Having grown up in the plains state of Iowa, I have always been fascinated with thunderstorms and lightning. Every year I would eagerly look forward to the storm season. My mother and I would race to the windows or the front door at the first crack of thunder, eager to see the next lightning bolt rip across the sky. As the storm approached, the gust front would bring with it the smell of the rain, the temperature would drop, and light would give way to the darkness of the storm.
It would be many more years before I found my way to photography, but one of the first things I experimented with was photographing thunderstorms with the intent of capturing lightning. I still remember the first time I was successful, I had no idea what I had done right, but I was blown away by the results. Photographing a storm as lightning erupted from within it was magic, and I was hooked.
The Monsoon Season
Most people know the American Southwest as a hot, dry, dusty environment where it very rarely rains. But during the summer months, from July through September, that all changes when a shift in wind patterns begins to deliver pulses of low-level moisture from the Gulf of California and the eastern Pacific Ocean to the area. This shift in the weather pattern is known as the North American Monsoon or the Southwest Monsoon.
During the monsoon season, afternoon thunderstorms are common, and some of these storms can be intense, producing high winds, hail, and lightning. It's also a great time to catch a rainbow. These thunderstorms often deliver incredible atmospherics that can give photos a painterly quality.
I've been photographing Grand Canyon for about twelve years now as of the date on this post. My first opportunity to capture lightning was in July 2010. I didn't create any photos that are noteworthy or even mentionable, but the experience hooked me, and I realized that I had much to learn about how to capture lightning and where to photograph it from.
The Icing on the Cake: One of the early lessons I learned was that lightning by itself typically won't make for a compelling photograph. The scene has to stand on its own without the lightning in the composition. This means that you still need to be doing all the things you would normally do when photographing the landscape, such as looking for leading lines & overlapping layers, studying the light and shadows, and so on. My approach is to think of the lightning as the icing on the cake.
Look for the Light: Another lesson that I have learned along the way is that even on the most promising of days, the weather may not cooperate, and even with great storms, you may not get any lightning to work with. I've watched many photographers ignore incredible light and atmospherics over the canyon only to direct their efforts on distant lightning with a flat landscape and flat light. They captured a lightning shot or two but at the expense of passing up stunning scenes.
Know Your Gear: Lastly, know your equipment like the back of your hand. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon during a monsoon thunderstorm is not the time or place to be figuring out camera problems. Spend the time getting to really know your camera. Go through the menus and study the options. Take the time to set up your camera's custom buttons, functions, and menus. Knowing your camera will allow you to focus (no pun intended) on the tasks at hand...studying the light, anticipating the decisive moment, and creating the photo.
Lightning Safety & Awareness
Lightning moves at 90,000 miles (144,841 km) per second with a voltage of up to one billion volts. A standard household electrical outlet is 120 volts. Lightning reaches temperatures five times hotter than the surface of the sun. The surrounding air expands rapidly due to the heat of the bolt's flash and causes thunder, warning us that lightning is present. In Grand Canyon National Park, lightning strikes an average of 25,000 times per year. The following information is from the Grand Canyon National Park website on Lightning Danger.
How Do I Stay Safe? Before you travel or hike: Check the weather forecast at visitor centers, campgrounds, or lodges. Arrange activities to minimize your exposure to lightning danger.
Use these guidelines to make a lightning safety plan, and be prepared to follow it
Be aware of the nearest safe structure or vehicle and how long it will take to reach it; learn where emergency phones are located on the trails.
Listen for thunder, watch for lightning, and observe the direction of storm movement.
Be vigilant of possible flash floods or falling rocks during or after storms.
If you find yourself in a dangerous situation with a thunderstorm approaching, take cover.
If your hair stands on end, a strike is looming
Move away from the canyon edge; leave open areas immediately; and avoid rocky outcrops, lone trees, the tallest trees, poles, railings, and bodies of water.
Get to a shelter—a building or a vehicle with the windows closed or a shuttle bus—as quickly as possible.
For a shuttle bus, locate a designated bus stop.
If camping, wait out the storm in a safe structure or vehicle, not a tent.
Do not touch rock walls, metal handrails, or any metal on vehicles or structures.
What if There is No Shelter? If you find yourself caught in a thunderstorm with no readily available shelter, be calm and use good judgment. To reduce your risk:
If possible, spread out from other people. Look for lower ground, but avoid areas that may flood. Do not touch metal guard rails.
If in an open area, crouch on the balls of your feet with your heels touching, head down, and hands covering your ears. Your hands should not touch the ground. Do not lie flat on the ground.
Always remember to move away from the canyon edge; leave open areas immediately; and avoid rocky outcrops, lone trees, the tallest trees, poles, railings, and standing water.
How do I Maintain a Safe Distance? Lightning can reach more than 10 miles (16 km) from a cloud and far beyond where rain falls—you are still in a high-danger zone even when it is not raining.
