Monsoon thunderstorms and lightning over the Grand Canyon in Arizona

The North American Monsoon was going strong in late August and I decided to take a day trip up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. My goal was to photograph lightning — both during the daytime and in the twilight hours — over and in the canyon.

I wasn’t disappointed. There were only a few thunderstorms around and that makes for better chances since there are fewer intervening storms and there is a better chance of catching some of the sky.

The first two images are of fairly weak thunderstorms producing only a few flashes as they traversed the canyon from south to north.

Early afternoon lightning over the Grand Canyon.
Early afternoon lightning over the Grand Canyon.

 

Afternoon lightning over the Grand Canyon from Grandview Point.
Afternoon lightning over the Grand Canyon from Grandview Point.

 

Later in the evening there was thunderstorm activity over the Kaibab Plateau and the north rim. This image captures the small thunderstorm as well as the stars overhead and the lights of the North Rim buildings.

Evening lightning over the Grand Canyon from Grandview Point.
Evening lightning over the Grand Canyon from Grandview Point.

The last image was taken as the storms ended leaving only a thin layer of clouds with the stars shining brightly and the inner canyon illuminated by the light of the full moon.

Full moon light shining down into Grand Canyon.
Full moon light shining down into Grand Canyon.

A few notes of interest. While taking lightning photos using my lightning trigger, a group of four photographers showed up at the same viewpoint — all with the same lightning trigger. And later, during the twilight hours, another group of lightning photographers arrived at the same viewpoint. Turns out these were folks from News9.com (an Oklahoma City television station). It’s not clear to me how lightning over the Grand Canyon is part of the news team coverage for Oklahoma City.

Lightning over Cathedral Rocks and the Cockscomb in Sedona

A late afternoon storm lingers into the evening producing lightning over the Cathedral Rocks and the Cockscomb.

Late afternoon light and lightning at Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.
Late afternoon light and distant lightning at Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.

 

Twilight lightning over west Sedona and the Cockscomb.
Twilight lightning over west Sedona and the Cockscomb.

 

Twilight lightning over west Sedona and the Cockscomb.
Twilight lightning over west Sedona and the Cockscomb.

Thunderstorms and lightning have returned to northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon (NAM) got off to a slow start across northern Arizona this year despite a few predictions that it would start early and strong. It did in some locations but northern Arizona was not one of them. But after a few false starts, the rainy season is in full swing here. We’ve had a couple of days with substantial rainfall and that has — finally — put an end to the extreme fire danger.

Cloud-to-ground lightning from a distant thunderstorm at twilight.
Cloud-to-ground lightning from a distant thunderstorm at twilight.

And, with all the thunderstorms, comes another chance to photograph lightning. Yesterday (15 July 2012) turned out to be a very good day for lightning. By late afternoon, storms were weakening across northern Arizona but there remained a chance that there would be another round in the evening. And there was. At one point in time, I was observing lightning in all directions — none of it close however.

Thunderstorm lit from within by lightning during twilight hours.
Thunderstorm lit from within by lightning during twilight hours.

I found myself in Wupatki National Monument during the evening. I stopped at one of the many pullouts along the road that afforded me a view in multiple directions and set up to photograph. Initially, the best storms were to my north but since they were moving to the north they eventually were too far away. At the same time, a cluster of storms was moving northward across central Arizona. I could see only the tops of these storms but they still managed to light up the sky. Because they did not fill the sky yet there were plenty of stars visible as well. I was happy with the results: bright stars overhead, distant thunderstorms lit from the inside by lightning, and wonderful colors and light reflecting off the clouds in all directions.

Stars shine overhead as a cluster of distant thunderstorms light up the far horizon.
Stars shine overhead as a cluster of distant thunderstorms light up the far horizon.

It was amazingly quiet in the Monument. Only a few cars drove by at that time of the evening and the storms were distant so that the thunder was inaudible. It was so quiet I could hear the bats flitting around.

An amazing evening.

Sometimes you go to the storm; sometimes the storm comes to you.

I enjoy capturing images of lightning. Most of the time I have to travel to where the storms are and then hope to get some good images. Once in a while, the storms come to me. Today was that kind of day. I set up the tripod and camera looking out the back porch of my house in Flagstaff and began to shoot.

 

Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/4 second, f/8.0, ISO200, 28 mm lens.
Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/4 second, f/8.0, ISO200, 28 mm lens.

 

Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/8 second, f/11, ISO200, 28 mm lens.
Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/8 second, f/11, ISO200, 28 mm lens.

These lightning strokes had many filaments and channels and were exquisitely detailed. Absolutely amazing! I think it is fair to say that these may be the best images I have captured in over 30 years of trying — first on film and now digitally.

Lightning and Mammatus: The beauty of thunderstorms

The North American Monsoon is bringing thunderstorms to the southwest United States including northern Arizona. You would think that with almost daily thunderstorms it would be easy to shoot great images of lightning and thunderstorms. Well, not always…

One of the characteristics of the rainy season in the higher elevations of northern Arizona is that as the storms develop in the late morning or early afternoon it quickly becomes overcast so that it is difficult to see the individual storms. It is equally difficult to photograph lightning because it is often raining over large areas obscuring the view of the lightning.

Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.
Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.

So I was particularly pleased when we had two days in a row in which I was able to photograph lightning and actually see the thunderstorms. The lightning was photographed in Sunset Crater National Monument overlooking the Bonito Lava Flow; the mountain that it is striking is O’Leary Peak. There is a fire lookout station at the summit of the peak and I’m certain they get their fair share of close bolts.

Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.
Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.

The following day proved equally photogenic. This thunderstorm was photographed in late afternoon and is quite dramatic with mammatus clouds visible from the anvil region of the storm.

If only everyday was as photogenic as these two.