving to enjoy the fruits of your labor.  (Unfortunately, photographing lightning usually requires being outside.) Most lightning strikes within a six mile radius of the previous strike. So, if less than thirty seconds elapses between the flash and bang, you’re too close. And since “most” doesn’t mean “all,” it’s even better to allow a little margin for error. Thunder isn’t usually audible beyond ten miles—if you can hear the thunder, it’s safe to assume that you’re in lightning range.

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

  • Avoid water
  • Avoid high ground
  • Avoid exposed areas
  • Avoid metal or electronic objects
  • Avoid tall objects such as trees and open structures (and tripods)
  • Stay at least fifteen feet from other people
  • Do not lie down
  • If you’re surrounded by trees, position yourself near shorter trees, as far from trunks as possible
  • Crouch with your feet together and your hands covering your ears
  • A lightning strike is often preceded by static electricity that makes your hair stand on end and an ozone smell (best described as the smell of electricity—I think of bumper cars at the amusement park, or the smell of my electric slot cars when I was a kid)—if your hair starts to stand up and/or you notice a distinct odor that could be ozone, follow as many of the above steps as you can, as quickly as possible (often you’ll only have time to crouch)
Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand CanyonThree Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Lightning How-to

Photographing lightning at night is mostly a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction with a multi-second shutter speed and hoping the lightning fires while your shutter’s open—pretty straightforward. Photographing daylight lightning is a little more problematic. It’s usually over before you can react, so without a lightning sensor to recognize lightning and click your shutter, success is largely dumb luck (few people are quick enough see it and click). And using a neutral density filter to stretch the exposure time out to 20 or 30 seconds sounds great in theory, but a lightning bolt with a life measured in milliseconds, captured in an exposure measured in multiple seconds, will almost certainly lack the contrast necessary to be be even slightly visible.

Lightning Trigger: The best tool for the job

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

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

The Lightning Trigger documentation promises at least a 20 mile range, and after many years using mine at the Grand Canyon, I’ve seen nothing that causes me to question that. It also says you can expect the sensor to fire at lightning that’s not necessarily in front of you, or lightning you can’t see at all, which I will definitely confirm. For every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning I didn’t see, or that were outside my camera’s field of view. But when visible lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that the Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time (that is, even though I got lots of false positives, the Lightning Trigger missed very few bolts it should have detected). Of these successful clicks, I actually captured lightning in at least 2/3 of the frames.

The misses are a function of the timing between lightning and camera—sometimes the lightning is just too fast for the camera’s shutter lag. In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts of longer duration, and multiple strokes that are easier to capture. And my success rate has increased significantly beyond 2/3 since switching from a Canon 5DIII to Sony mirrorless (more on this in the Shutter Lag section).

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

Shutter lag

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

The less shutter lag you have, the better your results will be. The two most important shutter lag factors are:

  • Camera model: It’s surprising how much shutter lag can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model. In a perfect world, for lightning photography your camera’s shutter lag will be 60 milliseconds (.006 seconds) or faster (the lower the number the better), but 120 milliseconds (.012 seconds) or faster can give you some success. The top cameras from Sony, Nikon, and Canon are all fast enough, but the latest Sonys are the definite shutter lag winner (fastest), with Nikon a not too distant second, and Canon third. And shutter lag can vary with the manufacturer’s model: While my Sony a7RII is one of the fastest cameras out there, my a7R was unusably slow, so you need to check your model. Since I don’t check every camera released, it’s possible this ranking will change well before I update this article, so I recommend that you research shutter lag for your camera model. Unfortunately, shutter lag isn’t usually in the manufacturers specifications, so it’s hard to find. The best source I’ve found is the “Pre-focused” time in the Performance tab of the camera reviews at Imaging Resource.
  • Camera settings: Basically, to minimize the “thinking” the camera needs to before firing, you want to be in manual everything mode—metering and focus. If your camera offers an electronic front curtain option (as my Sonys do), use it. If you must autofocus, go ahead and do it each time you recompose, then turn autofocus off as soon as you’re focused. Though the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests Aperture Priority metering, I use and recommend Manual metering mode to eliminate any camera-slowing metering (but Aperture Priority is fine if you have a strong preference). And, also despite what the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests, noise reduction is a post-capture function that might slightly delay continuous frames, but it won’t increase shutter lag.

