Tag Archives: lightning photography
March 23, 2011

PV014: Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni is the most amazing natural wonder I have ever seen in my life.  During our two trips through the world’s largest salt flats, Oksana and I got so many good photos and videos that editing them into a single podcast episode was more challenging than editing the ones where I don’t have enough footage.  I worried that I wouldn’t do this amazing landscape justice.

This video is almost fifteen minutes long and that’s even after I decided to eliminate day two and three of our tour (I may make that into a shorter episode later.)  I had the great fortune to be able to interview not just Oksana and myself, but also our guide and every one of the new friends we met on these tour.  This isn’t just “Arlo and Oksana’s Experience on the Salar,” it’s “Arlo and Oksana’s (Alaska), Rémy and Aurélie’s (France), Wendy and Dusty’s (Ohio), Soledad and Joaquin’s (Buenos Aires), and Oscar’s (La Paz) Experience on the Salar!”

Not everyone is as comfortable as we are in front of a camera — and we’re far from comfortable talking into a lens, ourselves! — so I want to thank everyone who contributed to this video, especially Soledad and Joaquin who struggled with an unfamiliar language on camera.  For what it’s worth, I think that having a 2-to-1 ratio for English-as-a-second (or third!) -language to native English speakers in this video is pretty cool!

Fifteen minutes may be asking too much of some internet viewers.  If you find yourself bored by the setup, might I suggest you jump to the 9 minute, 45 second mark?  Spoiler warning: It’s awesome!

Finally, there are more stories and photos of our Uyuni trips on:

Rémy and Aurélie’s travel blog: NEWZ FROM THE WORLD
Wendy and Dusty’s travel blog: roamthepla.net



February 26, 2011

Tormenta de Uyuni

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What a difference three weeks can make!

After getting sick on our first visit to the world’s largest salt flat, Oksana and I retreated to La Paz and rested up.  We knew we were coming back to the Salar de Uyuni on our way down to Chile, but we worried that the trip wouldn’t be the same without our friends, Dusty and Wendy, along (not to mention that we couldn’t afford a “private” tour without them…)

So, when we arrived at Red Planet Expeditions again, we had plenty of questions for the guides.  The most important of which: How can we see the Salar at night?

The short answer: “You can’t.”  At least not without staying at a $100/night salt hotel.  When pressed, one of the guides admitted there were other options. We could pay $150 for a private, one-day tour which would let us stay out on the flats until about 10pm.  That seemed steep to us, considering the 3-day tour to Chile would still cost us $130.  Another option, he said, would be to try to convince a group to change the normal itinerary on their 3-day/2-night tour to stay out on the flats until just after sunset.  In that case, everyone would have to spend the night in Uyuni again, because there would be no time to drive south after dark.

Most of the tourists with reservations wouldn’t arrive until the next morning, so we resolved to return to the office early to meet them and pitch our idea before committing our own money.

The next morning, nothing went as planned!  The buses from Sucre and La Paz were late (due to the unpredictable road conditions during the rainy season.)  At first, this seemed like a great thing:  The later we got underway, the more likely it seemed we’d be able to convince our guide to stay on the salt flats until dark.  But as time went on and no word from the buses materialized, plans changed.  Oscar, a Red Planet guide, decided to simply merge the people who were waiting, even though not all of us had paid for the same tour.  “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll just tell the others that we’re staying until sunset and they won’t even know that’s not normal!”

Indeed, after hearing that the normal tour only allocated a couple mid-day hours on the flats, the two couples from Argentina and France recognized the opportunity for what it was.  Sunset and star photos on the world’s largest salt flats?  And we don’t miss anything else on the tour?  How did we get so lucky?

Ever since I’d first heard about this tour in Quito, I’d been looking forward to getting some nighttime, starlight photos on the salt flats.  Supposedly, when the stars are reflected in the water below, it looks like you’re floating in space!  The weather on our second tour was cooperating, too.  On our first trip, it rained off and on the whole day, but this time, the sky was blue overhead and the only clouds were on the horizon.  Another difference: the water level on the flats was much higher on our second go-around.  We were excited that the mirrored surface was even better, even though that meant there were very few places where we could attempt the funny perspective shots…

As the sun began to set, a storm developed on the western horizon.  Big black sheets of rain began to fall, far in the distance, and the few people remaining on the flats began to cluster together and start taking photos.  As the storm approached, the lightning grew more intense.  Some of us were actually able to take handheld lightning photos if we were quick enough.

