Photographing Lightning at the Grand Canyon

by Gart Hart (Gary’s website; his gallery on this site)

 

If you are thinking of photographing lighting at the Grand Canyon – or anywhere else – this post by Gary Hart is a must-read.

 

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It was the bolt atop the ridge directly in front of me that finally got my attention. For over an hour I’d been photographing the eastward progress of a dazzling thunderstorm just north of what had been a safe vantage point. Mesmerized by the frequency and intensity of its activity, I’d failed to register the storm’s approach until that warning shot landed less than a mile away. Reluctantly, I began packing my gear, still dry but knowing I was in danger, vaguely resentful of the oft-repeated lightning warning: “If you see it, flee it; if you hear, clear it.” Stooping for my camera bag, I rationalized that I pass that warning’s threshold every time I photograph a thunderstorm, so surely… Flash/Bang! The simultaneous bolt and boom sent me retreating so fast that it wasn’t until I was safely in the car that I realized I’d left my camera in the line of fire.

 

Lightning photography is as dangerous as it is thrilling. Though photographer and camera survived this adventure, no person outside in an electrical storm is completely safe. And while nature photographers are not averse to taking risks to get their shot, neither should they be as foolish as I was.

 

Lightning facts

While lightning strikes Earth over eight million times each day, it isn’t completely understood. But we do know that the rapid upward and downward motion of raindrops in a thunderstorm creates extreme electrical polarity—a negative/positive imbalance within a cloud, between clouds, or between a cloud and the ground. Nature abhors any imbalance and will remedy the problem as efficiently as possible: Lightning.

 

Unfortunately, while the most photogenic lightning is cloud-to-ground (CG), it’s also the most dangerous. In a few hundredths of a millisecond or less, a CG lightning strike can expend 200 million volts and heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—more than enough to detonate a tree or fry a photographer.

 

After much research, a few close calls, and many thorough drenchings, I’ve concluded that lightning is best photographed from a distance. Not only is lightning ridiculously dangerous, it’s also nearly impossible to photograph anything in the kind of downpour that accompanies most thunderstorms. In other words, you want to be outside the thunderstorm looking in.

 

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The Grand Canyon monsoon

Few locations are better suited to (relatively) safe lightning photography than the Grand Canyon. Each summer, a large portion of the Southwest United States is assaulted almost daily by thunderstorms. The Grand Canyon is in the heart of this activity—even if lightning isn’t happening where you are, there’s a pretty good chance that a thunderstorm will be visible somewhere from one of the Grand Canyon’s expansive vistas.

 

The onset of the monsoon season ranges from mid-June to early July; it typically lasts through August, and sometimes as late as mid-September. Any time in this window can work, but your best chances for lightning will come mid-July through August.

 

Some days the monsoon thunderstorms rage all day and into the night, but more typical are days that dawn relatively clear, with clouds building as the sun heats the air. Usually by late morning or early afternoon the skies are blooming with dark, cumulus pillows.

 

Preparation

Photo gear

You probably have most of the equipment necessary for lightning photography, but it’s always better to figure out what you need before you leave rather than waiting until the lightning starts firing.

 

Fast digital SLR

Photographing lightning requires a camera that is literally lightning fast. We’ve all experienced the frustration of point-and-shoot shutter-lag, that delay between the time your finger says “Click,” and your camera says “Okay.” A DSLR’s shutter-lag is a non-issue in most uses, but it’s a huge concern when trying to capture something with a lifespan measured in milliseconds.

Ideally your shutter will respond to a Fire command in 60 milliseconds or faster, though up to 100 milliseconds is usually sufficient. Most recent professional and prosumer DSLRs are fast enough; some of the latest entry-level DSLRs are fast enough too, but many are not. And many older DSLRs are too slow.

 

Unfortunately, because almost never a consideration, find your camera’s shutter response time isn’t easy. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it in the manufacturer’s published specifications; if not, start by contacting the camera manufacturer. If that fails, try a Google search.

