North Rim Lightning

Yesterday, I drove from LA to Kanab in one, 8-hour day. I don’t have more than this morning to try to get some shots at any of the beautiful spots near Kanab, so now I find myself driving at around 6:00 AM from Kanab towards the Toadstool Hoodoos. Last year, I had gotten up before 5:00m AM to drive there and got some great shots at sunrise. I am on the road later this trip. The sun is already coming up and I have another 20 minutes of driving and a half hour of hiking to reach the hoodoos. The sunrise is so spectacular though, I just have to stop and get a shot from the road.

Sunrise On Way to Toadstool Hoodoos

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This time instead of still photos, I focus on flying my drone over and around the hoodoos. There are no people or visible animals and it is BLM land, so there should be no restrictions on flying here. I get so little practice flying the drone because it’s illegal to fly in national parks, over private property, near wildlife, within 5 miles of airports and pretty much anywhere in a city. There’s only so much I can practice in my backyard with trees and telephone lines everywhere. The last time I flew it was at the Trona Pinnacles where I made a music video.

By the time I get back to my hotel in Kanab, it’s nearly check out time. I reload my ice chest and head down the road for gas and lunch. The Havana Cabana makes a quick jerk chicken, dirty rice, salad and fried plantain plate to go.

Next thing I know, I’m driving out of cell range just outside Fredonia, so I say goodbye to my wife and hope to be able to connect at some point in the next few days.

The road to the North Rim starts out across open prairie. I believe it belongs to the Southern Paiute. Before long, I start climbing low shrubby hills towards the pine forests at higher elevations. Other than a viewpoint back towards the Grand Staircase (you can see all the way to Bryce), there is not much other than Jacob Lake along the way. At that, Jacob Lake is a gas station, convenience store, campground and some cabins in the pines. At this point though, there are wildflowers among the pines and the air is cool.

As the elevation continues to rise, there are some large meadows near the road because the land is too marshy or snow covered to support trees. There are also aspens mixed in with the pines. Ahead on the right, I see the sign for the Kaibab Lodge, my home for the next 4 nights.

Kaibab Lodge

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I see Adam and Sally in the lodge. We hug and sit down together to talk. We are glad to see each other, having recently spent 10 days together rafting down the Grand Canyon. Adam says we are waiting for the other two participants and then we will go out so I get checked into my cabin.

The cabin is nice. Very quiet, clean and has plenty of space to put things. The shower is the size of a phone booth. There is no kitchen or fridge, but I have plenty of ice in my Yeti and more is available at the general store across the road.

Before I finish putting down my bags, I see a flash and hear thunder immediately after. There is a saying, “If thunder roars, go indoors”. The rule is that for safety, we must be at least 8 miles away from the last lighting strike. That distance can be judged by counting seconds after a flash until the sound of thunder is heard. You should be able to count slowly to 25. I can’t even count to one. The storm must be right on top of us.

I head back in to the main lodge and talk to Adam. He is watching the storm on a weather tracker. He says, “The storm is blowing up from Flagstaff across the canyon and continuing north beyond us”. A squall of rain pelts the building as he talks.

“Where do you think we will go this afternoon?” I ask.

“Point Imperial. There is a storm to the East that we might see from there.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Have you tested your lightning trigger?” he asks.

“No,” I say. “I don’t get lightning in Los Angeles and I don’t have a television that I can turn on to check if the trigger is stimulated by an electronic pulse. I did put in new batteries.”

“We’ll see how it works,” he says. “Worst case, you can borrow mine.” “Thanks.”

It’s drizzling when we get to Point Imperial. The skies are grey overhead but there is some blue to the East. It’s about a 45 minute drive to the point. We will be making that drive or longer at least twice a day as it’s the closest viewpoint. As I’m following the others towards the point, Adam says, “You can go out on that trail there on the right. It’s called the Ken Patrick trail. It’s a little overgrown and sketchy but is has a unique view.”

As I proceed down the trail, I see the view come into sight. Mt Hayden is framed between rock formations on either side. There is some blue sky and a big thunderhead beyond Mt Hayden. I can see all the way to Marble Canyon and where Lee’s Ferry must be. Point Imperial is the highest point in the park and has a commanding view.

