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Monsoon II

Blu-Ray discs available here.
Song by Kerry Muzzy: “Palladio Rebuilt” find it on iTunes (please consider supporting Kerry by purchasing the single or an album!)
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I’ve been chasing the monsoon in Arizona for about 6-7 years now. This summer was different though. Back in late July, I was wondering why it felt like I was out chasing more than ever before. And then I remembered. I had a job last summer. This year I didn’t. I went full-time photography in November of 2014 and haven’t looked back.

I was free to roam and had virtually no limitations.  I even had multiple chases where I never actually wend to bed, but instead chased all night. I took the kids to New Mexico at one point early in the season.

Last year I counted roughly 31 total days that I chased a storm during the monsoon. This summer: 48. Yikes.

17,000 miles driven, which was about 3,000 more than last year. Perhaps the biggest difference this year was shooting nearly 60,000 more time-lapse frames than I did in 2014. 105,000 total. And what sticks out to me even more than any of the other numbers above, is that only 55,000 of those 105,000 frames made it into Monsoon II.

What that means is I was able to stuff this new film with only of the best of the best. We missed out on some of the huge dust storms like I’ve captured in years past, but overall, I think this represents some of the best weather I’ve ever photographed in Arizona. There are stunning shelf clouds, gorgeous rain shafts, lots of blowing dust, tons of lightning, and even multiple mini-supercells/mesocyclones. The brief meso over Cottonwood at the 3:38 mark is one of my all-time favorites.

I can’t talk much more about the film without addressing the music real quick. The song is called Palladio (Rebuilt) and it’s once again by the amazing Kerry Muzzey who donated it to me for Monsoon II. He also let me use another song of his for my previous film, The Chase and I’m beyond grateful for his generosity. I mean, how do you thank someone enough for that? Click here to find the song on iTunes and please support his work! I’ve said it a million times…the music is at least 50% of these movies I make. Kerry’s art helps bring my films to life. Thank you my friend!

A few other words of thanks. My good friend and plains chase buddy, Andy Hoeland…always helps with forecasting and things he sees that I might miss. Mike Leuthold…his forecasting models at UofA have been hugely beneficial and it’s been fun to get to know him better this summer! Jeff Beamish in Tucson for helping me out when I’m down there! All the National Weather Service offices here in Arizona, especially Phoenix…thanks for all the hard work you do, even though it’s not always appreciated. You get bashed when you are wrong, and don’t get enough credit when you are right.  And to my buddy Jay Worlsey…he helped me loop a 6:15 song into an 8:30 song. Thanks for showing me the way my friend!

Above everyone else though…my wife Jina. I thank her every time I make a film because without her this would be impossible. Now she’s working part-time, so  when she comes home and I’m gone, and she has the kids to take care of as well…unless they happen to be with me that day. And this summer I was gone even more and she took it all in stride. There is nothing like having someone behind you, pulling for you, supporting you and being your biggest fan. Thank you Jina!

When I’m out there capturing footage for these films, I’m constantly thinking about the story I want to tell. For example, I wanted a lot of erupting, towering cumulus at the beginning to launch into the meatier clips. I started laying out the film back in mid-August. Certain clips I already knew would be in certain places in relation to the ups and downs of the song itself. As the season wore on, I gathered more and more clips and began to lay out the entire film. I’d remove clips when I got something better. There was exhausting editing, re-editing, looping music, reluctantly dropping clips that didn’t work or were unfixable and watching it over, and over and over, to make sure I was telling the story I wanted to tell.

At one point, about halfway through…I was telling Jina that I have a lot of great stuff, but still haven’t shot the final scene yet. I had no idea what it would be, but I knew I didn’t have it. And then that very night (or maybe the next day)…I was out west of Tonopah and I knew on the way home that the monsoon had finally delivered my ending.

That is what is so amazing about doing this. You hit the road with zero idea about what you’re going to see over the course of a summer. You might imagine scenarios or have ideas, but they get blown out of the water by reality. And that’s what I love about it.