 

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Lightning sensor

Without a device to detect lightning and instantly fire your camera, photographing daylight lightning is pure chance—if you try to visually react, you’ll either end up with nothing, or (if you’re incredibly lucky) a different strike that just happened to closely follow the initial strike. At night, keeping the shutter open for seconds or minutes improves the chance lightning will flash during the exposure, but using a neutral density filter to extend your daylight shutter speed is a very poor substitute for a lightning sensor, because the longer your exposure, the less the contrast between the bright sky and a lightning bolt.

 

I can’t give you an “absolute best” lightning sensor brand because that would imply that I have lots of experience with multiple devices. But I can tell you that I’ve had great success with the Lightning Trigger IV from Stepping Stone Products (it has more range than the LT3). While my Lightning Trigger gives me lots of false positives (clicks without lightning in my frame), I rarely feel like it has missed something it should have caught. But I know many pros who are quite happy with lightning sensors from other manufacturers, so you’ll need to ask around.

 

Tripod

A tripod is essential for photographing lightning because the shutter speeds that maximize your chances for success are too slow for hand-holding. And there may be times when you want to leave your camera out to continue shooting while you retreat to safety.

 

Make sure your tripod is sturdy enough to withstand the strong gusts often associated with thunderstorms. And despite what you might hear, the idea that carbon fiber is safer for lightning photography (“because it doesn’t conduct electricity”) is a myth: Carbon fiber does indeed conduct, but even if it didn’t, given the amount of charge in a lightning bolt, the tripod’s conductivity won’t be much of a limiting factor—wood is a poor conductor too, but have you ever seen what lightning does to a tree?

 

Lenses

I’ve made good use of focal lengths from 16 mm to 200 mm. Wide lenses increase your odds of capturing lightning somewhere in the frame (but if you find yourself reaching for your fisheye, you’re too close). Given the distance of the views at the Grand Canyon, a moderate telephoto allows you to photograph distant lightning without losing it in the scene.

 

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Filters

Polarizer: Not only does a polarizing filter enhance the sky and reduce color-robbing glare, the two-stops of light it subtracts is helpful for reaching the relatively slow shutter speed ideal for daylight lightning.

 

Neutral density filter: A neutral density filter helps you achieve the relatively long daylight lightning target shutter speeds. I suggest at least three stops—or even better, a variable filter that allows you to dial in the light.

 

Smartphone apps

Two smartphone apps I’ve found invaluable for Grand Canyon lightning photography are:

  • Delorme Earthmate: The Grand Canyon has vast areas with little or no cell service, many only accessible by remote, unpaved roads (especially on the North Rim). Earthmate allows me to pre-download topo maps, and paired with a separately purchased InReach satellite transmitter/receiver, for a few dollars per month, my smartphone can send SOS messages, and send and receive texts and e-mails, all including my exact geo-coordinates.

  • Lightning Finder: For a minimal annual subscription, the Lightning Finder app displays up-to-the-minute lightning strikes for all of the United States. This information helps me determine where the lightning is most active and the direction it’s moving, often early enough to provide a head-start on the best place to be.

Clothing

When packing for a Grand Canyon monsoon trip, the key is layers that will not only keep you dry when it rains, but will also keep you cool in temperatures into the upper eighties, and warm in temperatures down into the forties. Here’s my outerwear checklist:

  • Cargo pants that convert to shorts

  • T-shirts

  • Flannel or thin, wool long-sleeve shirts

  • Waterproof rain pants that slip over my regular pants

  • Brimmed, waterproof hat

  • Thin rain shell

  • Mid-weight jacket

  • Hiking sandals (what I generally wear)

  • Hiking boots (in case I decide to hike down into the canyon)

  • Thin wool socks (wool retains warmth when it’s wet)

  • Thin gloves (for those occasionally chilly sunrise shoots)

  • Umbrella (given all my other waterproof apparel, this is to keep my camera dry)

This is more of a personal framework rather than a one-size-fits-all list. For example, you may prefer conventional shoes to sandals—just be sure you wear something that grips. And everybody has a different cold/heat threshold, so pack accordingly.

