BEHIND THE IMAGE: LIGHTENING ON WHITE SANDS
Lightening on White Sands - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, File # 0509517
Link To Original Image
Fantastic image... That’s what I think about whenever I see this picture. Of course, I have to temper my enthusiasm because I shot the image... Still, I love this picture.
Why do I like this image so much? There are definitely artistic qualities to this picture. The rain, the clouds, the cold blue light, and sand... oh, there’s the lightening. Is that what’s interesting to me about this image? Nope... It’s interesting to me because it has a story. A pretty good story at that.
This image was taken a few months before I moved to the area. An annual occurrence to the Tularosa Basin is the monsoon season. Most folks don’t think about it raining very much in a desert such as this. But, it does and it’s an annual event.
What happens during the monsoon is just about every evening the clouds build due to the sun heating the moist air. As the ground gets hotter, the air elevates to colder temperatures. As the warm, moist air gets colder, it turns into clouds and eventually into thunderstorms. The end result is usually thunder and lightening... lots of thunder and lightening.
The amazing part about the great southwest is the air is so dry that you can see the rain come straight down onto the ground. Sometimes, you can see one cloud build to a rain-shower than thunderstorm then eventually calapse into a huge down-pour. That’s sort of what’s happening here. The rain cloud has built itself into eventually dropping a torrential amount of rain. Along with this water comes thunder and lightening.
From where I was standing, this rain shower was several miles away. I had hiked about 3/4’s mile into the desert to get away from any foot-prints from the many tourist that visit Whitesands National Monument. I set my camera up hoping for a break in the clouds to get sun rays just after sunset. However, I was not expecting to get such a performance with the lightning.
Shooting images of lightning is kind of a hit or miss affair. The problem is timing your camera shot with the lightening. While I’m pretty quick on the trigger, I’m not lightening fast. In fact, the only reason I got this images was because the storm seemed to be striking the same part of the ground time after time after time. And then, it seem to shoot multiple lightning bolts to the ground during every event.
What this meant was the lightning was predictable. I was generally able to point my camera towards where the lightening was striking before, then at the first hint of a lightning bolt, I squeezed the camera’s trigger. What you don’t see are the three previous lightning bolts hitting the ground. All you see here is the last one I was able to capture. As I said, I’m fast but not that fast.
No, this image was not a long duration image where you opened the shutter for long times allowing the lightning bolt to strike the ground with less precision. It was a moderately short shutter speed where I pointed the camera towards where I previously saw lightning strikes and hoped for the best. I was lucky in other words.
The interesting thing you can’t necessarily see in this image is it’s a four image pano. What that means is the complete image is made up of four shots made vertically and stitched together using a great stitching program called Realviz. Someday I’ll get to writing an article on how I make these type of images. Normally, I shoot four images for my panos. I do this to make my compositions a bit more consistent. This helps my artistic process when out in the field. Since I shoot four images to make my panos, I typically shoot the images from left to right when the first picture I shoot is to the far left of the scene and the last one is shot to the far right of the scene. The problem here is the lightening is to the right portion of the image. I knew I wanted the composition as this is where the lightning was striking and the sunlight was peaking through to the left of the lightening. That meant if I used my normal shooting technique--shooting left to right--I’d have to quickly shoot images from left to right at the first hint of a lightning bolt. Clearly, that wasn’t going to work. What did I do? I simply set my camera to shoot the lightning. When I got that, I then shot my normal left to right pano and stitched the whole thing together during post processing. In the end, it was a pretty simple process.
Here’s where things got interesting. In fact, it got real threatening. Not a few minutes after this last image did a lightening bolt strike the ground a couple of dunes over. Time to Go!
I picked up my gear and high tailed it back to my car laughing all the way. Why was I laughing? I was laughing because I remembered having a discussion with one of my photo buddies a few months previous. The discussion was something along the lines of “oh, if only our wives knew what we were doing... they’d be sooo pissed”. So here I was practically running back to the car with a very electric conducive graphite tripod over my shoulder in a driving rain/electrical storm. I was thinking of my wife and the conversation I had.
Let’s talk about more things here.
First, was I nervous about my gear getting wet? Nope. I always carry a plastic trash-bag in the camera belt when I’m out in the field. That was pulled out as soon as the really big rain drops hit me. While I was completely soaked by the storm, my gear was completely safe.
How about why I like the lightning bolt image over the later sunset image? I think they’re both awesome. The thing I like about the lightning bolt image is it’s unique. I mean unique in the sense I don’t have any other images worth a pooo that have lightning bolts so obviously displayed. Also, the light of the setting sun is really awesome in this next image but I could’ve taken it anywhere. The white sands are not nearly so obvious as they are in the first image.
Some of you may be wondering about the blue qualities in the lightning bolt image. That’s what you get when the clouds are really dark and there isn’t much light. The clouds tend to absorb most of the red and green light letting through the blue. You can see the sun in the background is generally white or even slightly yellow for the setting sun. Some folks have a hard time understanding when they don’t believe the blue qualities of some cloudy images that that’s really what things look like when it’s cloudy.
There you have it, the story behind one of my favorite images. I hope there’s something there you might be able to take advantage to make you’re own photography better.
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