How I Got the Shot: Adam Schallau on Thunder Over the Confluence

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Take a look at the photo above: Adam Schallau was able to capture this gorgeous image by releasing the shutter at just the right time. But how did he get it? We talked to Adam about what he did to achieve it.



Gear Used

  • Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • Lens: Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
  • Tripod: Gitzo Series 3 carbon fiber tripod & Kirk BH-1 ballhead
  • Lowepro Pro Trekker 300 AW Backpack
  • SanDisk Extreme 16GB CF
  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4

Here's a link to Adam's gear page.

Adam's Plan

My vision for this image was to capture the drama of the monsoon season and its impact on the Grand Canyon landscape, including the Colorado River. Including the river in the photo can be difficult, as it is only visible from a handful of locations on the canyon's rim. I had high hopes of capturing lightning striking somewhere within my frame, and hopefully in a location that would complement the overall image.

My plan was to set up in a location that would afford me a commanding view of the river, with the advancing thunderstorms in the distance. Personal safety was a primary consideration when selecting a location from which to shoot. I needed a location where I would not be the highpoint, and I could return to my vehicle within a few minute's hike, to take shelter from the storm. From this location, I would shoot until the lightning began to strike within ten miles of where I was set up.

How Adam Shot the Photo

An important part of nature photography is having an intimate familiarity with your location or subject. Knowing how the light plays across the landscape in spring versus summer, or understanding local weather patterns, can have just as significant an impact on the successful creation of an image, as knowing your camera like the back of your hand can. Having been an artist-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park, and now leading workshops there, I have the luxury of knowing the canyon quite well.

On this particular day, I had been watching the summer monsoon thunderstorms build and collapse all day long. The monsoon storms in Arizona are known for producing brief periods of heavy rain, and they tend to deliver impressive displays of lightning! As the day progressed, I continued to observe the storms, both visually, and via radar on my smartphone. A few hours before sunset it became obvious to me that the eastern end of the park near the Desert View Watchtower was going to be the place to be.

As with any photo, this image is all about light. I wanted to create an image in a single frame, which meant waiting for the right light. Just minutes after sunset I got the light I was looking for. There was just a hint of light in the canyon, most likely reflecting off the bottom of the clouds, and a sliver of color out on the horizon. The canyon had taken on a very moody appearance. This low intensity light also allowed for a very long exposure, which helps in capturing lightning.

Technique

For this image, I needed a long exposure time—30 seconds, if possible—to capture lightning in the frame. The idea is to leave the shutter open only long enough to expose the scene properly. If lighting strikes during the exposure, then you've got the image!

I could force a long exposure by stopping down the aperture to f/22, but that would cause two problems. The first would be a loss of sharpness due to diffraction. Secondly, if I were lucky enough to capture lightning, it might not be as bright as I would like, because the smaller aperture would limit the amount of light from the bolt passing through the lens to the camera's sensor.

Having determined that f/9 to f/11 would give me my desired depth of field, I set out to take a few test shots, shooting in Manual mode, and experimenting with different ISO values. It turned out that ISO 100 was going to work just fine, as it allowed me to shoot at f/9 and get a 30 second exposure. As the sun set and the light faded, I began to bump up my ISO value to keep my exposure at 30 seconds.

The resulting image was captured in a single exposure at ISO 160, f/9, and 30 seconds on the shutter. I actually captured many frames with these settings, and each frame had at least one lighting strike, and several shots had five or more strikes.

Post-Production

I began my post-production work as I always do, by importing the raw images into Lightroom. In this case, it's the recently released Lightroom 4. After importing, I began the process of culling my work. This proved to be very difficult, as I had captured well over 60 frames with lightning strikes. They all looked quite good, and it was difficult to pick an image to work on.

Ultimately, I selected the image you see here because of the single, solitary strike. I felt that the lone lightning bolt draws the viewer's attention through the frame. While I have other shots from this night with many strikes, I find that having too much lightning overwhelms viewers, and they end up not seeing the canyon.

I began editing the image by removing chromatic aberrations using the Lens Corrections Panel, and I set the Camera Calibration to 'Camera Landscape'.  Other things accomplished in post-production included de-saturating the blues by several points, and adding an S-Curve for contrast. I also used Adjustment Brushes and the Graduated Filter to add clarity to the foreground selectively, and to correct a few color balance issues. Finally, the image was cropped to the 5x7 format, as I typically prefer this for my large-scale fine art prints.

All post-production work was accomplished in Lightroom 4.

If you would like to know more, visit Adam's website, or follow him on Facebook, where he shares his latest work and the techniques that go into creating the shots. Adam also gives workshops and photo tours at the Grand Canyon, and his work is also available for sale as fine art prints on traditional papers, and ready-to-hang aluminum prints.

Adam's Links

Website:              http://adamschallau.com/

Facebook:           http://www.facebook.com/AdamSchallauPhoto

Workshops:        http://adamschallau.com/grand-canyon-photography-workshops-tours/

Gear Page:          http://adamschallau.com/whats-in-adams-camera-bag/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio

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Beautiful image, really appreciate the thorough post. Great work.

In addition to being an outstanding photographic artist, you must be a great teacher. Thank you for the clear and concise explanation of how you created this magnificent image.