 

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How to photograph lightning

Lightning safety

Before setting out to photograph lightning, understand that anyone outside when lightning is visible, or thunder is audible, is at risk. You can roughly compute the lightning’s distance by counting the seconds between the flash and thunder: five seconds for each mile. While ten miles is often stated as a safe distance, lightning bolts over 100 miles long have been recorded, and lightning can strike when no rain is falling and the sky overhead is blue.

 

Rather than hearing it from someone who goes out in thunderstorms despite the risks, read what the experts have to say about lightning safety:

Before you start

Whichever rim I’m on, my general approach is to determine the cardinal direction (north, south, east, west) where lightning is most likely to occur (using National Weather Service forecast and radar, the Lightning Finder app, and good old stand on the rim and scan the horizon).

 

Immediately upon arrival at any potential spot, I run through my safety checklist: How far from the car will I be and what’s the most direct route there? Is there another safe spot if I can’t make it back to the car? How close are the thunder cells and what direction are they moving?

 

With my safety parameters in place, I check the direction of the sun to determine where a rainbow would appear—the lower the sun is, the higher the rainbow will be; your shadow will point toward the rainbow’s center.

 

Daylight lightning

Daylight lightning is the Holy Grail of lightning photography. Not only is it far more difficult to capture than night lightning, when done right, daylight lightning can elevate an already gorgeous scene to something spectacular. But because the visible duration of a single lightning bolt is far shorter than human reflexes can react, without a device that detects the lightning and triggers your camera, any lightning captures you get will be pure chance.

 

Determine where the lightning is most likely to strike

The rim of the Grand Canyon is an ideal vantage point from which to spot the distant lightning strikes you should target. Sometimes the lightning is firing so frequently that it’s immediately clear where to frame your shot; other times you need to scan the horizon and wait. I’ve found that the best bet is tall, dark clouds (the taller and darker the better) above a gray curtain of falling rain.

 

Even when you see no lightning, it’s often worthwhile to pick the most likely location and set up as if it’s happening—sometimes I photograph the first bolt I see just by targeting the most likely area. Once your camera and sensor are engaged, you’ll be doing a lot of standing and waiting—use that time to keep scanning, and adjust your composition as you deem necessary. And stay vigilant for approaching storms—not just the one you’re photographing, but threats from behind.

 

Camera settings

Unlike regular landscape photography, where f-stop trumps everything, shutter speed is the top priority in lightning photography. Since your camera has no idea what you’re doing, you don’t want it to be determining your shutter speed (no full auto or aperture-priority mode)—I photograph everything in manual mode, but if you’re more comfortable shooting shutter-priority, that’s fine too.

 

When photographing daylight lightning, you want a shutter speed between 1/8 and 1/4 second (slightly faster or slower is okay). Much faster risks missing additional bolts that closely follow the initial bolt; much slower and you start losing contrast between the lightning and its background.

 

Achieving these relatively slow shutter speeds in the middle of the day isn’t always easy. Even with a polarizer, I often need to drop to ISO 50, but before dialing in a smaller than ideal aperture, I add a neutral density filter. To minimize your camera’s shutter-lag, turn off autofocus. And don’t forget to turn off mirror lockup.

 

Compose

Find a composition you like without lightning. While wide compositions increase the chance of catching lightning in your frame, the wider you compose, the smaller and less prominent the lightning will appear. I compose wider when the lightning is landing across a broad area; when it appears to have zeroed in on an area, I tighten. In general, it’s not a bad strategy to compose a little loose and crop later—while a tight shot of a lightning bolt is nice, few things are more frustrating than zooming tight on a scene, only to have a beautiful bolt strike just outside your frame.

 

Don’t assume that seeing lightning and hearing your shutter click means success—often the bolt came and went before your camera could react. I usually wait until I’ve had four or five potential captures before recomposing. And don’t forget to mix your compositions between horizontal and vertical.