If you hear thunder, you are at risk of getting struck by lightning. When thunder roars, go indoors. When you hear thunder, take shelter.
The 30–30 rule: If the sound of thunder follows a lightning flash in 30 seconds or less, seek shelter immediately. Danger continues for 30 minutes after the last lightning or thunder event.
Flash-to-bang calculations: Count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the bang of thunder. Divide the number of seconds by 5 to estimate the distance from you to where lightning struck in miles (5 seconds = 1 mile). To find the distance in kilometers, divide the number of seconds by 3 instead of 5. If you are within 6 miles (10 km) of lightning flashes, you are in a high-danger zone. Seek shelter immediately!
Remember, lightning can strike without warning! I created the image above as I was doing a private photography workshop and demonstrating my techniques for dealing with scenes that have a wide dynamic range of light. It had been raining, but there was no lightning. I was in the middle of manually bracketing exposures as my client followed along, mimicking my actions on her camera, when the lightning struck just a few miles away. The light streaming through the canyon continued to get better and better, but at that moment, I knew we were done. We immediately made a run for the Watchtower to take shelter from the storm. As for the image, I always say it's better to be lucky than good. And, yes, my client got the shot too!
It's important to be properly prepared and equipped to photograph lighting. First, you have to have an idea as to where the lightning will be. To do this, I use an app called RadarScope which is the same app used by many storm chasers. It will give you access to radar data so that you can see where the storms are and predict where they are going to be, and with the 'Pro Tier 1' subscription service, you will also have access to lightning strike data.
Once you have an idea where the lightning will be, you have to decide where you are going to photograph it from. Keeping safety considerations at the top of the list, I tend to photograph from locations where I can quickly retreat to my vehicle to take shelter from the storm. I often will arrive at a location as the rain is pouring down with the goal of being there as the storm clears.
Even after the storm has cleared, there is still a good chance that you will be shooting in the rain. It's important to keep yourself and your camera gear dry. I always keep in my pack a good rain jacket for myself and a rain cover for my camera. I'm a big fan of the Think Tank Photo Emergency Rain Cover. I also use a clear filter to protect the front element of the lens from blowing rain, as most manufacturers will tell you it is necessary to complete the lenses' weather-resistant seal. I also use a lens hood to further protect the front element from rain, as a single drop can ruin a photo.
Even with a rain cover over the camera, you must be prepared for the camera and lens to get wet. I recommend keeping a camp towel in your camera pack. This will be useful for drying off the camera and lens should they happen to get wet. I also suggest having plenty of lens wipes handy.
When I first began to photograph lightning, way back in the Stone Age...I mean the era of film, the only way to photograph it was at night when long exposures were possible. After sunset, you could leave your shutter open for more than a few seconds which increased the odds of capturing lightning. Once the scene was totally dark, you could then leave the shutter open using Bulb mode and then close it once you were confident lightning had struck somewhere within the field of view of the lens.
Today we have a few more options when it comes to how we photograph lightning and the type of light that we photograph it in. This is due in part to a device known as a lightning trigger which senses the lightning strike and triggers the shutter for you. It's important to understand that the trigger doesn't do all of the work for you. The photographer must still set up the composition, determine the proper exposure, and pre-focus for the scene. With a lightning trigger, all sorts of new and exciting things are possible. Now we can do things that were previously impossible, like photographing lightning in daylight and shooting into the setting sun.
My trigger of choice is the Lightning Bug Plus by MK Controls. This trigger mounts into your camera's hot shoe and connects via a modified remote-release cable. What makes this trigger better than the others is that it's essentially "plug-n-play" in that it has a Patented Automatic Gain Control that provides constant sensitivity day or night -- no old technology knobs to fumble over. I've owned four different lightning triggers, and I can say that while the LT-IV can't catch every lightning bolt, I've been more productive with it than I have all of the others combined. I consider it to be an essential piece of gear and one that you must have if you wish to photograph lightning.
Camera Setup Guide for Lightning Photography
Let's make sure that you have your camera set up properly to photograph lightning. It's important that we not use any functions that would otherwise delay the tripping of the camera's shutter mechanism. This means deactivating exposure delay modes, timers, mirror-lockup, and even pre-focusing the scene so that the camera doesn't spend any time trying to focus as the lightning strikes.
You will most likely discover that with the lightning trigged connected to the camera and turned on that many of your camera's functions will not work, including image review and exposure controls. This is because the trigger is essentially performing a half-press of the shutter release keeping the camera from going to sleep. It will be very tempting to turn off the trigger and review your images, but it's best not to do this as you will likely miss some great photos. I do, however, suggest occasionally checking a few images to make sure that your images are properly exposed.
Make sure you are starting with a fresh battery and empty memory cards.
Set the ISO to 100 to 400, depending on the camera.
Manual Exposure, and do a test shot to set the exposure for the ambient light.
Set the lens to manual focus and pre-focus for the scene.