My hope is that you can see and feel that love in this film. The beauty of the monsoon in Arizona. This is where I’m from and this is home.

 

 

Looking ahead

Me and Lyla

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Last year on January 3rd, I wrote a blog post that talked about some things I was excited about for 2011. Appears as though that might end up being an annual tradition around these parts.

I shot this little self-portrait of me and Lyla back on September 15th, the last day we went stormchasing in 2011 (if you bought my book, you’ve seen this already). At the time, I believe I was actually standing there thinking about what an amazing  summer it had been and how sad I was to see it end.

But then the fall was also amazing. I was more busy and photographed more families/couples than I ever had before. And now this new year looks like it could be the best yet. The weddings are starting to pile up. I even get to shoot one in Park City, Utah this August. My haboob photo will be in the next issue of Arizona Highways. And I’m praying and crossing my fingers that perhaps I can find a publisher for my Stormchasing Arizona series.

What’s weird is that I’m having a hard time writing this post for some reason. The words aren’t easy to find this morning. Maybe because the future is so huge and wide open for me right now, I just don’t even know what to say about it.

Which is why I’ll just end it with this:

I love what I do so much. I love being passionate about the weather and stormchasing during the Arizona summers. I love photographing kids and families. I love meeting couples who have decided to get married. I love the idea of getting to know them and their stories.  I love walking around with them as we take engagement photos. I love the big wedding day where I get to be a part of something magical. I love taking pictures of the babies that eventually arrive later down the road.

But mostly…I just love what I do.

Bring it on, 2012.

Stormchasing Arizona 2011 is ready for Pre-Order!

Stormchasing Arizona

I’ve been a writer of sorts for a long time now. Started with a three-year or so stint doing sports writing, then some entertainment jabbering, a lot of personal bits and of course, stories to go along with the work I’m doing in photography. But during all that time, if I ever thought about publishing a book, it was always with the idea of writing some kind of science fiction novel or something like that. In fact, I actually wrote a few chapters.

Yet here I am on volume two of Stormchasing Arizona and that sci-fi story sits waiting for me to re-visit it someday.

The book was finished last Friday, November 4th and now is available for Pre-Order! I’m so totally stoked about this year’s edition, which is filled with over 100 images and 25 more pages than last year’s.

You can see a preview of the book, more details on what’s inside and the way to pre-order by clicking right here or the My Book link at the top of this page!

Thanks so much to everyone involved with making this a possibility!

A lightning photography tutorial

(exif: canon eos 5d mark ii, canon 85mm 1.8, iso 100, f/7.1, 30 sec – Click for a larger view – Taken this summer in Arizona)

Whenever I post lightning photos, I usually get a few questions about HOW I shoot them. What’s most surprising though are the ones I get from fellow photographers. In the last few days I’ve received a few questions that can basically be summed up like this:

“How do you get the timing right?”

The other one I get is whether or not I used a lightning trigger. I’ll address that later in this post.

I’m not mentioning this as a way to belittle those photogs with that question. I guess I just assumed that everyone that has a DSLR would know how to shoot lightning. I mean, the reason I bought my first one was BECAUSE of what it could do for me when it came to photographing lightning. Obviously I’m realizing now that it’s not something that everyone readily knows and so I figured I’d write up a little lightning photography tutorial on how I get my shots.

Let’s get started.

Opening Statement

I figured I would just start with this: The hardest part isn’t the timing. Timing doesn’t matter (mostly).

The hardest part is finding the lightning.

What You Need

My first lightning photos were captured using a Point & Shoot that could take 3 shots a second. I put it on a tripod and held the shutter button down. It would take about 100 photos before it quit and I had to re-press the shutter. The timing was everything on this because lightning can take place faster than quarter second and you can miss it easily.

Or you can miss the beginning of the strike. Or the end. You want all of it. I want all of it. Look at the photo at the top of this post.