I find a place to stand and set up my tripod on a water pocked chunk of granite. The trail is thickly overgrown, so there isn’t room to move in any direction. I try a variety of shots, including a 7 shot panorama with the camera in portrait position.

I hook up the lighting trigger, turn it on first, then the camera and am delighted when it starts clicking without me touching the shutter button. Apparently the trigger is sensing lighting even if I can’t see it. That is not unusual as the lighting could be behind heavy clouds or above the clouds. The sensor reads an electromagnetic pulse that barely proceeds the actual flash. I make sure my settings are such (ISO 100, f8 and with a 3-stop ND filter) that the shutter can stay open for 2 seconds to capture more of the lighting. I stood there in the cold drizzle for about an hour and a half and all I got was one shot that included visible lighting. Oh well. It’s just day one.

Lightning Near Edge of the Frame

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Distant Lightning From Point Imperial

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Just after sunset, Adam says, “Okay, we’re going to knock off early tonight because tomorrow morning we are headed out to Cape Royal for moonset and then sunrise. Be in your car and ready to go in front of the lodge at 3:45 AM.”

I look at my phone and figure I will be back to my cabin not long after 9:00 PM. This should work.

At 3:40 AM, I am in my car in the parking lot. The other two participants are already in the parking lot, ready to go. Neither of those ladies have been to the Grand Canyon before. I am a little concerned that they may have trouble with the road in the dark and pre dawn fog. Adam and Sally pull up next. They lead. I motion to let the ladies go next and take my position at the end. I have been out to Cape Royal many times, so I can guide the ladies if Adam leaves them behind. The road starts out straight and fast through the meadows between the Kaibab Lodge and the entrance to the park. Then it becomes curvy but still pretty fast until we get to the turnoff for Point Imperial and Cape Royal. The ladies keep up beautifully. After the Point Imperial road splits off to the left, our road becomes a lot more winding, with plenty of 25 mph turns in the dark forest. Adam is hitting the curves like he is racing to a fire. The ladies stay right on his tail. I am impressed. In less than an hour, we are at the Cape Royal parking lot.

As she gets out of the other car, the driver says, “Was that the Mario Andretti school of racing?”

“You did great!” I say.

“Well, my husband is a race car nut, so I’ve had a little practice.”

“Let’s go everyone,” says Adam. “The moon is setting and it’s a half mile walk to the point.”

“Right,” I say grabbing my gear. After reaching the guardrail at the end of the trail, I point to the ledge beyond where I had spent so much time with Adam last year. “Out there?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “Have you ever been on the ledge below the railing here?

“No. That looks even sketchier than where we were before.”

“I’ll show you how to get down there. There’s only one place you have to be careful.” He points as I follow him out on a narrow section above the cliff. The path does get wider after that and soon we are on a rock ledge with a stunning view.

“Wow,” I say.

“Set up your tripods to get the full moon setting over Wotan’s Throne. There’s not a lot of room, so your tripod legs will have to overlap.” Even though the moon is setting quickly, the light is changing and setting up the composition and camera settings takes time, I can’t help but soak in the beauty and solitude of the morning. The quiet of the canyon below me is so peaceful. I am looking down about a mile, at least ten miles across the canyon and to the horizon on my right and my left looking up and down the canyon. It is immense. A silent, empty space.

Moonset Over Wotan's Throne

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“Do you mind if I join you?” says a voice in the near dark.

“It’s everyone’s national park,” says Adam.

“Wait, are you Adam Schallau?” asks the voice.

“Yes”

“I was just listening to your voice on a podcast about photographing the grand canyon yesterday on my drive here.”

“Oh?” says Adam surprised.

“Yes, it’s an honor to meet you. My name’s Trevor. Listen, I’m a climber. I can get down to that lower ledge and be out of your way.”

“Great,” says Adam.

“What a nice young man,” Adam says to me.

“Yeah. Very courteous.”

The moon is providing some light to the interior of the canyon. The pre-dawn light if warming the side of Wotan’s Throne closest to me. I am shooting at f8, ISO 100, bracketing the shots to capture the most light and detail. Breathtaking!

