All summer long I have been excited in anticipation for the monsoon season where storms build up in the desert in the late afternoons and descend on the city around sunset. Unfortunately this year has been one of the driest monsoons on record so it has been slim pickings in regards to storm chasing. Last week after I returned from my trip to Amsterdam the monsoons finally kicked into gear and I spent several late nights storm chasing around the desert.

First up are a few shots I took while hanging out with Jennifer at her parents house. While inside watching Family Guy I noticed some lightning outside. hustling like a bat out of hell I ran to my car grabbed some cameras and tripods and set up shop in the backyard. I only got the below three shots before the storm cell fell apart.

The first shot was seriously taken in the first five seconds after I started the exposure.


Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 250iso, f2.8, 10 seconds, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 250iso, f5, 110 seconds, Manual

The below shot came out pretty cool. By cropping it into a vertical I was able to eliminate all the distracting stuff in the backyard which makes my half assed shooting location look like it was at a lake instead of a backyard with a pool.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f5.6, 53 seconds, Manual

Whenever I am storm chasing it is very important to carry a laptop with a wireless card so you can track storms and see which way they are heading and if they are building or falling apart. I’m far from a meteorologist but just being able to see the basics on any weather website will usually help you from wasting a night and many miles chasing a storm that isn’t worth chasing.


Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Below begins my first of three consecutive nights in the desert storm chasing.

I decided to bust out my Nikon MC-36 introvolometer (below) and try a time lapse shot.


Basically what I did was set up a camera with a wide angle lens on a tripod (bought at Wal-Mart) and set the introvolometer to shoot a frame every 15 seconds over the course of several hours. Since the exposure was sure to change over the hours I put the camera in aperture priority mode so the exposure would adjust accordingly.


While the camera was doing its own thing for the next few hours I had nothing much to do so I pretty much just walked around where I was at and shot random crap that I thought looked cool.


Nikon D700, 85mm, 100iso, f16, 1/3200th, Aperture Priority

I am trying to build up my archive of “pretty photos” so that maybe I can market them somewhere and make some additional money with stock sales so I was looking for just about anything I could see to shoot.

Pretty Mountains.


Nikon D700, 400mm, 100iso, f5, 1/500th, Aperture Priority

Pretty clouds.


Nikon D700, 85mm, 1250iso, f7.1, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

Pretty sunset.


Nikon D700, 85mm, 320iso, f7.1, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority

Pretty storm cloud.


Nikon D700, 400mm, 100iso, f5, 1/320th, Aperture Priority

I was set up near a hilly dirt road that stretched off into the distance. I really wanted to drive down the road and see where it went but my car doesn’t like bumpy dirt roads so that was a no go.


Nikon D700, 400mm, 320iso, f2.8, 1/200th, Aperture Priority

Over the course of the six hours spent in this spot I saw a random mountain biker heading away from me on the road until he disappeared. A few hours later I shot him as he came back, below.


Nikon D700, 400mm, 640iso, f2.8, 1/125th, Aperture Priority

Below is probably one of the most played out desert shots you can shoot, a random Saguaro Cactus silhouette.


Nikon D700, 400mm, 1250iso, f2.8, 1/100th, Aperture Priority

One lens I’ve had for a few years but rarely ever use is my 85mm f1.8 lens. It is a great lens for portraits that I really need to include in my shooting arsenal. Below is my attempt at automotive photography.


Nikon D700, 85mm, 200iso, f1.8, 1/400th, Aperture Priority

Ok back to the time lapse camera.

My whole goal was for a storm to develop right in front of the camera shooting but of course I would have no such luck.

The below shot was one of the 729 shots in the time lapse taken just after sunset when there was still a bit of ambient light remaining.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5.6, 30 seconds, Aperture Priority

A short while later the sky got bright again as the full moon rose behind some clouds.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5.6, 30 seconds, Aperture Priority

While the finished product from the time lapse isn’t as cool as I was hoping for I will still include it. I think its pretentious and misleading when photographers only show their successes. Trust me my shoots are failures just as often as they are successful.

Time Lapse, 4 hours, 15 minutes. 729 frames

After it gets dark you may notice that everything seems to speed up. I was initially confused about what caused this but after checking the metadata I noticed that with the camera on aperture priority, after it got dark the exposure times were in the 30 second range so the camera was no longer shooting a photo every 15 seconds.

The next evening I headed up to the top of South Mountain in Phoenix and set up shop.

There was really nothing worth showing from the shoot but here are a few frames from another time lapse.

Below, a thunderstorm begins building near Yuma a 100 miles away.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 500iso, f5, 8 seconds, Aperture Priority

A few hours later the storms are nonexistent. However, I did like the stars filling the sky and the mountains being lit up by the moon.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 1000iso, f2.8, 8 seconds, Aperture Priority

Below is the finished product from the time lapse. I wanted to do it longer but the place I was shooting is a state park and around 9:30pm a park ranger gave me the boot.

Time Lapse, 2 hours, 29 minutes. 613 frames

The next day I chose another location out in the desert in hopes of finally getting a cool time lapse. Below is a look at the setup.


As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the toughest part of doing these time lapse shots is the boredom that comes with being stuck in one spot for several hours. For this day I had all my gear in the car with me and used every lens in my arsenal to try and shoot some cool stock photos.