You can shoot that way if you want, but if you are serious about lightning photography, you have to lose that crutch of “timing.”

Equipment list:

  • A DSLR camera
  • Tripod
  • External shutter release
  • Extra batteries
  • Ability to shoot wide or zoomed
  • Umbrella (or something to keep your camera dry if you can)
  • A healthy fear of lightning
  • Luck

Your camera should have a Bulb mode or at least the ability to shoot up to 30-second exposures. Most do, but just make sure  your camera’s shutter can be triggered using a remote shutter release.

Shutter releases can come in a few styles. There are simple manual releases, like this one from Canon. Or ones that allow you to sit back and relax while your camera does the work, like this one.

Lenses are important. Sometimes a wide angle is great, but it also means you are practically right under the lightning which isn’t always a good idea. With my full-frame Mark II, I’d rather use either my 50mm 1.4 or 85mm 1.8. The photo at the top of this tutorial was with the 85mm. It allow you to to zoom into a storm that isn’t right on top of you. Prime lenses are also super-sharp and seem to give the best results.

What I’d really love of course would be a 70-200 for lightning because you can cover a ton of ground with that thing. I still love my primes though.

One of the reasons I like to use a wide angle from time to time is when I want to get the scope of a thunderstorm along with some lightning, instead of the lightning being the main focal point.

Settings and Whatnot

You see lightning a few miles away, it’s dark out, so you pull off into a nice, open area…take out the camera, mount it on your tripod and now want to shoot some lightning. What do you do?

Here are the steps I tend to go through:

  1. Plug in my shutter release
  2. Put the camera in Manual or Bulb
  3. ISO to 100
  4. Aperture to f/5.0 or greater
  5. Shutter speed to 15 seconds (or skip this in bulb mode)
  6. Aim towards the lightning
  7. Fire off a practice shot

This stuff can vary of course. If it’s still dusk out, I’ll put my aperture to the smallest it can go (like f/22 or something) and perhaps even put a CPL filter or an ND filter to help stop down the light a bit.  It just depends on what you are doing or the situation you are in.

But if it’s dark out, the above settings are a good starting point. If your practice shot is too bright, increase your F-stop or shorten your exposure.

Aperture and ISO

Two very important aspects of your shot are the settings of the aperture and ISO. I’ll just talk briefly about what they do for you and why you want them where they are.

ISO is always, ideally, at 100. Especially at night when you have a dark sky and bright lightning. Bumping it to ISO 800 would only end up causing overexposure. During the daytimes (as you can see from some shots at the bottom of this tutorial), sometimes you may up the ISO because you want to be a bit more sensitive to that light.

Aperture. The wider your aperture, the more overexposed your shot will end up being. Hence you really never want to get much wider than F/5. The closer the lightning gets to you, the higher your F-stop should go. It doesn’t ALWAYS have to change, but it’s just a guide more than a rule.

The Long Exposure

So the way to counteract the “timing” issue it to negate it entirely by using long exposures. Yes, there are lightning triggers out there, but I really don’t see why you’d use them at night (which I hear some people actually do). During the day, yes, that makes total and complete sense. But I still don’t think a lightning trigger is fast enough to capture the entire strike.

I’d never use a lightning trigger at night. Baffles me.

The long exposure is the way to go. Depending on your camera, there are a few ways you can go about doing this.

My old Rebel XSi could do Bulb mode (of course) so I used my manual cable release to hold open my shutter until I saw a lightning strike. This is a good way to start. You hold it open…wait for the strike and then choose to release the shutter or hope for another strike.  I’d normally not go more than 30 seconds without a strike before releasing and then shooting another shot. The longer it’s open, the more noise, the more cloud movement, etc.

The problem of course is if you miss a strike during that brief 1-2 seconds between close and open again. It’s a killer when you miss a strike because of that and I’ve let out a few curses when it’s happened.

