The wide open skies of Arizona and Utah play host to some of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life.
A good sunset, photographically speaking, requires a few of the following elements to come together precisely at the right time.
Time. The Sun needs to be at a point that is low enough in the sky for the atmosphere of the Earth to filter the Sun’s light down to the warm purples, reds and oranges that we find pleasing.
Clouds. Although just the setting Sun itself can be an interesting photographic element, we typically want the largest possible canvas to capture that warm glow of the golden hour. Sometimes the stormiest skies make the best canvas. Sometimes the canyons are the focus.
Direction. Clouds are good, right? Not when they’re in the way of the sun. We hope that the sun peaks under the clouds, so if it is clear to the west we’re in good shape.
Interest. If we’re just talking about catching red, glowing clouds we’re probably done here, but to really amp up the excitement you’ll want to be positioned to get the golden light on some of your landscape as well. This is especially true for Lake Powell as the formations of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area really shine when the sun sets. The Navajo Sandstone captures a lot of light, imparts the iron-oxide glow and reflects it around the other canyons. I like to also include elements that are not sunlit to give a frame of reference to the awesome light.
Continuing on my Lake Powell weather photographs are these examples of Virga, a weather condition where precipitation from the clouds is evaporating before it hits the ground. Virga is an awesome phenomenon especially during sunrise and sunset because the moisture catches the colors of the sunset.
This first photograph shows the effect of the wind on the falling rain, blowing it into a comma shape.
Although the highspeed film in this scan was rather grainy, I like this photograph because there are a number of individual clouds from which the rain is illuminated by the sunset. The use of a 300mm telephoto here has compressed the image. You may also notice that all of these examples are from roughly the same area, around Lone Rock Beach, looking north over the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It would seem that Page and Lake Powell have a way of diverting these types of storms. The dry, hot air over the rugged landscape is what keeps the rain from making it all the way to Earth. The cooler mass and absence of radiated heat from Lake Powell itself tends to allow the rain to fall completely.
From July to September Arizona usually experiences a change in weather that is often unexpected for those who think of the Southwest United States as just a dry desert. The Arizona monsoons bring in dramatic thunderclouds that can be seen for a dozen miles away in the vast Colorado Plateau. From Page I’ve witnessed a number of epic storms that sometimes push around the Manson Mesa (Page) and provide a wonderful opportunity to photograph this action while staying relatively dry.
Photographing lightning isn’t that difficult once you’re familiar with where your focus should be set (usually backed off slightly from infinity) and you have a general idea of the exposure. I typically go a few stops down from the brightest area of clouds and try to work in the 5-10 second range. The magnitude and quantity of strikes can vastly change the amount of light so a precise exposure is difficult to obtain.
A tripod is an absolute must when you’re shooting with exposures in more than fractions of a second, and although I would recommend a cable (remote) release, there are some techniques to work without it. Generally for lightning shots you’re okay with using the self timer, but have to work around the delay of the timer and may miss some action. If your camera has a mirror lock function you will reduce motion blur in your images caused by the mechanism shaking the camera. In a pinch, use a hat, or a neutral density card, or anything you have laying around that can be use to gently cover the lens (without touching). Add a half second or so to your exposure and cover the lens. When the shutter is released and the mirror flips up, pull the card away and the moment of vibration will not be recorded onto the film (or sensor).
From there I’m looking for areas of the sky where I expect strikes to occur and then it’s just burning film (back in the day, digital now). You can’t catch a strike unless the shutter is open, so unless you’re in a storm like this one, you will have plenty of frames of nothing but clouds or darkness.
Your best option for lens is to stay wide as it is hard to predict where strikes will occur. In particularly active storms it may be possible to predict where a lightning strike will come from. I took a chance on this one after seeing the same obvious dark cloud produce strikes three times in a row. I pulled out the 300mm and within 10 minutes had recorded this very detailed image, one of my personal favorites.