 

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Stay alert

Lightning photography is a lot like fishing: Lots of waiting interrupted by random, adrenalin-inducing strikes. I’ve spent entire days on the rim with one just one or two strikes to show for my effort, and I’ve had days when I’ve captured over fifty strikes in just a couple of hours (and have been glad there’s no limit).

 

With all the waiting you’ll be doing, it’s easy to get distracted by the view, others around you, or your own thoughts. But you must remain alert to the fact that thunderstorms are constantly changing—a composition that was perfect two minutes ago may now be a waste of pixels now. And unlike fishing, where your target poses no great danger, miscalculating the location of the next lightning strike risks your life.

 

Night lightning

Until the advent of lightning sensors, night lightning was the only lightning an amateur photographer could reliably photograph. Rather than forcing you to react faster than humanly possible, photographing lightning after dark is simply a matter of opening your shutter and waiting.

 

Once it becomes dark enough, the length of your night exposures should be a function of the lightning frequency. If the storm is firing every few seconds, you can do quite well with a twenty- or thirty-second exposure. On the other hand, if duration between strikes is measured in minutes, you’ll want to shift to bulb mode and increase your shutter speed to a duration long enough to register multiple strikes.

 

Finding the correct exposure after dark can be tricky, and you don’t really know frustration until you’ve miscalculated a ten minute exposure with lots of lightning. I’ve found that the most reliable, and fastest, way to ensure proper after-dark exposure is a test frame at my camera’s highest ISO and largest aperture. Once I’m in the ballpark, I adjust my ISO and aperture settings to achieve the desired shutter speed.

 

As tempting as it may be to get many lightning strikes in one image, too many strikes in one frame tend to wash each other out. If you want to fill your image with lightning strikes, you’ll need to take multiple frames and composite them later.

 

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Grand Canyon locations

With just a couple of exceptions, my greatest Grand Canyon lightning success has come when I’ve been on the rim opposite the lightning activity. It’s safer, and because distant lightning can be photographed from far more locations, I get more composition flexibility.

 

Despite being separated by fewer than 20 straight-line miles, the differences between photographing the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims are significant. The South Rim has broader vistas and more easily accessible locations from which to choose. Cell phone connectivity, while far from perfect, is much more widespread and reliable on the South Rim.

 

The North Rim has far fewer people, a predominantly southward view (the direction from which the thunderstorms often travel), and nice views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the canyon’s East Rim that aren’t possible from the South Rim. And for those looking for something unique, the North Rim also has lots more infrequently photographed locations. Cell connectivity is limited to the Grand Canyon Lodge, and only for certain carriers.

 

Given the four hour drive from rim to rim, and weather forecasts that really aren’t granular enough to determine which rim will be better on any given day, on any given day it’s best to pick a rim and stick with it. When I split a multi-day visit between rims, I try to time the rim-to-rim drive for early morning, usually right after sunrise, before the storms have a chance to form. Early morning is usually the best time to scout locations, always a good idea before trying to photograph there.

 

South Rim (from west to east)

All South Rim views are north, plus west and/or east.

 

  • Hermit’s Rest shuttle stops: You have a variety of views here, all north, plus east and/or west. Hopi Point is my favorite, with open views west, north, and east, plus a little shot of the Colorado River far below. The downside of the Hermit’s Rest Road vistas is that in summer they’re only accessible by shuttle, bike, or foot—it’s difficult to change locations quickly here, and if you’re out there and lightning starts up nearby, you’re pretty exposed.

  • Mather and Yavapai Points: Separated by almost one mile of paved, north-facing, rim-hugging trail, Mather and Yavapai Points are a good combination of variety and relative safety. They’re also right in the heart of the South Rim tourist activity, near the Visitor Center, campground, and hotels (and medical clinic)—easy to get to, ample parking, but swarming with people whose priorities are far different from yours. Mather has views north, east, and somewhat west, while Yavapai faces north, west, and somewhat east. I usually park at one end or the other (there’s more parking near Mather than Yavapai) and walk the rim between the two until I find a view I like. One downside is that the views here are probably the most frequently photographed at the Grand Canyon.

