My best day of Storm Chasing ever!

Literally hours after I posted my last storm chasing blog I saw some good radar activity on my iPad while sitting at Chilis watching some racing and hauled ass out to the desert to see what I could get. While this monsoon season has been rather tame, little did I know at the time but this one night would make my entire monsoon season a good one!

I headed out east and set up near the Superstition Mountain in Apache Junction. Thanks to some good advice by my dad I ended up in a good spot on top of a small hill with a 360 degree view of the surrounding areas.

For the first action of the evening a storm blew through the area about 45 minutes before sunset. Since it was still light outside it was next to impossible to get shots of lightning because my shutter speed was too fast due to the amount of light. Why not shoot at a higher f stop you may ask? The answer to that is because the sensors on all my cameras are too dirty so a high f stop would have my images covered in those pesky dust spots. (Before anyone asks about the built in sensor cleaner on the D700s, they dont work well at all!)

Below is one of the usual examples of a shot that would have been sweet had there been a lightning bolt in the shot.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f10, 1/6th, Aperture Priority

A lot of people have asked me for photos of the setup I use when shooting lightning but I have honestly been reluctant to post it because its such a cheap and pathetic setup. I used to have a few more tripods but I lost them in a breakup awhile ago, lol.

In the below photo showing 2 of my cameras set up you can see my great 35 dollar tripod from Target (on right). On the left is a crappy light stand for one of my Alien Bee strobes. Its not very sturdy for keeping the camera steady so I took a super clamp and magic arm and connected it from the light stand to the Target tripod for added stability. We call this “half assing” in the biz…

Below, a storm cloud forms above the Superstition Mountain. It reminds me of the creepy clouds that quickly formed above the house in the movie Poltergeist.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f10, 1/1.6th, Aperture Priority

Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 100iso, f8, 1/8th, Aperture Priority

As the sun set I was finally able to start getting some longer exposures, thus making it easier to get shots of lightning, below.

Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 100iso, f8, 2 seconds, Aperture Priority

Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 100iso, f8, 10 seconds, Aperture Priority

Once it was completely dark out I was able to set the cameras up on 30 second exposures with the shutter locked to continue to shoot 30 second shot after 30 second shot.

Below, the Superstition Mountain is silhouetted as lightning strikes behind.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

For a short period of time I set up a third camera. I didn’t have anymore tripods or light stands so I simply used a suction cup mount and suction cupped a camera on the roof of my car with an 80-200mm lens shooting tight at the edge of the mountain to take advantage of the cool silhouetted shape, below.

Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

The lightning was really getting active all around me so I was having a blast. The best part was with three cameras shooting in different directions I was getting lots of good lightning bolts I didn’t even see and would only see when I got back to my computer and downloaded. It was a photographic example of a fisherman who sets up several fishing poles. The more lines you have out there the better chance of catching more fish (or lightning in my case)…

Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 100iso, f3.5, 30 seconds, Manual

Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 100iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

While looking towards the mountain I saw a bright flash behind me, it wasn’t until three hours later after I downloaded that I found the below photo with three nice bolts striking east Mesa.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

Another roof remote shot, below.

Nikon D700, 80-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

Lightning was starting to strike a little too close for comfort so my pansy ass hid inside my car while the cameras continued firing away atop the hill.

Below was a massive lightning bolt, way too close for comfort. If only the bolt had been a little more to the left. Dammit!

Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 320iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

A few seconds after witnessing the huge lightning strike it started to rain. I noticed a wall of hard rain approaching so I had to set my fear of lightning aside and run up the hill to grab the cameras and get them in the car before the hard rain hit and ruined all my gear.

After I got in my car it was pouring so I figured with all the cool stuff I had gotten that I would just call it a night and head home to edit the pics.

As I was heading home I got a call from another friend who suggested I head out towards Canyon Lake to set up for another storm that was heading that direction. I reluctantly agreed and made an illegal u-turn and headed towards the mountains that surrounded the lake.

That u-turn was the best decision I made in awhile….

30 minutes later I was set up at a small observation point overlooking the lake. It was a great vantage point, all I needed was lightning.

And lightning I got!

Below, a lightning bolt strikes near Canyon Lake.

Nikon D700, 85mm, 320iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

A slight adjustment to the color balance of the below photo gives the shot a cool purplish hue. Check out the ran pouring down on the left.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 640iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

Here are a few more random lightning bolts from the storm….

Nikon D700, 85mm, 320iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

Nikon D700, 85mm, 320iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f2.8, 30 seconds, Manual

After the storm fell apart it was about time to hit the road for the hour long drive back home. Just before leaving I made an adjustment to the camera settings and instead of a 30 second exposure I put the camera on bulb and did a three minute exposure to blur the few remaining clouds and pick up some stars in the sky.

The resulting image (below) is nearly as cool as all the lightning stuff. The long exposure plus the moon breaking through the clouds illuminated the mountains and showed the nice green plant life. Instead of a picture of the Arizona desert it looks more like a photo shot in Hawaii.  Good times!

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 250iso, f6.3, 3 minutes, Manual

That wrapped up my best day of storm chasing that I can remember.

The next day I picked up my dad and we headed out to the desert to try and shoot some storms. Sadly the storms never materialized so no lightning.

Here are a few photos from the day that I did like.

A millipede rolls up in a ball after some jerk of a photographer (me) poked it with a stick, below.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/200th, Aperture Priority

Bands of rain fall as the sun sets over the horizon.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 640iso, f2.8, 1/4000th, Aperture Priority

I have always wanted to shoot star trails but am usually for too impatient to try it out. Since there was no lightning and we had driven over an hour into the desert I figured it would be a good time to try a long exposure out to see how it looked.

The below shot is the result of a 15 minute exposure. Towards the left there is one star that all the others are rotating around, thats the North Star.

Nikon D700, 14-24mm, 200iso, f2.8, 15 minutes, Aperture Priority

I definitely plan to shoot star trails again but the next time I will do an even longer exposure to get more rotation as well as coming up with a cooler foreground to the shot which won’t be so boring!

This is more than likely my last storm chasing blog of the year as the monsoon season winds down. Hopefully there will be some more storms but with my insanely busy schedule coming up I doubt I will see another lightning strike this year.

It was fun while it lasted!

9 Responses to “My best day of Storm Chasing ever!”

  1. rady says:

    Mark, fabulous shots! My favorites are the 2nd, the 20th and the last one! Great work!

  2. Tommy says:

    Growing up in Tampa, I had my fair share of lightning. But seeing it frozen in time like you did with your (awesome) photos is like seeing it in an entirely new way. Man, I wish that close bolt had made the frame. That would’ve been a photo for the ages.

    Great work, Mark.

  3. Ian says:

    Very cool, Mark. Thanks for sharing!

  4. ross says:

    that bulb shot towards the end is great!

  5. Bob Lund says:

    Mark – Great photo’s as one would expect :-) Careful around the Target tripod with all that lightning. Sorry about the ‘breakup’, I noticed an absence and wondered . . Hey you’re a GREAT photographer – Bob

  6. Bob Lund says:

    Updated with my web

  7. Mike says:

    Wow, you use the same tripod I do! I guess I don’t need to upgrade if pros like you still use them.

  8. Liz Morrison says:

    These shots are seriously fantastic.

  9. Awesome stuff man! Love finding a fellow AZ stormchaser!

Leave a Reply