Capturing electricity: photographing lightning at Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon photographer Greg Brush shares tips on photographing one of nature's deadliest forces - lightning at Grand Canyon

 Since 2010, photographer Greg Brush has captured some of Grand Canyon’s best lightning strikes.

Photo/Greg Brush

Since 2010, photographer Greg Brush has captured some of Grand Canyon’s best lightning strikes.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Lightning is a giant spark of electricity in the atmosphere and is created in the space between clouds, air or the ground. Every year in the U.S. lightning strikes the ground approximately 25 million times.

According to NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory, lightning can be seen in thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations and heavy snowstorms. While the Grand Canyon may not have volcanic eruptions, nuclear detonations or too many heavy snowstorms, it does boast some of the best monsoon thunderstorms and lightning in the Southwest.

Those in the Southwest are familiar with monsoons, which is a dramatic increase in summer precipitation, mostly in the form of thunderstorms. Monsoon storms can roll in the afternoon, proceeded by a quick build-up of dark storm clouds. After dumping a sizeable amount of precipitation in a short amount of time, the thunderstorm proceeds to its next destination.

For storm chasers, photographers and thrill seekers, monsoons offer some of the most spine tingling thrills of the year.

"When there's any chance of monsoons I'm always checking the weather," said Greg Brush, a Tusayan resident, fire chief of the Tusayan Fire Department and long-time landscape photographer.

Brush started taking photos in the 1980s, working with film before transitioning to digital. Today, he uses two cameras and a slew of lenses, tripods, remote control triggers and radio or cellphone apps with weather forecasting software to chase the monsoons hoping to capture just 'one good image.'

"When there's any chance of monsoons I'm always checking the weather," Brush said. "Basically if there's any chance that there's going to be something coming up that night I try to try to read up as much as I can about he forecast."

Brush started photographing lightning while living in the deserts of southern Arizona. Over the last few years he has built a portfolio of lightning shots over the Canyon.

When shooting lightning, Brush said one of his most important pieces of gear, besides the camera itself, is having a good weather app on his phone. The radar tracking apps have storm path indicators that estimate which direction the storm moves. Brush uses MyRadar by NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration).

"You have to know where you are in relation to the storm and where it's going to go," he said. "It is dangerous. It's not a safe bet, whatever you do."

Brush also pays attention to his surroundings and makes sure he knows whether he is crossing a dry wash or could be caught in a flash flood.

"You can do it without a car, but if you want to get really good landscape flash monsoon activity you have to have a car. First for safety - you want to stock it up with a little food and water. It sounds like overkill but there's a time where I've had to spend a night waiting for a flash flood to go down," he said. "There's a few times when I've taken shelter when there was really bad lightning."

Despite popular belief, the rubber on vehicle tires do not protect you. If you take shelter in a vehicle it will go through the body before going the last few inches to the ground, according to Brush.

"You don't want to touch the steering wheel, the pedals or the side of the door. You just kind of sit there and evaluate your life's decisions," he joked.

Brush said another point to consider is to not climb to the highest point in the landscape. He sets up his equipment in a safe position and stays away from metal railings. Often on some of the best monsoon nights, Brush said there are hot spots where lighting will strike continuously.

"If you can focus in on one of those with a zoom lens from, say 10 miles away, you can get some exceptional pictures," he said.

Brush said other tips include having a solid tripod - one that can stand up to intense wind.

Brush uses a variety of lenses, including a wide lens and a fish eye lens, which help give wider coverage and allows him to zoom in on the hotspots. Brush said he typically uses a 400 mm zoom, a low 1.8 lens and 28-70 mm or fish eye lens on most shots.

An auto-trigger device and a light trigger are also good to have. The light trigger fits on the top of the camera and wires into a remote shutter switch which triggers a shot when it reads a specific light strength. Having a remote to trigger the shot helps prevent blur. Additionally, a large memory card is essential.

Brush recommends going out before a storm to practice setting exposures on the camera. He also sets his camera to shoot in RAW format rather than JPEG. This allows more flexibility for adjusting brightness later.

"You want to pre-focus your camera because auto focus doesn't work on long exposures," he said. "Some night when it's dark, before you go out and shoot (a storm) you need to figure out how to set that focus for infinity and turn off the auto-focus."

Brush will check his settings and exposures between shots to make sure the focus is correct.

"I've ruined hundreds of shots by being slightly out of focus, when I moved the camera," he said.

Deciding what settings and speeds he will use depends on whether it is a night or day shot.

When shooting during the day, Brush uses neutral density filters to stretch out the exposure. Many of Brush's shots have an exposure time of 30 seconds. Brush's final words of advice are to never underestimate a storm and don't stand on the edge of the Canyon to get a shot.

Brush's work can be viewed at gregbrush.smugmug.com..

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