  • Highway 64 vistas: With the exception of Yaki Point, which is only accessible by shuttle, bike, or foot, all of the designated views along Highway 64 east of Mather Point are easily accessed by car, with close parking for hasty retreat. All are predominantly north-facing, but the farther east you get, the more the views open. Near Desert View the Colorado River bends ninety degrees, making Desert View, Navajo Point, and Lipan Point my favorite South Rim vistas: Not only do they offer views across to the North Rim and up and down the canyon east and west, they also offer views up the north/south trending section of the canyon. And the South Rim’s best views of the Colorado River are at these east-most vistas.

 

North Rim

Most North Rim views are predominantly unidirectional (south, east, or west), with an occasional secondary direction.

 

  • Grand Canyon Lodge: The Grand Canyon Lodge is the hub of North Rim activity. Its adjacent view platforms provide excellent cross-canyon views to the South Rim, with the added bonus of being just a few strides from the safety of the lodge. Here you can set up your camera and let it fire away while you comfortably monitor both it and the lightning show through the lodge’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

  • Bright Angel Point: Just a five-minute walk from Grand Canyon Lodge, Bright Angel Point provides nice views south and west, and a less impressive view to the east. There are also several east and west views on the trail to the point. The downside of Bright Angel Point is its extreme exposure—you don’t want to be caught out here with lightning nearby.

  • Cape Royal: The features that make Cape Royal the best location for photographing lightning also make it among the most dangerous. An exposed rock outcrop protruding into the canyon, Cape Royal is the North Rim’s best combination of views east, south, and west. Unfortunately, not only is Cape Royal quite exposed, it’s a nearly half mile walk (sprint) from the parking area. I only use Cape Royal to photograph lightning when the activity is comfortably across the canyon (in which case it’s a great spot).

  • Cape Royal Road: The road to Cape Royal has several vistas facing east, northeast, and southeast. Vista Encantada, Roosevelt Point, and Walhalla Point are all great places to photograph lightning east of the Grand Canyon—not only are the views good, they’re also wide and distant, with nice canyon features for your foreground. View highlights include the Grand Canyon’s East Rim and the aptly named Vermillion Cliffs. Each vista is just a few steps from the parking area, close enough that you can set up your camera on the tripod and wait out a storm in the comfort of your car. As an added bonus, the eastward views make these great locations to capture an afternoon rainbow above the canyon.

  • Point Imperial: At 8,800 feet, east-facing Point Imperial is the highest drivable vista within the National Park. Its clear view of the Vermillion Cliffs, and northeast to southeast views along the East Rim, combined with photogenic foreground red-rock towers, ridges, and gorges, makes Point Imperial one of my favorite Grand Canyon locations. And while there’s room to roam here, some of the best views are just a few yards from the parking lot. Point Imperial is also another good spot for afternoon rainbows.

  • National Forest Service (NFS) roads: Just north of the National Park boundary is a network of unpaved but well maintained NFS roads that provide access to infrequently photographed east or west (but never both) views. East of Highway 67, check out East Rim View for more views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the East Rim. Also worth checking out, but a little more remote, is Marble Point. The views west of Highway 67 include Fence Point, Fire Point, Timp Point, among others. With at least twenty, one-way miles on unpaved roads, you’ll need to allocate at least a half day for a west-side trip, but the opportunity to photograph beautiful, infrequently photographed canyon views justifies the inconvenience for me. Some roads are far more accessible than others out here, so rather than trusting maps or your GPS, check with the Visitor Center or Wilderness Office for the recommended routes.

Appreciate

North Rim or South Rim, rain or shine, night or day, the Grand Canyon is a natural masterpiece, an unmatched cross-section of nearly two billion years of Earth history at your feet. Witnessing the millisecond lifespan of a lighting bolt above a landscape that took billions of years to form is a life-shaping experience. Each time you stand on the rim, do yourself a favor and forget your photography long enough to appreciate the oceans and deserts preserved in each layer, the relentless force of wind and water that revealed them, and your good fortune to be able to take it all in.