Night photography: Mojave lightning storm

Mojave Desert lightning storm -- by Joe Reifer
Mojave Desert lightning storm -- by Joe Reifer

During the first night of last week's Paul's Junkyard Night Photography Workshop we were treated to an intense lightning storm over the Mojave Desert. There were a few drops of rain before sunset, and after dark the rain stopped. For close to 2 hours, flashes of lightning appeared in the distant sky at short intervals. These distant lightning storms are not accompanied by the sound of thunder. This phenomenon is often referred to as heat lightning, because it occurs on hot summer nights. The sound of thunder actually dissipates before you can hear it.

Paul's Junkyard has an amazing array of cars, buses, trucks, prop vehicles, and equipment. Due to the density of subject matter, most workshop participants use wide angle lenses anywhere between 14mm to 28mm to photograph inside the yard. These wide focal lengths make the distant lightning appear rather small in the frame. To complicate matters further, the walls and piles of stuff make it hard to find a vantage point to frame an interesting subject while maintaining a view of the lightning on the distant horizon.

A few photographers who were entranced by the lightning storm stepped outside of the junkyard to get a better look. Instead of a wide angle lens, the photo above was made at a 50mm focal length on full frame. I made 3 exposures of 4 minutes at f/8 ISO 200. There were lightning strikes during all 3 exposures, a truck drove by during one, and a car drove down the road in another. The 3 images were stacked together in Photoshop using the Lighten blending mode. The results are the same as shooting 1 exposure for 12 minutes. By making 3 shorter exposures I kept the noise down on this hot night, and gave myself additional options for playing with the foreground lighting in post-production.

Images from last week's workshop are starting to appear in the Paul's Junkyard Flickr group. I know a few other photographers got lightning shots, and I'll be very interested to see them!