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Other equipment

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

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

Getting the shot

Lightning is most likely to strike in or near the gray curtains (clearly recognizable as distant rain) that hang beneath dark clouds. In addition to visible rain curtains, the darkest and tallest clouds are usually the most likely to fire lightning. Here are a few more points to consider:

  • The wider your composition, the greater your odds of capturing lightning, but the smaller the lightning will appear in your image.
  • Identify the most likely lightning cell and find the best composition that includes it. I tend to start with wider compositions to ensure success, then tighten my composition once I’m fairly confident I captured something.
  • Note the height from which the lightning originates and be sure to include enough cloud to get all of the stroke. On the other hand, don’t include too much room above the lightning—the most frequent rookie mistake I see is too much sky/clouds in the frame. The second most frequent is lightning cut off at the top. Unless the storm is too close for safety, for any given cell, most lightning will originate from about the same height above the ground.
  • The best lens is usually a midrange zoom such as a 24-70 or 24-105—if you find yourself reaching for the 16-35 (or wider), you’re too close.
  • On the other hand, once you’re sure you’ve captured some good strikes, try putting on a 70-200. The narrow field of view can significantly reduce the number of frames with lightning, but the ones you get will be much larger in the frame and therefore more spectacular.
  • Don’t forget to try some vertical compositions. I usually wait until after I know I’ve captured some in a horizontal frame because vertical narrows the horizontal field of view and lowers the odds of success a little.
  • Lightning stands out better in a slightly underexposed image. My target shutter speed is usually 1/8 second (slow enough to include multiple pulses, but not so slow that I risk washing out the lightning). When the sky is relatively bright, dropping to 1/15 or even 1/20 second can make the lightning stand out better than 1/8 (but risks losing secondary strikes). Conversely, when the sky is extremely dark and the lightning is firing like crazy, extending to 1/4 second might increase your chances for multiple pulses.
  • Just because you’re standing around waiting for things to happen, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Keep your eyes glued to the sky and adjust your composition as the lightning shifts, or as new activity starts elsewhere. If you wait until you hear your shutter click or someone else exclaim before looking up, you won’t see the lightning. And monitor the light—your exposure can change by several stops as the storm moves, intensifies, or winds down.
  • Try not to check your captures on your LCD until you’re done (or better yet, until you upload your images to your computer). With the Lightning Trigger (and some other sensors), viewing the LCD requires turning off the sensor, which risks missing a shot (I’m pretty sure lightning waits for me to turn off my sensor), and you’ll also find that many successful captures, especially wide compositions with a relatively bright sky, just aren’t that visible on an LCD viewed in daylight anyway.

Do as I say (not as I do)

Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so you need to monitor them closely. Sometimes this simply means adjusting your composition to account for shifting lightning; other times it means retreating to the car if the cell threatens your location. No shot is worth your life.

About this image

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

Forked Lightning, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

On the first evening of last year’s second Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop, Don Smith and I took the group to Point Imperial for a sunset shoot. Based on the forecast we had little hope for lightning, but one thing I’ve learned over the many years of photographing the monsoon here is that the forecast isn’t the final word. We got another reminder of this that evening.

The view from Point Imperial is both expansive and different from other Grand Canyon vistas, stretching east across the Painted Desert and north to the Vermillion Cliffs. As the group made their way down to the vista platform, in the corner of my I thought I a lighting strike far to the north. A second bolt confirmed my discovery and soon we had the entire group lined up with cameras pointed and triggers ready.