Within a half hour, the sure-dawn glow is beginning to warm the cliffs of Wotan's Throne. The light is soft, not full sunlight but almost.

Dawn Light Warming Wotan's Throne

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Now the sun starts to rise on our left. I reposition my tripod and set my camera to f11 to create a sunstar effect. I keep taking shots as the light changes. I forget to take one with my thumb in front of the sun to block out the blobs of light in the foreground produced by light bouncing around inside the camera (I will figure that out later and have to painstakingly remove those artifacts).

Sunrise From Cape Royal

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Turning back to Wotan's Throne, I can still see the moonset. The ledge I am standing on is beginning to light up. I spot an interesting crack in the rock that creates a nice leading line to Wotan's Throne. If I get down low, the curves line up to make an "S" shape. 

I quickly set up my tripod and take a series of bracketed shots, getting near focus on the foreground and exposure brackets on the canyon and moon so that I can later composite them and get detail in the shadows of the canyon and brightness of the moon.

Leading Line To Wotan's Throne - I Will Print This One!

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The young man climbs up past us and walks out onto a point nearby. I take a shot of him. Later in the parking lot, I ask him to contact me through my blog so I can send him a copy of that shot.

Trevor Near The Edge

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When the sun is fully risen, we climb back up to the trail and head back to our cars. I decide to wander out to the Wedding Site and eat my breakfast. I have this whole peninsula of rock to myself. You would never guess this is a popular national park.

On the way back to the Lodge, I spot some wild Lilacs growing by the road. I find a place to park partway off the road (I haven't seen another car in over an hour) and take a few shots. My favorite includes a bee.

Wild Lilac

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We meet at 2:30 PM in front of the lodge and head back out on the Cape Royal road but stop at a viewpoint called Vista Encantata. It’s drizzling again and the sky is completely grey. We take a few shots, using the rain to create layers and depth of field. Adam consults his weather app and says, “Let’s head out to Angel’s Window.”

Vista Encantata

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Adam consults his weather app and says, “Let’s head out to Angel’s Window.” I know the spot he is referring to.After a half hour of driving the twisty road,w e park at the bottom turn just short of the Cape Royal parking lot. It provides a unique view of Angel’s Window that Adam introduced me to last year.

“Grab your lightning trigger,” he says as we get out of our cars. Adam is leading the women out to a point I have shot from before.

“No, you go up there,” he says to me, pointing up to an exposed platform of rock. “I think the ladies would be uncomfortable with the exposure to the thousand foot drop off the edge.”

I guess I should feel complimented that he trusts my abilities and my own self-confidence to climb up there. I frame my shot, set up my tripod and get the camera ready to go. There is a thunderhead coming over the far edge of the canyon, about 10 miles away. It is coming towards us but we have some time before we will have to move. The first thing I do is get a close focus shot of the rock where I am standing. I can blend it later with the long focus lightning shots.

I turn off my camera, plug in the lightning trigger, turn that on then turn on the camera and wait for it to trigger. Flash! A beautiful bolt of lightning. I don’t hear my camera click. I check the image review and see the foreground focus shot. Crap. The trigger’s not working. I turn off and disconnect everything and try it again. Another flash with no trigger.

Ok, backup plan. I quick get out and mount a 4 stop neutral density filter so I can extend the time the sensor is open to the image. Even stopping down, it’s under three seconds. I know I have a 10 stop filter back in the car but I don’t want to miss the storm. I have a 2-second delay on the shutter release to avoid any blurring from camera shake. I just start pressing the shutter button after every exposure, hoping the shutter will be open during a lightning strike.

I press the shutter. Lightning flashes during the 2-second delay. Shutter opens. No lightning. Press the button again… I do this for over an hour as the storm approaches. Finally, we have to leave.

The next day, I go through all the images and find two that had lighting. I combine the second strike with the image containing the first strike and also blend in the close focus foreground. I like it. The Sony A7r4, 62 megapixel sensor combined with the Sony 20 mm, f 1.4 lens creates richly detailed, pin sharp images. And with 16 stops of light, it clearly captures detail in both bright highlights and dark shadows. Shooting at ISO 100 means there is no sensor noise in the image. I could not be happier with the image quality. If only the Lightning trigger had worked properly, I could have captured more images from different angles and focal lengths.

