The Detwiler Fire is now 85% contained, and emitting little smoke. As I mentioned in my last post, Claudia and I never felt that our house was in serious danger, but sadly, 63 homes were destroyed in the fire. None of our friends lost their homes, which we’re grateful for, but we feel for those who did lose their homes, even though we don’t know them. I’m sure that’s a very tough thing to go through. It is heartening, however, to see the community come together to help those who lost their homes.
The fire started a week before our Starry Skies Adventure workshop on the eastern side of the Sierra. Initially the fire was spewing out tons of smoke, and sending it over the mountains to the east, so Yosemite and the Mono Lake area were pretty socked in. But as the week wore on the smoke diminished, and by the time our workshop started the skies were remarkably clear.
On Monday evening at Mono Lake we photographed a beautiful sunset, and then, while waiting for it to get dark, we tried to capture some distant lighting strikes. A storm cell was moving gradually from south to north off to the east, but the sporadic lightning was difficult to capture. You’d point your camera toward the last lightning strike, then wait, only to have a bolt appear out of the frame to the left or right. Lightning is always hard to photograph, and you definitely need some luck.
When photographing distant lightning my strategy is to wait until it’s dark enough for the lightning to stand out, compose a scene looking toward the area with the most electrical activity, and then make a series of long exposures, hoping that a bolt appears in one of those frames. Choosing the focal length is always a dilemma: the wider the lens, the greater the odds of catching lightning on the frame, but the smaller the bolt will appear if you do catch one.
On Monday I started out using my 70-200mm zoom, but when the lightning moved north I switched to my 16-35mm lens (at 35mm) to include the entire row of tufa formations, as that seemed like the most natural and balanced composition for that view. I made a continuous series of 30-second exposures, gradually opening up the aperture and then increasing the ISO as the sky got darker. Finally, on the 17th frame with that composition, I caught two flashes of lightning. The first flash (toward the left side of the frame in the photograph above) appeared as just a bright spot in the sky, but the second one (in the middle) showed several distinct bolts emanating from that one discharge. The lightning is a small part of the photograph, but it stands out clearly, and was complemented, luckily, by some lingering sunset color in the clouds.
We ended up having great conditions for our workshop. Some beautiful afternoon clouds led to a couple of great sunsets, with skies then clearing after dark to reveal the stars. And we got to photograph lightning as well – or at least try to. After all the smoke we felt very fortunate to see such beautiful skies.
— Michael Frye
Related Posts: Detwiler Fire; Lightning Over the Central Valley; Fireworks
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.
I feel kind of funny making a suggestion like this to you, Michael, but I think that if you crop out the top half of the sky, the lightning bolt would stand out much more….
Well you shouldn’t feel funny about that Monika, because an idea like that can lead to a discussion, and that’s always good. Yes, cropping off some of the sky would make the lightning stand out more. But to me that’s not the point of the photo. The lightning is an accent, a small-but-important focal point, but only part of the story I was trying to tell. I wanted to convey the feeling of that dusky evening, with the sky, clouds, water, tufa, and distant lightning. Cropping off part of the sky would convey a different mood – darker and a bit more ominous. Including more of the sky and clouds gives the image a more expansive feeling, and adds a bit of serenity to balance the ominousness of the lightning. That’s more the mood I was after. The lightning was far away, and didn’t feel threatening. We couldn’t even hear thunder. It was more of a pleasant light show off in the distance during the beautiful twilight.
I’m seeing a wonderful moody view of Mono Lake under darkening skies with sunset color in the clouds. The lightning to me is not the subject. It’s too small to be the subject unless this was cropped so severely it would lose it’s scenic value.
Thanks Howard! You’re right, the lightning is not the subject. It’s an accent, a small-but-important focal point. But I have to say that discussions about what the subject of a photo is make me a little uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea to ask yourself what the subject of the photo is, because that will help you decide what to include and what not to include. But I feel the question is a little too simplistic, and answering it can lead to excluding things that would actually add to the photograph. There’s often more than one subject, and the “subject” can be a feeling, or a mood, or light, or a juxtaposition between two objects, or any number of things. In other words, it’s often not just a single object. I’d prefer to ask, “What are you trying to convey?” That, to me, is a question that can lead to a broader range of answers, and may get you closer to an answer that helps to really communicate something. And I think it’s more helpful to think in terms of visual focal points, rather than subjects. Almost every composition needs a focal point, but it doesn’t have to be large, or dominate the frame. It can be small, as long as it catches the viewer’s eye. Thinking about the “subject” of a photo implies that the subject has to dominate the frame, and that’s not always the case.
Hi Michael, I happened to be at Mono Lake this past Monday evening. I noticed a workshop group…that must have been you!
For whatever reason I wasn’t expecting much of a show as I drove up from Mammoth Lakes late that afternoon, but that was one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Glad you were there Blake! It was indeed a beautiful sunset.
I did not see you post any workshops on your site. Was this one posted? Are you going to have any in 2018?
Excellent shot Michael! Your timing is perfect to capture this lightning in your camera.
Thanks Jonathan! Though timing didn’t really have much to do with it. As I said in the post, I made a continuous series of 30-second exposures, hoping to catch lightning in one of them, so the camera’s shutter was open almost all the time for more than half an hour.