Lightning Photography: Playing it Safe

Each year the summer monsoon brings with it the return of moisture to the thirst-starved sprawling landscape and rocky canyons of the desert southwest. During this time photogenic thunderstorms abound as they pop up across the region, firing off localized sheets of rain, thunder and lightning!

Each day towering cumulus clouds build, eventually bursting, sending sweeping rains, wind, and dust across the desert floor. These storms typically have high bases which can create long and forking bolts of lightning to occur.

For photographers, these storms are truly the best in the world, and for this reason, we have Backcountry Journeys’ Southwest Monsoon: Grand Canyon Country. This is a fantastic tour where we spend seven days traveling across the high deserts of northern Arizona in search of compositions that will combine lighting and monsoon storms with some of the most iconic landscapes in the western United States. 

Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon X, as well as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon are all spots on this trip, which begins this weekend, in Flagstaff, Arizona. While each location can be a vacation in and of itself, we’ll be visiting and photographing all of them on a single, life-changing trip.

Lighting is truly one of nature’s most impressive displays, and capturing an image of a lightning bolt, composed well with haunting clouds and beautiful foreground is a challenge. In fact, the challenges with lightning photography are many. Getting in the right position to capture a storm, having your camera settings correct, and yes, getting lucky, are just a few.

How about some quick science? Lightning is a violent and sudden electrostatic discharge where two electrically charged regions in the atmosphere temporarily equalize themselves, usually during a thunderstorm. It is extremely hot. In fact, a flash can heat the air around it to temperatures five times hotter than the surface of the sun! This heat causes surrounding air to rapidly expand and vibrate, which creates the claps of thunder we hear a short time after seeing a lightning flash.

The three main kinds of lightning are created either inside one thundercloud, between two clouds, or between a cloud and the ground. All three can add nice dimensions to your photographs, or be the subjects of your photographs all by themselves.

An intra-cloud bolt occurs inside a cloud and is usually hard to see except for the burst-like flash it creates. A cloud-to-cloud bolt zig zags cleverly across the sky. Cloud-to-ground bolts drop from the thunderstorm usually striking something on the ground. These are the kind that makes you go “YIKES!” but also can be the most dynamic compositionally speaking. Amazing fact; it is estimated that there are roughly 100 cloud-to-ground strikes somewhere on the Earth’s surface every single second. Crazy!

While in the field we cannot afford to get so caught up in trying to capture an amazing bolt(s) of lighting that we forget a simple concept that should always remain in the forefront of our minds. Lightning is not only spectacular, but it can also be extremely dangerous. The danger can be mitigated but does require our respect.

For example, the heat from a bolt of lightning can vaporize the water inside of a tree, creating steam that can blow the tree apart. Think about that for a moment. Anyone who has spent time in the outdoors can attest to seeing a tree that had been previously blasted by a lightning strike. What is left can be a haunting reminder of what lighting is able to do. According to National Geographic, roughly 2,000 people are killed worldwide by lightning each year.

So how do we stay safe while photographing lighting?
First things first, be out in front of the weather forecasts. While the weather is challenging to predict, and lighting strikes are extremely unpredictable, having an idea of what is expected by forecasters can keep you from being caught in an unexpected storm.

Stay close to a relatively safe place to take cover. After buildings (that feature four walls and a roof), vehicles with metal roofs (with the windows rolled up) are the next safest place to take shelter. While the popular myth is that rubber tires keep vehicles safe, it is actually the metal frame of the vehicle that makes them relatively safe. If the vehicle were to be struck, the current would travel along the outside of its conductors, which in this case is the frame, down to the ground. Picnic pavilions, carports, and tents are not secure locations. If you find yourself away from your vehicle or a four-sided, roofed building, you can find the “next best place,” and avoid locations that would be hot spots for lightning strikes. According to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), you’ll want to locate terrain and other things that attract lighting and move away from those things immediately. High pointed terrain attracts lightning to the high points and nearby areas. Avoid peaks, ridges, and significantly higher ground during an electrical storm. Ridge lines, caves, and overhangs are not good options.

Try to keep the storms at a good distance. A general rule of thumb for calculating how far away lightning is striking is to count out how long between the sight of lightning and the sound of thunder. We all know this game, right? Count out loud “one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand,” then multiply the number by 1,000 and that will tell you roughly how many feet away the storm is. If you get to six one-thousand when you’re counting, the strike is approximately 6,000 feet away. The lightning 30/30 rule indicates that if it takes less than 30 seconds to hear thunder after seeing the flash, lightning is near enough to pose a threat; after the storm ends, wait 30 minutes before resuming outdoor activities.

Lightning is one of the most dangerous natural phenomena to photograph. One simple rule you should always keep in mind: if you can hear thunder, you’re vulnerable to being struck by lightning.

The following reminders and tips for reducing risk were taken from the National Weather Service:

  • NO PLACE outside is completely safe when thunderstorms are in the area.
  • If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.
  • When you hear thunder, immediately move to safe shelter: a substantial building with electricity or plumbing or an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle with windows up.
  • Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks. Cliffs and rocky overhangs are not good options for shelter.
  • Never lie flat on the ground.
  • Never shelter under an isolated tree.
  • Immediately get out and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water
  • Stay away from objects that conduct electricity (barbed wire fences, power lines, windmills, etc.)

Let’s recap:
Lightning is really unpredictable, and for us photographers, it needs to be a safe distance away. The high desert of northern Arizona offers an enormous landscape with views that can extend a hundred miles across the horizon, which can allow for storms that are far away to be visible. Because of the danger that is inherently present, we’ll always need to be ok with having to leave a location without our shot, in an effort to err on the side of safety. We’ll be safe, we’ll be smart, and we’ll allow for common sense and preparation to rule the day, so to speak. Shelter, in the way of a nearby vehicle, will always be available.

While on any Backcountry Journeys trip safety will always come before getting the shot. This isn’t just limited to our Southwest Monsoon: Grand Canyon Country trip. We’ll always have your safety as our number one priority, and it’s not just safety with regard to weather. Our guides are always sizing up activities with regard to safety. Most Backcountry Journeys guides are Wilderness First Responders (WFR), and have your safety at the forefront whether it applies to an assortment of things such as where we are photographing, how far we are hiking and potential terrain challenges that might present safety issues, and much, much more. We’ll never put ourselves in danger to get a photograph. 

Kenton Krueger








Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

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