Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f9, 30 second exposure

With the Arizona Diamondbacks on the road and the monsoon season coming to a close any day now I decided to focus on trying to get some good lightning shots for stock. So armed with my macbook pro logged onto the doppler radar on weather.com via my verizon wireless card off I went in search of something good.Day 1 led me into some empty farming fields near Queen Creek, AZ about 30 minutes prior to sunset to try and shoot some lightning. 

Nikon D3, 400mm, 100iso, f2.8, 1/1250th

There was only one problem…….no lightning! Checked the doppler radar again to see that the storm had fallen apart so I was stuck shooting the sunset. 

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 320iso, f2.8, 1/320th

It was a solid sunset but still nothing out of the norm for Arizona. I turned around 180 degrees to shoot some cloud images with the cool blue light of nightfall.

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 250iso, f2.8, 1/200th

After the sun went below the horizon the sky lit up behind the mountain briefly. It reminds me of the movie “Fire in the Sky” when they are driving through the mountains and see the sky glowing from the UFO.

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 250iso, f2.8, 1/125th

Day 2 I was relaxing on the couch about to watch 90210 (let the jokes begin!) when my father called me to inform me of a good storm going on south of me. I already had all my gear in the car so I hustled out the door and drove south to find a clear view of the sky to set up shop. As I was pulling into a field to shoot from I saw an amazing lightning bolt that really got me excited. Here is an artist rendering of how it looked.

I made that rending because once I actually was set up the storm died and this was what I ACTUALLY got.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f22, 4 second exposure

I stayed in the spot for about 30 minutes hoping the storm would build back up. It didn’t and I ended up with one weak lightning bolt shot.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4.5, 30 second exposure

Left that location and while driving back home I saw another storm north of me so I hauled ass north and ended up in another farmland area and set up shop. The storm was pretty active but it was a lot of inside the cloud lightning which basically looks like nothing inside the camera. The lightning that was visable to the ground was ok but the storm was just sao damn far away.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4.5, 30 second exposure

A few minutes after the above shot right at the click of the 30 second exposure a brilliant shooting star flew through the sky. I have attempted to shoot meteor showers in the past and have driven a lot of miles very late at night to the desert to get away from the city lights and have not gotten a bright shooting star like this one! (top right of the frame)

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4.5, 30 second exposure

Here is a zoomed in version with a better view.

RIght when I saw it I began praying for a big lightning bolt to add to the shot. Obviously as you can see that didn’t happen.

The storm fell a part right around the time I heard dogs barking and a man yelling at them with a few choice words. Not sure if he was heading my way but I wasn’t about to find out.

Day 3 I checked the doppler and saw some decent activity in the area so I headed west towards South Mountain in Phoenix to try and shoot down on the valley during the storms. Of course after the half hour drive there I was greeted with a sign at the entrance saying the observation areas were closed. While I was at the base of the mountain the sunset was getting good so I shot some images.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f2.8, 1/320th

After the above shot I also fired off a horizontal view of the same shot.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f2.8, 1/320th

The reason I suggest all photographers do that is because you never know what a client in the future may want to do with your image. By shooting horizontal and vertical you maximize the potential for your images. Finished up there and turned around and drove about 40 minutes to the Chandler area and set up shop on the side of the road in a desert area. with a 360 degree view of unobstructed view.

I had one camera suction cupped on the roof of my car aimed south getting this storm.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f22, 8 second exposure

Another camera was aimed north with a view of south mountain where I previously was at.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f9, 30 second exposure

The above image is an example of what I feel makes for good lightning shots. I like to shoot lightning images where the image is interesting and pretty without the lightning. The lightning just adds to the shot and makes it even cooler. Theres nothing more boring to me than a lightning shot where its just all dark sky and lightning bolts. No cool sky, no cool clouds and nothing in the foreground or background. BORING!


CLICK the below picture to see my first attempt of an animated GIF file of the storm. Thanks Kyle Terada!

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f22, 30 second exposure

The moon in the sky above the storm to the south did a good job of adding to the shot as well as lighting the tops of the clouds and the sky making it look like it was nearly day time.

The storm to the north began dying down but then I noticed right on top of me a cell was forming. As I have previously stated I am scared of lightning so I climbed in the car and left the camera on repeat 30 second exposures.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f4.5, 30 second exposure

While sitting in the car I noticed a car pull up behind me. Initially I thought it was someone pulling over to get a good view of the lightning storm. Then a spotlight blinded me through my rearview mirror and lights were flashing. Heres how my camera saw it.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f4.5, 30 second exposure

The officer approached my car with his flashlight and asked me “what are you doing?” Evidently the camera he had to walk around and the suction cup mounted camera on the roof weren’t obvious enough! I told him I was photographing the lightning storm. I was somewhat nervous because I was on indian reservation and he was an indian police officer. I have had friends who had their gear confiscated until they paid a fine for being on their land. Luckily the officer was nice and said ok. He then told me he was out searching for a motorist who called 911 after running into a cow on the road. Thank god that was not me. At the speed I drive in the desert it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight!

Fired off one more round of images and headed back to the city.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 100iso, f4.5, 30 second exposure

The monsoon season is nearly over so I am not sure if I will get anymore storms. But I have my fingers crossed for some action!

Posted in Desert, Lightning, Me, Scenic   | 11 Comments

11 responses to “200 miles spent chasing sunsets and lightning”

  1. kenner8or says:

    Hey Mark,
    Your shots are phenomenal, as always. It is always a pleasure to view your work. Thanks a million for posting your exif info because it will help when I get a chance to shoot similar subjects.
    Orange Co is not known for monsoons so I guess I will have to head east a little. Take care,

  2. Guy Rhodes says:

    If I would have been there, the monsoon season would have ended instantly and there would have been no lightning in sight.

  3. Matt Graves says:

    These images rock!!! You did a great job, Mark. I am not familiar with the suction cup mount you are describing. Care to elaborate?

  4. Robert Mar says:

    Artist rendering! Ha. Finally you admit to it. How do you get the lighting frozen. On my D50. I try to shoot at 1/8000 of a second and still cant catch anything. Tell me your secrets. Damn your good.


  5. Rachel says:

    Great pictures and story, once again! I’m glad the police officer was nice. A lot of them are, contrary to popular belief. Love the shooting star picture.

    What software do you use on your mac for your photo management?

  6. Norman Blake says:

    Nice to see you embarassing the hell out of the Old Man and I. Great pic’s Mark. Hope all is well. Say hi to your Dad for me and tell him to send me an E-Mail so I have his OK. The one I have is no good.

  7. Jim R. Bounds says:

    Nice photo’s Mark. Where you out on Dead Cow Road that runs from Maricopa to Gila Bend??

  8. Tina Ruth says:

    These photos are fun. Dan went stormchasing this spring and when he came back we were out looking for storms everytime we saw one. I’ve been looking around your blog and learning a lot as usual. Keep us the great work, shipmate.

  9. Ross says:

    Hi Mark,
    Just found your blog and going through some of your old posts..
    In the GIF series of images, is that a plane taking off that causes a light streak across the photo?
    Looks great

  10. Glenn Freudenberger says:

    I I had only one more fart to light in my lifetime. I would invite Mark to fotograf it.


  11. Kyle Pochek says:


    Would it be ok to but you name and website on my blog as well as some photos from this post because up in PA we are starting to get some storms that produce some good lighting and I was wondering if I could use this as an example?


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