Now, my 5D Mark II has a cool feature. I can set the camera up in Manual mode for a 10-second exposure and then on my cable shutter release, put it in locked mode so it’s continually pushed down and then just let it go. The camera will just keep firing 10 second exposures as long as that shutter release is held down. Sit back, relax. My Rebel wouldn’t do this. So Bulb mode was the only way to go.

If you have a fancier shutter release that has the timer built in, you can program it to shoot say a 10-second exposure every 10 seconds and that should work even on the Rebel. However, programming one of those things out in the darkness, during a storm, when you are in a big hurry is a royal PAIN. It’s so much easier to change the shutter speed or to just do Bulb mode.

Bulb Mode or Manual

So what’s the better mode to shoot in? And why?

It basically depends on what you are going for.

Manual mode allows you full control. If you want, you can do as short as two seconds or five minutes. It’s up to you. If you are shooting in manual and set for say, 10 seconds, you are stuck with that until you change it. You have no control mid-shot.

Why does full control matter? Well, let’s say you have an awesome storm going on. Strikes are going nuts. With Bulb mode you can leave the shutter open as long as you feel necessary to capture as many strikes as you can in one shot. Sometimes you are just going for one. Other times you can get 2, 3 or more in a short timespan. Bulb mode let’s you control that better.

(There are people that like to combine multiple lightning strike shots into a single image…I don’t like to do that. I’d rather capture it in a longer exposure.)

Manual mode is nice if you don’t care that much. You can aim the camera at a spot, set it for 30 seconds, lock the shutter release down and sit back. I like this mode for safety purposes because I can setup the camera outside my car and then hide inside to avoid getting struck by a bolt.

This past week while in Memphis I put it outside under a patio umbrella and let it fire off into the night sky while I sat inside watching TV.

Focusing and Live Mode

You’d never think about it, but focusing is one of those things that can bite you in the ass when you are shooting lightning. It’s of the upmost importance to get a clear, crisp strike. Focus can also be difficult when you are in the middle of nowhere in the darkness. What do you focus on?

Your best bet is distant city lights. What you can do if you want is to shoot in Live Mode, find some lights, zoom into them and manually focus until they are sharp. I’ve also used stars or the moon. If all else fails, you can also just set your lens to the infinity focus line and hope for the best!

Live Mode is also a good idea on some cameras because it keeps your mirror locked up and quickens the speed of your next exposure. I pretty much use it 100% of the time.

A note about Infinity on your focus ring: If your aperture is set at 5.6 and you use the Infinity line to focus, instead of doing an auto focus on something on the horizon, like city lights, etc, you could end up with blurring lightning. Because the aperture is so wide open, being off even by just a hair on the Infinity line can screw you.

Hence the need to have extra batteries!

(UPDATE: Forgot to include this: Once you get your lens focused,  switch it on MANUAL FOCUS. If you have it on Auto, it may try to focus on the dark for the next shot and mess up all your images! Manual focus! A better method for this is to get your camera setup for “Back Button Focus”, which you can Google. I highly recommend this as something you should just do anyways)

The Chase and Luck

Back to my original statement up top: The toughest part of shooting lightning is actually finding lightning.

It has to be one of the most frustrating things to photograph. Sometimes it can be like shooting fish in a barrel and sometimes you drive hundreds of miles in a day to chase it down only to miss it and see it’s behind you now and you gotta drive THAT way, and you are getting tired, it’s late (or early, who knows) and you are mad, annoyed and running out of gas and patience. You gotta get lucky sometimes.

But it’s like anything that’s elusive and hard to find: Once you have it in your hands, it’s exhilarating.

The key is to put yourself in a good spot to shoot it. If it’s your home area, know the high points, where cool things are, how the storms usually operate and move and slowly understand/predict where they will end up. Watch the radar, pay attention to where the storms are and where they are likely to be later that day. Learn how they develop.

