Jeff Smallwood Photography
Lightning and Stars - Do Not Give Up Quickly
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May 24, 2012

 

If at first you don't succeed......try, try again.

I occasionally attach little stories or some background information about a particular image, but this one's definitely got a story to it.

My house backs up to a farm and the farmhouse is at the highest point on the land. It offers a nice view of the fields below including an old barn that I've photographed numerous times before. It's a spot for which I keep a fairly accurate mental image in my head because of how close it is to home.

So I'm getting ready for bed and I wander to the back door to let the dog in. I noticed the first flash of light as soon as I got to the door and as I'm always on the lookout for a good lightning shot, I waited a moment to see what the situation was. Stepping out onto the deck I noted completely clear skies above, stars everywhere. But just to the south, as a backdrop to the farm and barn, there was a wall of light and highly structured clouds. Perfect scene.

I wasn't dressed to go outside but the setting was too perfect to pass up. I'd be safe from the elements as there were no clouds above so I wouldn't have to worry about rain or lightning hurting me or the camera.

I ran through the house.

It took me less than 3 minutes to gather up the camera equipment, throw on some jeans and grab my boots. As I put my boots on at the back door I could still see the lightning bolts as clear as can be. I threw open the sliding glass door and high tailed it, literally running through the dark (I forgot a flashlight). I crossed the field, through the farmhouse yard, and arrived at the top of the hill overlooking the barn. Total time to get to the spot: probably less than 4 minutes.

I setup right at the edge of some tall grass using the farmhouse as shade from the streetlights behind me. Plug-in the cable release and started firing off shots in bulb mode waiting for the lightning to show up.

Nothing.

Then some faint bursts deep in the clouds, but nothing the camera would pick up.

20 minutes. Nothing. Murphy's Law.

The longer I work in photography, the more sympathy I have for fishermen. In fact, maybe I should take up fishing more often. At least when a fisherman almost brings in the big one, he/she can hold out their arms and describe "it was this big!" When a photographer almost gets the amazing shot, well, it doesn't matter how far apart I hold my arms, there just isn't anything to show for it.

Now comes the part where Murphy redeems himself.

I pack up and wander back to the house, defeated, wondering what might have been had I only seen things 5 minutes earlier. I fill my wife in on the situation, get undressed, and start brushing my teeth. As I'm brushing my teeth I wander to the back door to look outside.

Flash.....Flash-flash.

"Son of a bitch!", a little spittle of toothpaste flinging from my lips.

Flash.

Screw it. If Mother Nature's gonna put on an encore, I'll take my chances and see what happens. I ran back to the bathroom, spit out the toothpaste and as quickly as possible repeated the steps I'd gone through not half an hour before and ran out the back door. Last thing I hear is my wife saying "see you...sometime tonight".

Déjà vu running across the field for a second time. Ran back to the same spot and started again. This time the lightning was more faint, the second storm wasn't as grand and tall as the first one I missed. But at least this one gave me a few distinct bolts. Having a storm as defined and distant as this one made capturing the lightning much easier. I didn't have to guess where it would be, almost all of the light activity seemed to be focused in a smaller patch in the sky. I just had to hold open the shutter and hope my settings would match if a bolt showed up....and luckily a few did.

I've shot lightning before, but the image above includes something I've never captured before. That bolt in the upper left that reaches above the clouds into the stars. That's something unique I've never been lucky enough to get and maybe I never will again. Even though it's a small element, it's actually my favorite thing about this shot.

I think the next time I'm presented with a unique shooting situation like this I'll be a little more patient and won't pack up as soon as it appears the show might be over.

Apparently I didn't see the Fat Lady heading on to stage the first time out. I consider myself lucky I was there to listen to her sing.

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