A Stormy Night

Lightning over Bishop and the Owens Valley, CA, USA
Lightning over Bishop and the Owens Valley, CA, USA
Last weekend my wife Claudia and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Millpond Music Festival in Bishop, over on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in California. This is the 15th consecutive year we've attended this festival. It was a wonderful, relaxing, fun weekend. And as a bonus, I got to photograph some interesting weather.

The land around Bishop is semi-desert, so it doesn't get much rain. We've been sprinkled on a couple of times at Millpond, but had never experienced any serious rain – until last Saturday.

A weak low-pressure system pulled some remnants of Hurricane Odile up from the south. Clouds and thunderstorms developed over the mountains, but missed Bishop and the Owens Valley until Saturday evening. As the second-to-last act of the day was performing, a few raindrops fell. I looked at radar images on my phone, and saw some serious-looking storm cells moving right up the valley from the south. I estimated that we had an hour or two before we got dumped on. Figuring that the last performance would be cancelled anyway, I decided to try and get some lightning photographs.

Photographing the Storm

Photographing lightning is difficult. The main problem is being in the right place at the right time. You don't want to be in the storm, as you're likely to get wet, and risk being struck by lightning. You need to get a distant view of the storm, which means anticipating where a storm might go, finding a viewpoint, and hoping that the lightning doesn't dissipate before everything comes together. I can't tell you how many times I've set up my camera looking toward a distant storm, only to watch the lightning fizzle out.

Since the storms Saturday were coming from the south, I drove to the top of the bluff above the Owens River north of Bishop. From there I had a sweeping view of valley to the south, and the approaching storms. It seemed like a promising situation, as I could see and photograph the lightning from a long distance, and retreat to my car if a storm cell got too close. I just needed the lightning to cooperate.

And for once it did. Almost as soon as I set up my camera I recorded several dramatic bolts. Eventually I photographed three separate storms approaching Bishop. The third cell suddenly expanded as it approached, and lightning got too close for comfort, so I retreated to my car. Soon I was in a downpour, with lightning all around. But within five minutes the rain dwindled, and the lightning moved off to the north. The radar showed another cell down near Lone Pine, but it seemed to fizzle out, so I drove back to our campsite at Millpond.

Processing the Image

My favorite photograph of the night, shown above, was from the second cell. This shows a number of lightning strikes over about a three-minute period. I made a continuous series of 20-second exposures (at f/8, 800 ISO) during that time, and blended those images together to make the final photograph.

I made nine separate exposures, instead of one long one, to avoid overexposing the lights of Bishop. With one three-minute exposure the lights and the whole foreground would have become too bright, and I would have actually gotten lens flare from the lights. By making a series of shorter exposures I could record a number of lightning strikes, but prevent the lights and foreground from becoming overexposed.

The actual blending process in Photoshop was fairly simple. I selected the images in Lightroom, then chose Photo > Edit In > Open As Layers in Photoshop. This made Photoshop stack the images as separate layers into one document. Then I just changed the blending mode of all but the bottom layer to Lighten. With the Lighten blending mode, light overrides dark. So anyplace lightning appeared in one layer it would be visible, since that lighter area would override darker areas in the other layers. But elsewhere everything would be the same. The lights of Bishop in one frame wouldn't override the same lights from the other frames, since the brightness was the same in each layer, so there wasn't the cumulative effect you'd get from one long exposure. In other words, the overall brightness of the final image is the brightness of one 20-second exposure at f/8, 800 ISO. Only where the lightning appeared, or where the lightning lit the clouds, did the effect become cumulative.

I've had terrible luck with lightning photographs over the years. It doesn't help that I live in California, since we don't get many thunderstorms around here. So it was gratifying to finally have a little luck and capture this lightning over Bishop.

— Michael Frye

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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