A big thing I do is to bring along my laptop, an internet connection and watch the radar. It’s a HUGE help if you are suddenly unsure where to go next.

The shooting part isn’t that tough really.

Wherever you pull over, just judge how far away the strikes are and choose a good lens. Normally you want that strike to fill the frame. Take a practice shot or two and see how your sky and clouds look. If they are acceptable, then go ahead with your Manual or Bulb method and shoot until you capture a strike.

Try to avoid the desire to stop shooting and hit the “Play” button to look back at a strike. I do this all the time, but it can cause you to miss another one. Just know it’s going to be on that card the rest of the night and you can look later! The only reason to look would be to make sure your exposure looks okay.

Composition

I know it may seem funny, but composition is still key to a good lightning photo. It’s not completely about just aiming and capturing a strike.

Most of the time at night you’ll be ending up with foreground silhouettes. so try to frame them according to your good senses. I like to have these elements in my shots because without them, a lightning strike has no scale or scope. Sometimes a strike disappearing behind a tree is awesome. A lone silhouette of a cactus can be sweet with a giant strike behind it. Usually you are in such a hurry it’s tough, but do your best to find cool things to frame in your shot. Powerlines or a towering radio antenna can be fun. Lightning reflections in puddles of water are awesome if you can find them.

Another discipline to have is the ability to toss out subpar strikes. Just because you got a shot with lightning in it doesn’t mean it’s good. Some strikes are just boring and weak. The best ones have interesting curves, twists, or are giant explosions of trails going everywhere. Use your own judgment, but try to be okay with some shots not making the cut.

Dust, Wind and Rain

Three natural elements that make things tough are dust, wind and rain. Nothing can frustrate you more than knowing you have some awesome lightning going on and there is too much rain, wind or dust blowing around.

To combat the wind, I usually take off the camera strap before leaving the house. When you are out in the field trying to shoot and there is so much wind you are worried about camera shake during your 30-second exposure, look for ways to shield the camera. Drop the tripod closer to the ground, use your car as a buffer, whatever.

Rain is tough. A few sprinkles can be dealt with, but if it gets heavier, you gotta bail. Rain spot on a lens can totally ruin a lightning strike. If you aren’t super-close to the lightning, you can use an umbrella a little bit to shield the camera. I’ve also used my body or just a hand above the lens. If you use a 50mm or 85mm that have nice, deep lens hoods, that helps too!

My buddy Shane Kirk taught me a sweet method for shooting in pouring rain that worked for me last year: Put your camera on a tripod or on the dashboard of your car and put the wipers on. You’ll never see the wipers and you’ll still get some good shots. It’s key though to find a spot without lights anywhere, because they’ll reflect off the brief water spots and could cause some issues. The closer your camera is to the windshield, the better.

Also, now that I have the 4Runner this year, I plan on shooting out the back whilst sitting inside to avoid the rain. We’ll see how that works.

Dust is dust…but I figure I can always get my camera cleaned right? I’m brutal on my equipment during a stormchase.

Safety and Stuff

This may not be evident, but I’m sort of terrified of lightning. If it’s super-close to where I am, I’ll stop watching the storm from the patio and hang inside. I have no desire to get struck.

So being out there shooting the stuff in the middle of storms is kind of crazy for me. I’m super-excited to be doing it, but I’ll also cower in the car while holding my shutter release.

This is a good thing though. You should be afraid of lightning. It can kill you. This fear will keep you safe while you are out there. It will stop you from running to the top of a hill in the middle of a storm, becoming the tallest object around. And while you are standing there, it starts to rain so you pull out your handy-dandy metal umbrella and now you are a sitting duck.

If I see a lightning strike suddenly appear over my head, it’s time to get in the car.

While you are in the act of shooting, watch the sky. Don’t completely focus just on where your camera is pointed, because it is ALREADY looking that way and will capture the lightning for you. Keep a look-out for stuff developing around you and behind you and above you. Not only will this keep you safe but it will also alert you to a better shooting option.