I show the image to Adam. He says, “That’s a good shot.”

I say, “Yeah, I’m happy with it. I wish I had gotten more. I would like to have tried shooting from up on the path to Cape Royal so I could have Angel’s Window fill more of the frame. It’s barely recognizable in this shot.”

Adam says, “I know the spot you are referring to but you’re not thinking in large format terms. You don’t need to fill the frame with your subject if your print is going to be ten feet wide. All those details will still be there for the viewer.” “Oh. I hadn’t thought of it that way. If the image is large enough, the viewer will find pictures within pictures just as we do when framing a shot in the real world.”

Lightning Near Angel's Window

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Close Crop Featuring Angel's Window

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“Let’s go back to Point Imperial,” Adam says.

“Good”, I think to myself. Point Imperial is 30 minutes of twisty road away, but it is on the way back to the lodge. Glad to get that driving out of the way while it is still light.

When we arrive, Point Imperial is still drizzly and grey. Not much to see here.

Rain From Point Imperial

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As we are packing up to go, Adam says, “Back to Cape Royal.”

“Are you kidding me?” I think.

“Adam, the sky is totally socked in with heavy clouds. Why go back to Cape Royal?”

“I got enough cell service to see the webcam at the South Rim and it shows a faint glimmer towards the west. Maybe the clouds will break enough to give us a sunset.”

“Okay,” I say, but I think he is nuts. This will mean 5-6 hours of driving today.

After racing through the twists and turns of the road to Cape Royal, we arrive in the continuing drizzle and start walking the half mile out towards the point. Just before the end, I see some fog down in the canyon below a viewpoint I like and get out my tripod for a shot. Just as I’m about to click the shutter, Adam calls out, “David – come quick!”

“This better be good,” I think as I pick up my gear and head over to the railing. When I get there, my jaw drops. Oh my god, that’s fabulous. Wisps of fog are rising off Wotan’s Throne and blowing towards Vishnu’s Temple. I quickly start taking shots and soon switch to video. This is great! I’m so excited we made the drive back here.

Fog On Wotan's Throne

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Wotan and Vishnu in Fog

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After a couple minutes, the conditions change and the fog is gone. I decide to climb over the railing and head out to the tip of the point. I can see a faint glow on the western horizon. I’m the only one of the group to bring a long lens so I think I can zoom in and make a shot of that dim point of light.

Dim Light Towards the West

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I wait there, taking a shot every 5-10 minutes as the light changes. It is getting a little brighter. A little redder. Maybe we will get something.

Suddenly, the sky begins to light up orange and magenta. “Adam. Come now! It’s happening!” Adam and the ladies climb over the fence, along with three young guys with iPhones. The sky just keeps getting better and better. I take a 7 shot pano with bracketed exposures. By the time I get to the end of my row, the sky is a lot darker. The sun is going down fast. That was it. The light is gone as fast as it appeared, but we are all exhilarated.

I shake Adam’s hand and say, “I thought you were nuts but the drive was totally worth it. I am impressed that you called it.”

“Well, I come out here all the time,” he says. “This isn’t my first time.”

Sunset From Cape Royal

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It’s dark as we walk back to the parking lot. When we arrive, Adam says, “Okay, tomorrow we will sleep in. Meet me at 4:30 in the morning in front of the lodge. We will be going to Point Imperial for sunrise. I am getting some cell service in the parking lot so I call my wife. By the time I drive back down the winding road to the lodge, it is fully dark and the road is covered in fog.

It’s still dark when we arrive at Point Imperial. We walk down to the viewpoint with the railing but Adam says to me, “You can come around here to get out on a different vantage point below the railing” “Great,” I think. Another cliff to hang over. I follow Adam down and see the spot he is referring to. There is a nice leading line from there. The pre-dawn sky is still pretty dark and cloudy but I take a few shots.

Point Imperial At Dawn

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Then I see a place to my right that is between a couple of boulders. That would make a nice frame, I think. I am extremely careful getting into position as there is nothing between me and an unknown drop but a slope of dirt. I brace my feet carefully, set up my tripod and start clicking. I am in this spot for about a half hour, never shifting position, lest the dirt give way. Finally, the sun breaks the horizon and Mt Hayden lights up. Glorious!

