10 Spot / Monsoon Storms over Phoenix 8/21

My biggest fear while at Olympics was missing the bulk of the summer monsoon storms that sweep across Arizona. Even though sports and racing is what pays my bills, I am obsessed with storm chasing! Luckily for me I didn’t miss many storms while I was gone. Now that I am home I was sure to plan a few days off into my schedule to allowed me to start catching up on my storm shooting. Today would be one of those days.

Early in the afternoon the radar was showing lots of storms north of Phoenix so I started planning in my head where I’d go, most likely towards Payson or Prescott.

Around 5:30pm the radar was now showing several storms building just south of Phoenix. That would be perfect since just south of Phoenix is South Mountain. Easily the best vantage point to shoot storms from in the Phoenix area due to its high elevation over the city. When it comes to shooting lightning, a great vantage point is nearly as important as the storm itself. If you cant get elevation over the trees, buildings or power lines then your shots will look terrible.

After a fast and fun drive up the windy road leading to the top I would head towards the top of the mountain where I had two viewing locations to choose from. First I would head to the spot that overlooked downtown Phoenix and everything north and west of the city but I would quickly decide that the parking spot that faced south over Ahwatukee and Chandler would be my best option.

Below, lighting strikes from a large thunderstorm cloud about 40 miles south of Phoenix. The sunlight hitting the top of the thunderhead added a nice touch to the image.

Nikon D800, 70-200mm, 100iso, f18, 1.6 second exposure, Manual

My initial setup was my two D800’s on tripods facing the above thunderhead. The camera on the right had a 70-200mm lens on it while the other had a 24-70mm lens. Both bodies had the MC-30 shutter release cable on them. I have two of Nikons more advanced (aka expensive) digital triggers with a bunch of options but these cheap ones do the job just fine once you set a good exposure. They include a locking button so you can use it to continually fire long exposure images, which is very important with storm photography!

Nikon D4, 24mm, 160iso, f1.4, 1/125th, Aperture Priority

Not sure if you noticed the nice sunset in the background of the above pic.

Well I certainly did as I would walk to the other side of the parking lot to shoot the below frame. All that was missing was lightning, but that would come shortly.

Nikon D4, 24mm, 25iso, f1.4, 1/60th, Aperture Priority

Some of the coolest looking lightning shots occur with the sunset in the background. Its very hard to get a dark enough exposure when the sun is still up but right after it sets you usually can nail some cool shots with red sky behind.

Like this shot. Wish it had bigger bolts or was striking on the near side of the mountain but its still a pretty shot.

Nikon D4, 70-200mm, 25iso, f2.8, 10 second exposure, Manual

Lightning was pretty good that direction for awhile so I would leave that camera aimed to the west and set up another camera aimed south over Ahwatukee after noticing a storm coming up from the south.

Here is a wide shot showing a single bolt revealing a dust storm accompanying the storm. The lights in the foreground are the Ahwatukee foothills. Thats one of the primary areas I am thinking of buying a home in next year.

Nikon D800, 24-70mm, 100iso, f2.8, 30 second exposure, Manual

These next three images were all from the west facing camera.

Nikon D800, 70-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 30 second exposure, Manual

Nikon D4, 70-200mm, 25iso, f2.8, 30 second exposure, Manual

This shot with two large bolts made for one of my favorite images from the night. The wind was blowing the camera and tripod around a bit so you can see the city lights blurred from camera movement during the 30 second exposure. Since a lightning flash is so quick, the bolts are perfectly frozen in the shot.

Nikon D800, 70-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 30 second exposure, Manual

After that the storm from the south was getting a little too close for comfort so I would hop in my car and race down the mountain to stay ahead of the storm as it headed north to downtown Phoenix.

I was hopeful for some lightning striking the city shots (I even had two cameras aimed at the city) but the lightning never came close in my two hours shooting on balcony.

I had a third camera aimed away from city towards the south west. Its not the most scenic area but after seeing some strikes that direction I had to at least try.

These last two shots were from the camera aimed south west.

Nikon D4, 24mm, 25iso, f9, 30 second exposure, Manual

Nikon D4, 24mm, 25iso, f9, 30 second exposure, Manual

We have about a month of potential monsoon weather remaining in the storm season but I will be traveling a lot covering NHRA so my chances of shooting more lightning is rapidly going away.

Im still confident I will snap a winner in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

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