With everyone in business, I set up my tripod and attached my Lightning Trigger to my Sony a7RIII. Since this lightning was close to 30 miles away, maybe farther than any lightning I’ve tried to photograph, so I hauled out my Sony 100-400 GM lens and zoomed in as tight as I could. I didn’t have to wait long to confirm that my Lightning Trigger would catch strikes this distant—it didn’t hurt that these were massive bolts, many with multiple pulses and forks.

Everyone was thrilled, so thrilled that it didn’t immediately register that the storm was moving our direction. I started at 400mm, but by the time I captured this frame I was just a little more than 100mm. That’s still a pretty safe distance, but with night almost on us and another cell moving in from the east, we decided to take our winnings and go home.

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

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A Lightning Gallery

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(Another) Grand Canyon Lightning Show

Gary Hart Photography: Direct Hit, South Rim Lightning Strike, Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim)

Direct Hit, South Rim Lightning Strike, Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim)
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/8 second
F/16
ISO 50

Earlier this month Don Smith and I traveled to the Grand Canyon for our annual Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops. I enjoy every workshop, but as a true weather nerd, these monsoon workshops are particular highlights in my year, and in Northern California we just don’t get that much weather—that is, unless you consider homogenous blue (summer) or gray (winter) skies weather.

For this trip, I started monitoring the Grand Canyon forecast about a week before the first workshop (okay, maybe a little earlier than that), and ramped up my queries as the workshop approached. If hoping and handwringing could make lightning, I’d never have a bad day at the Grand Canyon, but after three days of fairly benign conditions, workshop group number one was still waiting for their lightning. Then, like a walk-off grand slam, on our final full day Mother Nature gifted us with a spectacular, two-hour lightning show. Phew. In fact, that afternoon we got an entire workshop worth of dramatic weather in about five very intense hours. The day’s highlights included lightning and two rainbows, and wrapped up a mammatus (google it) sunset at Cape Royal. All’s well that ends well.

Contrast group one’s eleventh hour salvation with workshop group two, which hit the ground running (quite literally) before we could even have an orientation. The second workshop was scheduled to start with a 1 p.m. orientation at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. As go most mornings in monsoon season, the day started quietly, but a little after noon lightning started up across the canyon and Don and I set up our tripods, cameras, and Lightning Triggers. With the designated gathering place in front of the lodge, but the viewing deck and lightning show in the back, Don and I took turns running up front and dragging folks down to our location. Those who had arrived with camera gear were put right to work, while the ones who had left their gear in their car or cabin and had to race back up the hill to fetch it.

By 1:15 we were seeing one or two strikes per minute, sometimes more, spread across a fairly broad area of the South Rim. Soon Don and I had a dozen photographers spread across two outside decks separated by an enclosed viewing room. Most of them had never used a Lightning Trigger, or even photographed lightning, so once we got everyone assembled, most of the next hour was spent running around setting up and testing Lightning Triggers, helping people achieve the right exposure, and suggesting compositions.

During that first hour our cameras, set up and primed for action, enthusiastically fired away unattended. When I’m with my camera during a storm, I’m constantly tweaking my composition, exposure, and Lightning Trigger sensitivity. Left to its own devices, my camera ended up with over 400 frames of the very same scene, most of which had no lightning (because the trigger was detecting lightning too faint to register). Fortunately, by the time everyone had settled into a comfort zone with their cameras and Lightning Triggers, not only was the lightning display still going strong, it had moved closer (but remained at a relatively safe distance) and was isolated to the most photogenic part of the view. Our second hour was pure joy, as each dramatic strike seemed designed to outdo the one that preceded it.

The image I share at the top of this post came when the storm was at its most intense, moving southwest to northeast across (right to left) the canyon, just a little east of our location. The brightest bolt you see is striking just below the South Rim, between Yaki and Shoshone Points, but ten miles away.