Below, a plane flies high above the city on its way to California.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 100iso, f5, 1/800th, Aperture Priority

As the sun was almost set it lit up a storm cloud over Apache Junction with some really cool orange and red colors (below).


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/160th, Aperture Priority

With those same clouds I noticed a plane about to pass in front of the orange clouds. I quickly threw on a 600mm lens and shot the below photo.


Nikon D700, 600mm, 100iso, f5, 1/1000th, Aperture Priority

As the sun set I shot some different clouds as the colors of the sky changed every few minutes.


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/320th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/1600th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f8, 1/25th, Aperture Priority


Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f11, 1.6 seconds, Aperture Priority

Here is how the time lapse came out from the day. Pretty cool but still not exactly what I wanted.

Time Lapse, 3 hours, 40 minutes. 875 frames

I actually had planned on staying in that spot another few hours shooting more frames but after checking the radar online I noticed a large storm building about 30 miles from where I was. As much as I wanted to continue the time lapse I said screw it and packed up the car and hauled ass to chase the storm.

I set up in East Mesa near Red Mountain.

I had two cameras in tripods, one a wide angle shot aimed at the mountain (below)…..


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f2.8, 20 seconds, Manual

…and the other camera with a tighter lens also aimed in the same direction (below).


Nikon D700, 85mm, 100iso, f4, 30 seconds, Manual

I got a few shots I liked from the spot but the storm started falling apart so I once again got back on the laptop and noticed yet another storm building about 15 miles in the other direction.

Now I am in Scottsdale on the side of a road shooting.

Of course as soon as I was set up the storm seemed to die down on me.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 400iso, f5, 30 seconds, Manual

Even though the lightning was MIA I still stayed in the spot for a little bit because I noticed the moon was rising behind the clouds and figured it could make for a cool shot…especially if I got the moon in the sky AND lightning below.

Of course I got moon but no lightning (below).


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f5.6, 30 seconds, Manual

After the moon was higher in the sky out of my frame then I got some lightning, below. The one cool thing about the shot I liked was the tops of the clouds on the right being lit up by the moon.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f5.6, 30 seconds, Manual

Ok lets fast forward a few days…

While hanging out at Jennifers house I checked the radar and noticed a pretty big storm about 10 miles north of where we were so we frantically  packed up the car and headed out to the desert near her house and set up shop.

We started shooting just after sunset and for a couple of minutes had some nice colors to the clouds.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 30 seconds, Aperture Priority

After darkness took over the sky the only light on the clouds would be from the city lights (reddish orange colors) and from the lightning itself (bluish colors).

It was by far the best storm of the season for me with lots of lightning flashing pretty close by….so close in fact that for a few minutes I took shelter in the car.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4, 30 seconds, Manual

As the storm was going away from our location lots of rain fell from the cloud which added to the below photo with an impressive lightning bolt striking.


Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f4, 30 seconds, Manual

With monsoon season coming to an end and my busy work schedule coming up this was more than likely my last storm chase of the season. At least I went out in a bolt of glory!

Posted in Desert, Lightning, Me, Scenic, Travel   | 9 Comments

9 responses to “Monsoon Storm Chasing”

  1. Dani says:

    uauuuuu no more words!

  2. Brian Losness says:

    Nice Stuff

  3. Mark,

    Truly great shots here, I love your time lapse attempts (even if they weren’t what you wanted. Have just ordered a Canon introvolometer (Canon TC-80 N3) so I can give it a go.



  4. Stephen Hawes says:

    Absolutely beautiful… I’m so jealous… I hate you… haha

  5. greg ferguson says:

    Hey Mark,

    I like heading out on the Apache Trail when the monsoons are acting up. If you get farther from the city you’ll have a better chance of getting into heavy storms – it’s that heat bubble over the valley that keeps ’em away – and the areas to the east and south east of the valley seem to get big storms. Check out the area between Florence and Tucson some time too – they get some big storms that never make it over Phoenix.

    The area east of Canyon Lake on the Apache Trail is good for shooting storms. Get beyond the storm and shoot back towards the sunset and you’ll get the clouds nicely lit up, especially in that last 30 minutes of light.

    Also, head east on US 60 to Gonazlez Pass, that’s the climb from the valley to Superior after you pass Florence Junction. You can get the clouds along with lights snaking along the highway. There’s some nice layering of South Mountain and the Estrellas from that direction too. Even if there’s no storms, you’ll get some nice colors at sunset shooting back toward Phoenix because of the dust in the air.

    Another good area to check out is the road south out of Superior toward Kearny. It’s very rugged with some awesome mountains to make good profiles. The difficulty there is the sunset will be blocked by the mountains, but you can catch some great lighting.

    Take care with that stuff though – lightning can travel many miles through clear air.

  6. DJ says:

    Mark, hey I was flying past Queen Creek a few weeks ago and I think I spotted you set up. I noticed there was one cloud dumping in one small area over Ahwatukee/Tempe ish – I see you captured it – it was pretty surreal. Great blog and nice shots! -dj (another Nikon user, Chandler, AZ)

  7. Lode says:

    Hey Mark,

    Nicely done!
    What program did you use to make the timelapse video’s?


  8. Steven Price says:

    awesome work Mark i have always liked your sports images but the lightening images are quite simply stunning many thanks for sharing them on your excellent blog,

    Steve a UK based sports photographer.

  9. Matt says:

    These are some great shots. What program did you use to make the videos with?

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