Behind the Scenes: Thunderstorm at False Kiva

It was the most difficult shot I’d ever created. I sat, huddled in the cave, wondering if the stars would ever creep out on that cloudy night. It was the Milky Way, after all, that I was hoping to photograph that night at the kiva. Midnight…still no stars… 1am, 2am… then I hear something in the distance. Thunder. I look out, hoping my ears had deceived me, and there it was. A bright flash of lightning, miles away, crashing over distant canyons. The first thought that came into my mind – panic. Here I was in a very remote location in Canyonlands National Park, alone in the darkness of night, and a massive thunderstorm was rolling in my direction. Did I have enough time to pack up my gear and run to my car? I waited for the next bolt of lightning, which flashed only moments after the first but seemed much, much closer than the first. The storm was moving fast, there was no way I could outrun it. I had to stand my ground and wait it out.

 The raindrops started trickling around the edge of the cave, then with almost no warning, rain and hail was smashing everywhere. Lightning began crackling almost directly overhead. It all happened so suddenly…this storm was moving incredibly fast. The wind picked up and started howling, blowing sand, dust, rain, and hail all over the place. My camera was already on the tripod, so I figured I would open the shutter just to see what happened as I curled into a ball to stay dry. I knew the intensity of the lightning would require a much lower ISO than usual for my night shots, so I dropped the camera all the way down to ISO-400 (usually I stay around 6,400 for night shots), and stopped the lens to F5 (usually I’m at 2.8). I had no idea if these settings were appropriate, as I’d never tried taking photos from within the middle of a lightning storm before.

Suddenly there was a massive crack of lightning a few miles out, so bright that it lit up the canyon as bright as daylight. I jumped up from where I was huddled, and I knew that if I had any shot to make this photo work, it was now. I grabbed my flashlight, and began light painting the cave. Usually just a few seconds of light is enough, but with my camera all the way down to ISO-400, I quickly calculated that I would need several times the average amount of light needed to properly expose the kiva. I was running left and right, painting everything I could, trying to remember how much light I had applied to different areas in the cave so that the exposure would come out evenly. I had no idea if this was going to work… I had never tried anything like this before! Finally I turned off my flashlight, crossed my fingers, and clicked the shutter closed. I held my breath and clicked the review button on the camera. Unbelievable!!!! The shot was more amazing than I ever could have imagined… I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was one of the greatest, and most challenging captures I’d ever made.

The result of an epic night in Canyonlands National Park. This photograph would later on win second place in the 2013 National Geographic Traveler photo contest, which received over 15,000 entries this year.

The result of an epic night in Canyonlands National Park. This photograph would later on win second place in the 2013 National Geographic Traveler photo contest, which received over 15,000 entries this year.