When all was said and done, I got about 50 strikes that afternoon, and everyone in the group got multiple strikes as well. We had another productive lightning day the next day, but this is the day I’ll remember.

Lightning Photography Revisited

This is an excerpted and updated section from the Lightning article in my Photo Tips section

Photographing lightning at night is mostly a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction with a multi-second shutter speed and hoping the lightning fires while your shutter’s open—pretty straightforward. Photographing daylight lightning is a little more problematic. It’s usually over before you can react, so without a lightning sensor to recognize lightning and click your shutter, success is largely dumb luck (few people are quick enough see it and click).

Lightning Trigger: The best tool for the job

A lightning sensor attaches to your camera’s hot shoe and connects via a special cable to the camera’s remote-release port. When engaged, the sensor fires the shutter (virtually) immediately upon detecting lightning—whether or not the lightning is visible to the eye or camera. With many lightning sensors from which to choose, before I bought my first one I did lots of research. I ended up choosing the sensor that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At a little less than $400 (including the cable), the Lightning Trigger is not the cheapest option, but after leading lightning-oriented workshops for five years, I can say with lots of confidence that lightning sensors are not generic products, and the internal technology matters a lot. The Lightning Trigger is the only one I’d use and recommend (I get no kickback for this).

I won’t get into lots of specifics about how to set up the Lightning Trigger because it’s simple and covered fairly well in the included documentation. But you should know that connecting the Trigger will disable your LCD replay, which means you won’t be able to review your captures without disconnecting (a simple but sometimes inconvenient task). You also won’t be able to adjust your exposure with the Lightning Trigger operational.

The Lightning Trigger documentation promises at least a 20 mile range, and I’ve seen nothing that causes me to question that. It also says you can expect the sensor to fire at lightning that’s not necessarily in front of you, or lightning you can’t see at all. For every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning I didn’t see, or that were outside my camera’s field of view. But when visible lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that the Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time (that is, even though I got lots of false positives, the Lightning Trigger missed very few bolts it should have detected). Of these successful clicks, I actually captured lightning in about 2/3 of the frames.

The misses are a function of the timing between lightning and camera—sometimes the lightning is just too fast for the camera. In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts of longer duration, multiple strokes that are easier to capture. And my success rate has increased significantly beyond 2/3 since switching from a Canon 5DIII to a Sony a7RII (more on this in the Shutter Lag section).

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

Shutter lag

Lightning is fast, really, really fast, so the faster your camera clicks the shutter after getting the command, the more success you’ll have. The delay between the click instruction (whether from your finger pressing the shutter button, a remote release, or a lightning sensor) and the shutter firing is called “shutter lag.” The less shutter lag you have, the better your results will be. The two most important shutter lag factors are:

  • Camera model: It’s surprising how much shutter lag can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model. In a perfect world, for lightning photography your camera’s shutter lag will be 60 milliseconds (.06 seconds) or faster (the lower the number the better), but 120 milliseconds (.o12 seconds) or faster can give you some success. The top cameras from Sony, Nikon, and Canon are all fast enough, but the latest Sonys are the definite shutter lag winner (fastest), with Nikon second, and Canon third (slowest). And shutter lag can vary with the manufacturer’s model: While my Sony a7RII is one of the fastest cameras out there, my a7R was unusably slow, so you need to check your model. Unfortunately, shutter lag isn’t usually in the manufacturers specification, so it’s hard to find. The best source I’ve found is the “Pre-focused” time in the Performance tab of the camera reviews at Imaging Resource.
  • Camera settings: Basically, to minimize the “thinking” the camera needs to before firing, you want to be in manual everything mode—metering and focus. If your camera offers an electronic front curtain option (as my Sonys do), use it. If you must autofocus, go ahead and do it each time you recompose, then turn autofocus off as soon as you’re focused. Though the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests Aperture Priority metering, I use and recommend Manual metering mode to eliminate any camera-slowing metering. And, also despite what the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests, noise reduction is a post-capture function that might slightly delay continuous frames, but it won’t increase shutter lag.

