It’s funny where inspiration can strike. Five years ago, while awaiting a doctor’s appointment, I picked up an issue of National Geographic and stumbled across an article about Northern Arizona’s summer monsoon season. I remember succinctly how engaged I was viewing the five opening double-truck photo spreads of daytime lightning over the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It was the first time that I had seen published images captured during the daytime. Being a native Californian, I am rather naive when it comes to this weather phenomenon. In fact, my main experience has been relegated to an occasional afternoon summer thunderstorm in the high-Sierra. Generally I would either seek shelter in my car, or the safety of my cabin.
Fast forward to present day and no longer am I heading in when the storms ramp into high gear; in fact, just the opposite. In a sense, I’ve become an amateur storm chaser. Last week my friend Gary Hart and I left the blank blue placid skies of Northern California in order to experience firsthand the excitement of chasing daytime lightning at both the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon. Monsoon season in Arizona typically runs from July through September. We had to pick some dates and lock in as hotels have a long waiting list during the summer months in nearby Tusayan. As luck would have it, weather reports indicated a decline in the amount of moisture predicted during our allotted time period; in fact, we decided to leave a day early as predictions indicated our initial arrival day as perhaps the most opportune time.
Like anything in photography, if you want to be good, you must practice. The last time I had tried capturing lightning during the day was two years prior. Besides a good camera and a sense of when and where the storms would appear (we used an app on our iPhones called Lightning Finder), our main piece of equipment that would allow for daytime capture of these elusive bolts is a piece of equipment known as a Stepping Stone Products Lightning Trigger. The unit attaches to the hot shoe of the camera and is linked via a modified remote cable. I am by no means an engineer so I really can’t explain how the unit works other than to say that it detects a bolt and trips the shutter just prior to our eyes seeing the flash. It is not perfect and it does not capture every bolt, but my success rate was roughly 70% with ground strikes and somewhat less with cloud-to-cloud strikes. Simply put, this is the what you need if you are serious about capturing daytime lightning.
My first attempt was fraught with problems (we’ll just leave it at that), including a downpour that drenched both my camera and trigger (fortunately both survived); yet, I returned to the hotel that evening quite disappointed as weather reports were less-than-promising for the remainder of the week. Instead of sulking, Gary and I decided to get a good night’s sleep (though he did get some keepers) and return by noon the next day. Prior to leaving, I contacted Rich Davis who builds the Lightning Trigger to seek his expert advice. Shutter-lag is a very important element in timing the Lightning Trigger to the camera’s shutter. Fortunately, my Canon 5DMKIII’s shutter-lag (.059 milliseconds) was within the recommended range. I also put in a call into Canon Professional Services and discussed ways of reducing this shutter-lag (more about this at the end of the article). Armed with all the technical information, we left for the park and spotted some possible cell activity across the canyon from Mather Point. I found a small outcropping away from the hordes of tourists and setup, settled in, and waited. My patience was finally rewarded when a cell fired-up across from my position. I quickly composed a scene then sought shelter from some low-growing brush (that’s somewhat of an oxymoron). As you can see below, I was rewarded for my diligence!
For those of you reading this and thinking: “These guys are absolutely nuts,” you would be correct. Lightning can jump on average 10 miles between strikes. We knew if we were close enough to hear thunder, we were close enough to be hit. The Grand Canyon, from rim-to-rim, can vary in distance from 4 to 18 miles. Yes, we were putting ourselves in harm’s way; yet, there was really no other way to compose these scenes without being out in the middle of it all. We also knew all the stats: roughly 87 people are killed each year by lightning strikes (10% of all those hit). The other 90% have various types of injuries that can last the remainder of their lives.
If these stats aren’t enough to put you off and you interested in capturing daytime lightning, please realize that you could be placing yourself in some type of danger in order to get images of merit – at least at the Grand Canyon. In other locations, I could see staying far enough away – it’s really your call. If you can get past that and still wish to try your hand at this exhilarating type of photography, then here are some of my recommendations:
Purchase a Stepping Stone Products Lightning Trigger – Approximately $390.00 (including modified remote cord). As of this writing, there are other companies that sell triggers but I’ve yet to hear of one that will do a better job. This is the one that has proven to work!
Camera shutter-lag rated .60 milliseconds or slower. For a list of cameras, please click here: Camera Compatibility Chart
Camera settings: Manual mode (best at reducing shutter lag) (recommended 1/4 – 1/15th second shutter – though longer can allow for more bolts), manual focus (again, reduces shutter lag), f/16 or 22, a polarizer, Neutral Density, or VariND duo filter to cut down the ambient light.
Single-frame drive mode
Noise Reduction modes (can remain on but will cut time between frames – this is a post-processing function and will not influence shutter-lag time).
Test Lightning Trigger upon each setup with either a portable flash unit or a television remote.
Lens Hood – will help prevent rain from striking front of lens if it begins to sprinkle and there is no wind.
Plastic bags to protect camera and trigger from heavy rain.
Lint free cloths: for wiping rain drops off lens.
Light rain gear: where there is lightning there is a good chance there will also be rain.
Proper Sequencing of Lightning Trigger (at least with Canon cameras):
Turn off Lightning Trigger and camera.
Attach Lightning Trigger to hot shoe.
Connect modified remote cable to Lightning Trigger.
Attach other end of modified remote cable to camera’s remote terminal.
Turn on Lightning Trigger.
Turn on Camera.
Test by firing small flash or television remote pointing at Lightning Trigger’s sensor.
For more information regarding thunderstorms and lightning facts, please click here: National weather Service Lightning Facts.