Long-Exposure Noise Reduction to Off.
Single Shot Drive Mode. Do not use any modes that have a time delay.
Now we're ready to connect the Lightning Trigger to the camera.
Ensure that both the camera and Lightning Trigger are powered off.
Attach Lightning Trigger to camera flash hot shoe.
Connect the modified remote release cable to the Lightning Trigger.
Plug the other end of the modified remote release cable into the camera’s remote port.
Turn on the Lightning Trigger, and then turn on the camera.
Test them for proper connectivity between the lightning trigger and the camera by firing.
To disconnect the Lightning Trigger from the camera, simply turn the power off to both devices and disconnect the modified remote release cable.
Note: If these directions do not work, then it is recommended that you contact the lightning trigger manufacturer for guidance.
Photographing Lightning During Daylight
The greatest challenge with photographing lightning during the day is that we're trying to capture a split second of time during bright ambient lighting conditions. This is where the Lightning Trigger comes in handy. The trigger will take care of the timing challenges for you.
For daytime lightning, I tend to set my camera to Aperture Priority and use an aperture value that affords me even sharpness throughout the composition. I tend to avoid shooting at aperture values over f/16, as this leads to a loss of image quality due to diffraction. On high-resolution cameras, my upper limit may even be f/11, but when it comes to photographing lightning, I will set the aperture as high as needed to make the shot.
Most lightning trigger manufacturers recommend shooting daylight lightning with a shutter speed between 1/8 and 1/4 of a second. I have captured it up to 1/60 of a second. You will most likely find that shutter speeds faster than 1/60th of a second may cause completion of the exposure prior to the formation of the visible portion of the lightning strike. If you find that you are unable to get your shutter speed down into this range, then you may need to either lower your ISO, increase your aperture value, or add a neutral density filter. If you don't have a neutral density filter, you may find that a circular polarizer can help as well.
Photographing Lightning at Sunrise and Sunset
This is when the magic often happens, as we are working with the margins of light when conditions tend to be the most dramatic. For these scenes, I recommend using Aperture Priority mode and using an aperture value that allows me to maintain even sharpness throughout the composition.
As the light begins to fade away, your exposure times will become longer. Once you get to 2 seconds, you can switch from the lightning trigger to a remote cable release and begin capturing back-to-back exposures. Keep shooting until your shutter speed gets to 30 seconds, at which point you will either need to switch to Bulb mode and begin timing your exposures, or you can increase the camera's ISO value to continue shooting 30-second exposures.
Photo idea: If you lock down your composition, you will later be able to stack and blend the exposures together in Photoshop to create a longer exposure.
Photographing Lightning at Night
Now you can put the lightning trigger back in the bag and open your shutter for extended periods of time, allowing the camera to soak in the light just as it does during astrophotography conditions. I tend to photograph these scenes shooting with a fast aperture value, such as f/2.8 to f/4, but I will use even higher aperture values if needed for maintaining foreground-to-background sharpness in the scene.
As for the ISO, that will depend on what I'm trying to accomplish, but I often shoot night lightning with higher ISO values, such as ISO 400 to 1600, or even 3200, especially if I'm trying to reveal some stars or even the Milky Way as I did with the photo above. If stars are visible in the exposure, then I will follow the Rule of 500 to minimize any apparent movement of the stars during the exposure.
Stacking Images for Super Long Exposures
On August 3rd, 2012, my wife Sally and I found ourselves a short distance below the rim of the canyon as this storm approached. It was an intense storm producing many lightning strikes. The lightning was over 10 miles away when we realized that a storm had developed behind us as well. As we were well below the rim, heading back to our truck meant moving up to the rim and exposing ourselves to the storm. With no good options, we elected to shelter below some massive boulders and overhanging rocks for almost 90 minutes.
I continued to capture images as we watched the storm. We were mesmerized by what we were seeing. I was able to capture as many as 4 lightning strikes in a 30-second exposure, but what I really wanted to do was create an image that could better represent the intensity of this storm. Upon returning home, I realized that I could stack and then merge several images into one master image, thus simulating a longer exposure using a technique similar to creating star-trail photos.
The completed image is a stack of 18 photos shot back-to-back and merged in Photoshop. In total, I captured 48 lightning strikes in this image, and it represents 9 minutes of storm activity.
Learn to Photograph Lightning at Grand Canyon
Shameless plug...during the monsoon season, I run a couple of workshops that place an emphasis on photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon. The groups are kept small, with participation typically limited to 4 to 6 photographers. Everyone gets their own private room or cabin, and I encourage you to bring your spouse or a friend to tag along at no additional charge. There's the 4-day & 3-night Monsoon on the North Rim Workshop, and the 5-day/4-night Desert Thunder workshop, during which we split our time between the South Rim and the North Rim.
Both of these workshops combine an element of storm chasing with landscape photography. Sally and I hope you can join us in this exciting opportunity to photograph lighting at Grand Canyon!