In 2006, at the inception of my career in landscape photography, I set out with a very specific photographic goal that, at the time, seemed nearly impossible. The year before, while lugging my camera gear and trying to follow in the footsteps of legendary Range of Light photographers Galen Rowell and Ansel Adams, a thought crossed my mind. I had never seen a photograph of a lightning bolt in Yosemite National Park. Knowing that the polished granite monoliths acted as lightning rods during thunderstorms and remembering the intense lightning storms as a child in the Sierra Nevada, I set a goal to capture a lightning bolt in the national park.
In July, I finally got my chance after watching the weather report and seeing that powerful thunderstorms were expected in the park. I left my hometown of Bishop, CA, in the Eastern Sierra and headed straight to Yosemite Valley. As I drove over Tioga Pass and into Tuolumne Meadows I could see the thunderheads beginning to grow exponentially and get very dark. By the time I reached the valley floor, lightning had begun to strike down sporadically around Half Dome, and I feared I had missed my chance. Pockets of blue sky began to appear overhead, and I thought I could at least capture a nice sunset as a consolation prize. I decided to drive up to Glacier Point high above the valley.
Little did I know what I had seen in the valley was only the beginning. By the time I reached Glacier Point, the sky had turned black and a small crowd was watching strike after strike hit behind Half Dome and over Nevada and Vernal Falls. I set up my tripod and camera and began shooting, praying I’d capture one of the bolts. Within minutes it became apparent that everyone’s hair was standing on end. A park ranger approached and rightfully forced us to evacuate the area due to safety concerns. Once again I felt like my goal was unattainable.
I sat in my car, uttering words that cannot be repeated in this article, downtrodden and defeated. “Maybe I can find a safer spot up the road,” I thought to myself. I left the parking lot and found a safer area to shoot and again set up my camera and tripod.
For the next two hours I took exposure after exposure and consistently missed the lightning. Time and time again the strikes would flash just before the shutter opened or after it had closed. Feeling disheartened as the frequency of strikes began to slow, the sun began to set, and the relentless rain battered my camera, I sat back to take a much needed break. Before I knew it, the next surge of lightning began to crack and Half Dome was glowing! The famous monolith turned into a beacon of light in an otherwise dark and dreary domain. I couldn’t even begin to process the spectacle in front of me as a rainbow began to form. This time I began shouting those words that cannot be repeated in this article as loud as I could.
I felt like a wild man as the adrenaline pumped through my veins and I pushed the shutter release button on my remote feverishly. A pattern of familiarity emerged and again I missed bolt after bolt until… it happened! I heard the shutter open and immediately after a bright flash pierced the sky and thunder roared. My heart literally stopped. I couldn’t breathe. “Did I get it? Did I get it? Come on! Please!”
The photograph appeared on the back of the LCD, and there it was. Not only a lightning strike in Yosemite National Park but Half Dome with an intense glow, Nevada and Vernal Falls, and a rainbow! Out of the hundreds of photographs and the multitude of missed lightning strikes, one, just one, had the lightning bolt. At that time I knew my passion for photography and my fervor with the natural world had evolved into something much more than a hobby. The thrill of that capture stays with me even to today and has been a continuing source of inspiration in my photographic career.
Equipment & Settings: Nikon D70, Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED IF AF-S DX Nikkor Zoom Lens; 1/2 sec. f/25 24mm, ISO 200