Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 800iso, f9, 1/160th, polorizer filter

The last few days since I returned from Beijing have been spent relaxing, spending time with my girlfriend and eating food I missed. On the third day of my four days off before its back to work I started getting bored and really wanted to go shoot something. So I did.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon I had been monitoring the local doppler radars online searching for storms. Things weren’t looking very promising around 3pm and I started to think it wasn’t gonna happen but then a few hours later a small cell appeared on the radar. I said what the hell and hopped in the car and drove about 30-35 miles east to a spot my dad had suggested.

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

It was a very pretty location that had a good view (important for shooting lightning) plus there were no power lines or buildings to disrupt the natural desert scene I was wanting to do. Took a few test shots to get a baseline setting and then shot a few photos of my car with the pretty backgrounds. (when I sell my car it will have the best damn autotrader photos ever!)

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Hung around waiting for the storm to make its way to me (it was on the horizon but had hardly any lightning) A nice rainbow arched over the sky so I shot another car shot with a happy rainbow.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5, 1/20th

As the sun got lower on the horizon the shadows began glowing with awesome rim lighting on backlit images. 

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

As I was walking around the desert I came across a cactus with pink flowers blooming. As I was setting up to shoot a few pics a bee buzzed right past my face and landed on the flower to pollinate it. It was a pain in the ass mantaining my shallow depth of field and getting the bee in focus. But I got a few that I liked. I was feeling like some national geographic photographer (haha yea right).

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 2500iso, f5, 1/5000th

I started firing off a bunch of different silhouette shots. They are pretty and nearly impossible to screw up.

Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 100iso, f20, 1/400th

As the sun continued to get lower clouds began to fill the sky and were lit up with awesome colors from the setting sun. The below images are an example of how you can shoot the same thing (the big cactus) from 2 spots about 20ft apart but getting totally different effects. The shot on the left is facing away from the setting sun, while the other picture is shooting directly towards the sun. Same subject, two different looks.

I also shot up from the base of the cactus to try and show some texture in the several hundred year old cactus.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 800iso, f9, 1/320th

Now heres what it looked like to the left on the sun and to the right. Why I didn’t shoot a panoramic shot I don’t know but I probably should have.

Around that time the sun was about set and the other direction the storm clouds were getting closer and they were spitting out lightning. My tripod I have is missing a few screws and wont extend so I took out one of my studio light stands then clamped a super clamp on it to hook my camera up to. Faced it towards the storm clouds and got a set up exposure ready.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 200iso, f9, 1/200th

I was out in the desert with 3 bodies, 2 super clamps and two light stands so I could do a wide setup, a zoomed in setup and a handheld setup for the lightning storm. The only problem is I only brought one trigger to fire the time exposure shots. A second storm had developed the opposite direction from the first storm so I had to switch back and forth between the two directions as it got going, and it got going QUICK.

The east storm was in the dark since it was far from the ambient light of the set sun while they west had some nice sky going on still from the sunset.


Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 200iso, f2.8, 30 second exposure


Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 200iso, f14, 30 second exposure


Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 200iso, f6.3, 85 second exposure


Nikon D3, 80-200mm, 200iso, f20, 6 second exposure


Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 200iso, f6.3, 60 second exposure

It might suprise you but I am a big pansy when it comes to lightning. After I was standing in the front yard of my grandparents house as a child a bolt of lightning struck in our backyard and I have been weary of it ever since. Now I was in the middle of two very active cells that were merging together right above me. Finally I wimped out and sat in my car with the windows up with the remote cord coming into the car so I could fire the camera sitting outside my door. After 10 minutes of that it started to rain heavily along with massive lightning bolts that filled the sky with blinding light the same time the thunder cracked. When you hear the thunder the exact same time you see the lightning bolt you are waaaay too close and need to seek cover. I rolled down the window and pulled the camera and stand into the window. I frantically tried to close the stand up so I could pull it into the car and it wouldn’t budge. So there I am trying to close it as lightning is flashing all around me and I have a six foot metal lightning rod hanging above my car. Lovely. Finally got it closed and started to drive out of there to find a spot ahead of the storm and rain to shoot from.

As I drove away I was constantly seeing the sky go bright purple as lightning continued to strike all over the place. I finally picked up a camera and tried to get a lightning shot while moving. Got one that was semi decent, other than the camera focusing on the raindrops on my window.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 640iso, f13, 4 second exposure

I drove for about 35 miles and realized the storm was much bigger than I thought and there was no where to shoot from without getting the camera wet. Then I came up with an idea that worked out pretty well. I took the superclamp and tightened it to the door handle on the drivers side. With the setup I was able to have the camera inside the car out of the rain (mostly). 

By the time I was set up the lightning was still going nuts but it was now just cloud to cloud strikes which lit up the clouds but you rarely saw the lightning bolt. I set up in an entrance to a luxury neighborhood. It had cool palm trees so I was hoping for lightning strikes with the palm in the foreground. Instead all I was getting were boring shots that didn’t look like they were being shot in a storm. 

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 400iso, f5.6, 49 second exposure

They looked cool with the sky being lit blue by the lightning on the left while the right was lit by the city lights of Phoenix 20 miles away. But I needed something more. So I decided to pull out one of my sb800 flashes and turn the power up to 1/2 and fire a shot up towards the palm trees on the left. I was expecting it to light up the trees making the shot better but was pleasantly suprised with what it did.

Nikon D3, 14-24mm, 400iso, f5.6, 37 second exposure

Instead of making the palm tree pop with color it lit up all the rain drops and made for a graphicly interesting photo. As several of my good friends would say, “apad bro……apad.”

After that shot it was getting somewhat late so I headed home to relax and go through my imagery. It was a very nice day that was 180 degrees different from the rules and regulations of Beijing. I was able to do my own thing, be creative and not have to worry about deadlines or clients. When you have fun with shooting it shows in your work.

Below is a screengrab of the doppler radar when I got home. I could have stayed out shooting for a lot longer with that massive storm but I was happy so I stayed home.

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Posted in Desert, Lightning, Me, Scenic   11 Comments

11 responses to “The beauty followed by the fury of the Arizona desert”

  1. Guy Rhodes says:

    Holy crap how did you shoot that last image of the weather from outer space???

  2. Holly Gilliam says:

    Guy cracks me up…I can’t top that last comment. HAHHAHA. WONDERFUL JOB! You got to have a professional camera for those shots…doubt I could capture the lightning with my sad camera. 🙂

  3. Dude those looks great!!!

    I love the Mickey Mouse tripod… fitting.


  4. DAD says:

    Seems every time you take my advice, you come up with some great results.

  5. Dianna Cuarisma says:

    WOW! I’m so glad you got some pics of the storm. I wanted to take some myself, but my problem was all of the phone lines and BS here in the city. I have to agree with Holly, Guy’s comment deffinately takes the cake!!

  6. Andre says:

    Love the shots, and you have a Holden Monaro too!!! =D

  7. Your suck a wimp!!! My fat ass would’ve been standing out there clicking away, espcially since monsoon season is nothing like I remember it.

    Nice shots as usual. Glad you survived China.

  8. Nothing I can say to add to your photos — except wow gosh gee whiz golly what freat shots!

    David Jenrette

  9. of course i mean “great” shots. Remind self to edit more.

    David Jenrette

  10. Jeremy says:

    Wow, these are fantastic!

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