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
- 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
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…
Grand Canyon Monsoon Lightning Success
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.