 

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Other equipment

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

  • A solid tripod and head: Don’t even think about trying to photograph lightning hand-held
  • Rain gear that keeps you dry from head-to-toe
  • Umbrella (a.k.a., Wile E. Coyote Lightning Rod) to shield your camera and lightning sensor (many sensors, including the Lightning Trigger, aren’t waterproof) while you compose and wait in the rain. (And obviously, when the lightning gets close, put the umbrella down and run for cover.)
  • Lens hood to shield some of the raindrops that could mar the front element of your lenses
  • Neutral density filter and/or polarizer to slow shutter speed into the ideal range (1/4 – 1/20 second)
  • A garbage bag (my choice) or rainproof camera jacket (haven’t found one I like) to keep your camera and sensor dry during a downpour
  • Extra lightning sensor batteries (better safe than sorry)
  • Extra memory cards: When a storm is very close or active, your camera could click 20 or 30 frames per minute (even when no lightning is visible)
  • Infrared remote to test your Lightning Trigger; I sometimes borrow the remote from my hotel room, but the Apple TV remote works great and is extremely compact (fits nicely into the Lightning Trigger pouch)
  • A towel 

Getting the shot

Lightning is most likely to strike in or near the gray curtains (clearly recognizable as distant rain) that hang beneath dark clouds. In addition to visible rain curtains, the darkest and tallest clouds are usually the most likely to fire lightning. Here are a few more points to consider:

  • The wider your composition, the greater your odds of capturing lightning, but the smaller the lightning will appear in your image.
  • Identify the most likely lightning cell and find the best composition that includes it. I tend to start with wider compositions to ensure success, then tighten my composition once I’m fairly confident I captured something.
  • Note the height from which the lightning originates and be sure to include enough cloud to get all of the stroke. On the other hand, don’t include too much room above the lightning—one of the most frequent rookie mistakes I see is too much sky/clouds in the frame. Unless the storm is too close for safety, most lightning will originate from about the same height above the ground.
  • The best is usually a midrange zoom such as a 24-70 or 24-105—if you find yourself reaching for the 16-35 (or wider), you’re too close.
  • On the other hand, once you’re sure you’ve captured some good strikes, try putting on a 70-200. The narrow field of view can significantly reduce the number of frames with lightning, but the ones you get will be much larger in the frame and therefore more spectacular.
  • Lightning stands out better in a slightly underexposed image. My target shutter speed is usually 1/8 second (slow enough to include multiple pulses, but not so slow that I risk washing out the lightning). When the sky is relatively bright, dropping to 1/15 or even 1/20 second can make the lightning stand out better than 1/8. Conversely, when the sky is extremely dark and the lightning is firing like crazy, extending to 1/4 second might increase your chances for multiple pulses.
  • Just because you’re standing around waiting for things to happen, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Keep your eyes glued to the sky and adjust your composition as the lightning shifts, or as new activity starts elsewhere. If you wait until you hear your shutter click or someone else exclaim before looking up, you won’t see the lightning. And monitor the light—your exposure can change by several stops as the storm moves, intensifies, or winds down.
  • Try not to check your captures on your LCD until you’re done (or better yet, until you upload your images to your computer). Viewing the LCD requires turning off the sensor, which risks missing a shot (I’m pretty sure lightning waits for me to turn off my sensor), and you’ll also find that many successful captures, especially wide compositions, just aren’t that visible on an LCD viewed in daylight anyway.

Do as I say (not as I do)

Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so you need to monitor them closely. Sometimes this simply means adjusting your composition to account for shifting lightning; other times it means retreating to the car if the cell threatens your location.

Gary Hart Photography: Two Bolts, Grand Canyon

Two Bolts, Grand Canyon

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A Lightning Gallery

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

 

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