The Lightning Hunter
13 Apr 2008
There I was huddled beneath a metal awning next to a picnic table made of the same on a warm southwestern night. The hair on the back of my neck surely stuck straight out from the charge in the air. Yet, there was too much adrenaline flowing for me to care. So I taunted the Gods and clasped my hand around a metal cable release screwed to an old Minolta SRT-101 sitting atop a big daddy Bogen Tripod.
This was my first trip into Monument Valley and when the storm approached I had been whistling a tune while preparing to make camp. Lightning was no stranger to me and I flashed back to my boyhood in Amarillo. I wondered if this storm would be packing the usual tornadoes and hail that accompanied the monsters that frequented the elevated plateau in Texas where I grew up. Maybe that is why fear never came over me; the storm was always such a welcome change. A quick cleansing of the land leaving the air fresh and clean, plus whitewater torrents to frolic in as they moved through the drainage channels.
Flashes of light began to appear over a wonderful pair of tall flat buttes. The realization that camp here was not prudent came to bear as I began to check my film and composition. Not sure of what to do I had just enough experience to know that long exposures would be the best. So that's what I began with 15 second increments at f/8. Just as I got the first exposure started a wonderful big bright bolt jumped from the sky and danced across both buttes in my frame but never left my field of view. I let out a big "whoopee" feeling blessed and thanking the gods and from that moment on I have been hooked, but this story does not end there.
My bliss filled sense of accomplishment was soon gone as the storm quickly came right at me sideways with piercing rain rockets and howling wind. My "come strike me now" metal awning was no longer shelter from the storm, so I retreated to the back seat of my Dodge Shadow. Have you ever tried to make salable photographs from the back seat of a compact car? Neither had I, and now the storm is directly overhead pelting the car with hail and bolts of lightning seemingly in my lap. Pumped from my first shot I salivated for another and now I pointed the camera in the opposite direction, east as the storm moved over me. It was pitch black and that made composing nearly impossible, and each errant flash of light was a blessing and a millisecond of light to adjust my shot. My minds eye had a vision of the Mittens, left and right, centered awash in purple hues and receiving bolts from heaven in all the right places. I tried to keep still for the now 30 second exposures I was doing, knowing each breath could roll the Dodge enough to blur the shot. Then, blessed like a Professional Quarterback in the middle of a game-wining zone, came the second lightning shot of my career. Not as perfect as the first but a bolt none the less, right in the middle of the Mittens made famous by old John Wayne movies. I thought I got it, but not really sure, and as quickly as it came the storm was gone. I would have to wait six weeks to return home and have my Kodachrome 64 and Ectachrome 50 processed.
The remainder of that first six-week photographic outing was spent all over the glorious southwestern part of our beautiful countryside. Blessed I was to photograph old Indian dwellings and rock formation across Colorado and Utah. Cactus and their flowers spread all across Arizona. Beautiful cities, deserts, mountains, and beaches all over California and the White Sands of New Mexico. Yet somehow nothing matched up to the memory and the thrill of the lightning hunt and capture. It would be five more years before I would have another opportunity.
Tips on capturing Lightning on film:
* Your Camera must be able to do extended exposures for nighttime lightning hunting. Either through Program mode or a bulb setting. Data backs are good for this and can be set at intervals for hands free operation.
* A good sturdy tripod is a must and I like to use one with good wide rubber feet. If my set-up gets struck, the charge will have a better probability of heading into the ground rather than jumping to me and welding my watch to my wrist.
* Film will depend on the use that you are planning, but as a rule I never shoot anything with a speed of over a hundred. Then I get good crisp enlargements without grain that can also be cause by reciprocity failure at long exposures.
* Use two cameras, I recently caught a wonderful shot on three different cameras. It is easy to administer three set-ups when using long exposures as you can simply start one and by the time you get back from the others number one is ready to advance and start again.
* Study your storm, lightning is much like the charge you get walking across the carpet. Remember when you touched someone and accidentally shocked them? Yet, when you tried again nothing, you had to drag your feet across the carpet again to set up a new charge. Lightning is much the same building up the charge then depositing it on the landscape.
* If your storm is moving North at 15 miles per hour and is discharging every 30 seconds, it is moving about .12 miles between strikes. It is easy to chart your strikes using some simple math equations. Count in your head or use a stopwatch, chart the movement across the horizon in inches. Plot your next strike and be ready to capture it on film.
Some tips on safety and locating lightning: No place outside is safe from lightning during a thunderstorm. The best way to avoid lightning is not putting you, your family, and friends in danger in the first place. Weather information is all around you; scan the skies 360 degrees around you. Subscribe to weather and lightning notification services. Pay attention to TV, radio, and online weather forecasts or listen to Noah Weather Radio.
Experts agree the 30/30 rule is one of the best ways to avoid danger of lightning striking you, simply follow these steps:
* Designate someone from your group to be the storm watcher.
* Use the 30/30 rule.
o When you see lightning, count the seconds until you hear thunder
o If the time is less than 30 seconds, quickly go inside a substantial building. If such a building is not available, a metal-topped vehicle is the next best choice.
o Wait a least 30 minutes after seeing the last lightning or hearing the last thunder before going back outside.
o Get off the water, out of open spaces, and away from trees.
The two most deadly places you can be are in open spaces or under trees. Also avoid things which conduct electricity such as water, utility lines, and metal fences. If you are still outdoors and lightning has struck close to you, crouch down into a ball on the balls of your feet. You goal is to be the smallest possible target with the least contact with the ground. Do not seek shelter under tall isolated trees or unsubstantial shelters.
It is better to be wet from the rain than dead or disabled by lightning.
If someone is struck, call 9-1-1 or the emergency services in your area. Check for a pulse, if the victim's heart has stopped or they have stopped breathing, immediately administer CPR.
If in the home, protect your electronics and valuables by unplugging them during the storm. They can be zapped by direct or indirect hits and power surges during the storm. Several people die every year from lightning by talking on the phone. Be smart; unplug your TV, computer and stereo system before going to work in the morning. Do the same overnight while you are in bed, including phone and cable connections.
Follow these guidelines and maybe you won't be one of the 100 people who are killed each year in the United States only. Experts estimate that ten to twenty times that are injured each year by lightning, totaling several thousand or about 6 per day.
At any one time, about 2,000 thunderstorms are occurring around the world. These storms provide spectacular lightning that strikes the Earth up 100 times every second. We know that 20 million lightning strikes occur inside the borders of the United States every year.
Wow, I just noticed a nice Anvil has formed to the West out my office window, time to load up the van and get me some. Hope to see you out there! Keep Shooting! www.chrisboswell.com