Also, pull off the side of roads as far as you can. You don’t want a semi crushing you into oblivion. It’s always best to find a safe pull-out, dirt road, parking lot, etc.

Post-Processing

Tweaking your lightning strike images can turn them from being just okay to being awesome.  Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw has some great ways to play with your exposure to get it perfect. Lowering the exposure, upping contrast, fill light, blacks, saturation, etc…all of it can greatly enhance your final product. I also play with filters in Photoshop, like Phototools or Nik.

Depending on the ISO you used or how good your camera is, you may need to do some noise reduction, or clean up dust spots.

Cropping is a huge thing. You may have framed it well, but suddenly the strike is in the lower right corner. Try to crop the image to get the strike to fill more of the frame if the rest of the shot is boring.

Conclusion

Lightning photography is amazingly fun and can also be amazingly frustrating. It’s a euphoric feeling to look back at your shots and see a huge strike captured. You’ll also want to cry when you wasted a tank of gas, got home at 3am only to work the next day and didn’t capture a single strike.

I’m still learning. Heck, a few days ago I discovered how great the 85mm 1.8 is for doing this. There are always better ways to do things. The key is to practice. You can read my tutorial, or someone else’s, but until you get out there and do it, you aren’t really gonna know what’s going to work and what wont.

Have fun with it, be safe and please ask me any questions you want about what I do. I’ll gladly answer and do whatever I can to help you out.

For those in Arizona, I’m planning on doing some On-Call Stormchasing Trips this summer where you can ride along with me and hopefully we’ll shoot together and learn together. More to come on that.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite shots from last year and some of the EXIF info on them.

Lighting Photo Arizona

(exif: 55mm, iso 400, f/29, 9.0 sec – dusk settings. Not sure if I put an ND or CPL on for this or not…probably)


(exif: 17mm, iso 250, f/10, 6 sec)

Lightning Sunset in Tucson

(exif: 18mm, iso 250, f/22, 6.0 seconds – Narrow aperture, but higher ISO to be more sensitive to the light)

Lighting Photo Arizona

(This was the dashboard shot from last year – 28mm, iso 100, f/5.6, 9.0 sec – probably should have upped the F-stop on this, it’s pretty over-exposed. But it was less than 1/4 mile away anyways!)

Symmetry - Arizona Monsoon Lightning

(exif: 70-210mm f/4, 205mm, f/5.6, iso 400, 30 sec)

Stormchasing: A long fence

Here’s another shot of a cool barbed wire fence in the sandy hills of Nebraska during a severe weather outbreak. The clouds are scary here, in fact, on the horizon just left of the fence, you can see a dark area that almost looks like a funnel dropping behind the hills. In fact, I was standing with a few other guys and we all thought it WAS a funnel, so within a second of taking this shot, I had ran into the truck and headed north.

But the reason I love this photo is more of the fence starting on the left and disappearing into the center of the frame than of the clouds. I do enjoy how HDR can make clouds look almost like a painting when processed a certain way, which I think kind of works here.

Storm Photos: Part 3

I found a few more photos from last week that I didn’t upload, plus a redux of the “Shrouded in Clouds” photo of the Superstitions that I posted on Monday.

That last one…I think would make an awesome print, in either color or black and white.

A shot of the Superstitions while it was raining…the clouds were hanging low around the cliffs and the scene was magnificent.

Another shot of the Superstition cliffs.

This was an amazing sight…mammatus clouds leading out from a thunderstorm dropping rain. You can see the rain on the horizon on the right, while these bubbly clouds rise from it.

This might be one of my most favorite photos. I posted it already here in color, but this is a black and white, cropped and has a border around it.

The above picture makes me think of a quote from A Few Good Men: “YOU WANT THIS ON THAT WALL! YOU  NEED THIS ON THAT WALL!”

*grin*

As always, these are for sale as prints, email me if interested.