Lightning at dusk, Mono Lake, CA, USA

Lightning at dusk, Mono Lake (35mm, 30 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 250)

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.