But as the night began to fall, the real show began!  With the darkness, I was able to lengthen my exposures.  I set my camera to shoot in bursts, bracketing all three shots to be slightly darker than normal.  The storm was raging by the end (though we never did get rained on!) and practically every photo captured at least one, big lightning bolt.

Everyone in our group has amazing photos from that evening, but this one is my favorite.

By 7:30pm, the air was whipping around us and I suspect the wind chill was below zero.  I was still in shorts and up to my ankles in icy salt water, shivering uncontrollably.  The storm had literally horseshoed around us and lightning was coming down on all three sides, but I continued to take photos right up until Oscar arrived with our Land Cruiser.  “I’m so sorry, man,” he shouted over the wind, “but I don’t think you’re going to get your starlight photos tonight.”

“Are you kidding me?  After a show like that?  I couldn’t care less!”

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 7:20pm, 23 February 2011
Focal Length: 24mm
Shutter: 8 seconds, -1.7 step bias
Aperture: F/11
ISO: 500
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, cloned out a couple dozen “hot” pixels (chip temperature errors), plus cleaned up the ghosting of one person’s silhouette (because they moved during 8 sec exposure.)

September 3, 2010

Lightning over the Nags Head Pier

Lightning over the Nags Head Pier

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Nags Head is turning into my de facto lightning photography grounds.  My grandparents have a beach house with a covered porch and hot summer afternoons often turn into evening thunderstorms.  But conditions aren’t always right.  Even when it’s not raining, often the wind blows so hard the camera vibrates on the tripod.

Anyone that’s tried to get a good lightning photo knows that it can take a lot of patience.  Good thunderstorms may display nice strikes every few seconds, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always have your camera pointed in the right direction.  Even if you do, the lightning strikes themselves won’t necessarily be photogenic.  It once took me 57 tries to get a lightning bolt to cooperate with the rule of thirds.

A couple weeks ago, another summer thunderstorm was passing us by at the cottage.  My cousin had a new camera and was out on the front porch trying to get a lightning photo of her own, but I decided to stay inside because it looked like it might rain at any minute.  Eventually she packed up, but the rain never arrived.  Later in the evening, when the lightning flashes picked up in frequency, I stepped out to take a look for myself.

The storm was passing south of us, heading out to sea, and as the warm, inland air advanced out over the sea, bolts of lightning were dancing every which way.  For a storm lover like me, it was a great show.  Even better, from where we sat it, was warm, dry, and there was not a breath of wind.  I decided to run in and grab my new camera.

Our neighbor’s cottage was empty, boarded up for the season. I didn’t figure they’d mind if I commandeered their gazebo overlooking the ocean.  Our porch is set back behind a dune, so it was a treat to be able to look out toward the Nags Head Pier with the storm behind it.  I didn’t even need a tripod; there was an 8-foot supporting column with a nice, flat surface on top.

How good was the show?  It took me exactly four exposures to get this shot.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Date: 9:04pm, 22 August 2010
Focal Length: 24mm
Shutter: 15 seconds
Aperture: F/4
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Minor rotation to level horizon, cropped to 17×6 panoramic, slight saturation increase

July 23, 2006

Moscow Thunderstorms

Moscow Thunderstorms

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My luck in photographing lightning seems to be improving.

While in Moscow, Oksana and I hooked up with Vika, an old friend of hers who used to be a fellow Russian exchange/international student in Juneau. She and her boyfriend, Vanya, took us out to a restaurant on the 22nd floor of a university building. As the sun set, all of Moscow was laid out before us.

Just before dinner arrived, at Vanya’s insistence, I attempted to capture a lightning strike from a fast-approaching thunderstorm. Only three shots into my attempt, Oksana called me back to the table; dinner had been served. “Last one,” I called, just before a bolt shot down.

During dinner, the storm built in intensity. As soon as I finished my meal, I excused myself for another attempt. The very next photo, the one pictured above with two almost-simultaneous strikes, was the result. Seconds later, the wind and rain chased us inside.

By the time we settled the check and made it downstairs, a good-sized pond had formed in the building’s courtyard and doorway. Vanya and Andrey bravely sacrificed their aridity (but not their shoes) in a mad dash out to the car for the umbrellas stashed within.

Canon Digital Rebel XT
Date: 15 July 2006
Focal Length: 18mm
Shutter: 25 seconds
Aperture: F/20
Photoshop: Minor color correction, minor cropping