First Light On Mt Hayden

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I take a couple more zoomed in, then carefully get myself out of that position. I am glad to be back on flatter ground.

Mt Hayden Close

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After eating breakfast out of my Yeti ice chest at Point Imperial, I head back to the cabin. Even though I have until this afternoon before we go out again, I have to clean my cameras, charge batteries, take a shower, take a nap and replenish the ice in my ice chest.  If I have any time left over, I want to upload the images from my memory card to my laptop and review images to check my technique on a bigger screen. I also need to get gas. I have been doing a lot of driving and there are very few places to fill my tank out here. I have to drive down to the station by the North Rim Campground, at least 10 miles out of my way.

I head back out though the slow curves of mixed pine and aspen, past the park entrance/exit and past the large meadows where bison often roam. I see the Kaibab Lodge across the meadow to my left but before pulling onto the dirt road to Kaibab Lodge, I stop at the general store across the street to get ice.

When I walk out, I see a red tail hawk flying low overhead so I turn back to the woman at the register and say, "Red tail hawk" while pointing up. As she and her husband come out and look up, I see the hawk is circling higher. I don't have time to switch to a long lens (200-600) but I have a 24-240 mm lens on my camera in the caar so I get that out and switch it to a preset I made for birding (auto ISO, f5.6, shutter speed of 16,000th of a second, active tracking focus and continuous 10fps shooting ). By the time I got the camera pointed at the hawk, it was 250-300 feet high, so I was pleasantly surprised to get anything.

Red Tail Hawk As I leave Kaibab Lodge

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In the afternoon, we stop at Vista Encantata. It is one of the viewpoints along the road to Cape Royal. There are a series of viewpoints, all facing east. From Vista Encantada, you can see Mt Hayden from a different angle. Again, the light is not that interesting but the drizzle adds layers of depth to the rocky ridges. “Let’s keep going,’ Adam says. “Where to?” I ask. “Roosevelt Point”, he replies.

When we get to Roosevelt Point, Adam leads us out on a trail to a nice spot off the beaten path. I start a pano with my A7r4. While walking down the slope further, my A7s3 slips out of the tripod and falls to the ground. I quickly go pick it up. There is one dial smashed but it otherwise looks okay, as does the lens. It won’t turn on. Crap. That’s a $3,500 camera. I pull out the battery, check the memory cards, re-insert the battery and try it again. It works! Yea! Sony makes a tough camera. I will have to take it in for repair but it’s not a total loss. I violated my own rule – never carry a camera attached to the tripod unless you also have a strap securing the camera. I should have taken the camera off the tripod and put it in my bag, even though I was only going to walk about 30 feet.

Roosevelt Point

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Back up at the parking lot, the other participant says to Adam, “I got a better camera but my photos still look the same. What’s that about?”

Adam replies, “The better your camera, the more technique is required to use it. If you don’t improve your shooting, you will get higher resolution noise or blurriness. You will see your mistakes in greater detail. If you shoot so that nothing is in really sharp focus and you aren’t going to make a large print, it will look fine on the web, just like your old photos. But if you want to print it big, you have to really up your game.”

That strikes a chord with me. When I first got my new camera, I thought, “It may have more pixels but all I see is more noise.” That only got better when I started shooting at ISO 100.

“There’s a spot near the Walhalla Overlook that I think will work for sunset – probably sunrise too. Let’s go scout it,” says Adam.

The Walhalla is one of the last before Cape Royal. The only other one is Cape Final but it is a couple mile walk from the road. Walhalla is right on the road. Of course, Adam has a spot that is a short hike away from the overlook. We are soon following him under the pines, through the dry grass and green shrubs to the cliff edge about a quarter mile away.

Afternoon Near Walhalla Point

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The last morning we are again at Walhalla overlook. The cliffs below light up beautifully as the sun begins to rise above the horizon. For a few moments, the light is magic and then it is gone. Kind of like life

Sunrise Near Walhalla Point

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We have to enjoy our moments of beauty while we have them. There is a timeless quality to the joy of a quiet sunrise that remains a part of me forever after. May you pursue your adventures as well.

Best,

David

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