There are very few times in my life when I am not just sent running, but sent to an all-out-sprint with a blazing trail-of-fire behind me out of fear for my life. I am literally one of these guys who does not fear a whole heck of a lot. One night, however, while standing out in the middle of the desert during an October fall-night set-up with three different cameras working on a time-lapse project, this lightning storm greeted me with perilous indignity. A storm at that time of the year is a little out of place in the desert, let alone the middle of the night. Being out in the middle of the desert a few hundred feet from your car (which is grounded from electrical lightning strikes, let me add) with cameras and tripods as potential deadly lightening rods is not the most ideal situation to be in.
Most storms in New Mexico and the Southwest, for that matter, do not move along a frontal boundary as most storms do in the Midwest or East Coast. Here in the Intermountain West, sculpted of mountains separated by vast high desert plains, storms usually pop-up as miniature supercell thunderstorms and remain virtually stationary or drift with the wind at most 30-50 miles in any given direction of the winds aloft. This storm was one of these rare occasions here in the Southwest as it was part of a cold front swooping down out of the northwest giving me an electrical light show to watch for several hours as it crept closer and closer to my location. I love storms and rarely get nervous around them; thus, I was feeling pretty lucky to witness this natural spectacle. Scoping my location, I realized this sucker was headed right for me with a direct hit. I was in a perfect—no loose—position for what I thought could be my best time-lapse project to date. Frequent and vivid lightning with haunting shapes edged closer and illuminated the desert with blinding brilliance and the rumbling cracks of thunder made the ground beneath my steady feet tremble while in the distance I could hear it ricochet and echo off nearby mesas and rock outcroppings. It was quite an event to behold and one I will never forget. Then, just like that, as if the switch was turned off, it would get deaf-defyingly silent again until the next whip of lightning. One minute the storm seemed to be off in safe distance and then, literally the next minute, it was on top of me, sending me running to my car for my life.
All three images in this triptych are captured within one minute from start to end. What made me run is something in the third image in this triptych that is beyond the frame of sight. In the far top right of the image, if you look closely, there is a brighter spot. It is not a bolt of lightning, but it is the bright electrically charged area in the clouds around the base of a lightning bolt. To give you perspective of this image, Cerro Cuate is the name of the hill in this image; it is Spanish for “twin hill”. It rises about 500 feet off the desert floor. The photographer—me—stood about a half mile from this hill, which is a volcanic plug, looking northwest.
What you do not see is another bolt of lightning striking just to my right a few hundred feet away out of frame. The electrical charge in the air was extremely potent and dangerous, sending shivers up my spine. Not caring about my tripods in the least, I detached all my cameras right then and there and hightailed it to my car as fast as imaginably possible. Along the way, killer lightning with a seeming vendetta to eliminate me off the face of the planet chased me all the way to the car. One so close again, it seemed like I was lifted off the ground with the crack of the thunder. Once in the car, I knew I was safe. As I said, a car is a grounded place of safety. In fact, a car just might be one of the safest places in any situation waiting out an electrical storm. The lightning lasted another 15-20 minutes; it was as if hellfire was raining down. It was just an awe-inspiring event to watch, as bolts of lightning were striking at distances of less than two hundred feet from me, with a few lightning strikes within ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼a hundred feet.
When the excitement settled, I started to go through some of the images on my cameras ￼and realized I may have something really special. It was a moonless night and because the lightning was so bright, I had wondered if the images would be completely blown out. At first I was pleasantly surprised and then, the more I reviewed these images, I started to get really anxious, as I just wanted to get home and upload them to work on them. However, my objective was to complete my time-lapse project; thus, I decided to stay there all day until the sun set again. That entire day I kept thinking about what I had captured and knew in my soul a triptych would be the best way to present this series of images. The lightning just so happened to frame Cerro Cuate so perfectly and lent itself as a perfect triptych. The center image with the strike perfectly surrounding the hill is the capstone no doubt.
As separate images, they are titled Lighting Over Cerro Cuate #1, #2 or #3. Each image was taken with the ￼same camera, a Nikon D300s at 17mm with a Sigma 17-70mm lens with the ISO at 320 and aperture set to ￼f/10. The only thing different about each image is the exposure times; #1 is 28 secs, #2 is 24 secs and #3 is ￼32 secs. Metadata times are 03:57:43 – 03:58:14 – 03:58:42. – Jory Vander Galien
￼Vander Galien will be part of an upcoming exhibit called ‘Emerging VII’ at The G2 Gallery in Los Angeles on Novermber 8th from 6:30-9:00pm. This image is available as a print by emailing Vander Galien here. See more of his work at his website, www.joryvandergalien.com. Follow him on 500px, Instagram or Facebook via his personal profile or his Facebook Page.
Equipment and settings: Nikon D300s, Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM zoom lens – Three sequential exposures of 28 seconds, 24 seconds and 32 seconds respectively @ f/10 – ISO 320