Sunset Punishment

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A massive thunderstorm dumps on the Tucson Mountains.

Story

The summer monsoons are frequent visitors to Tucson during July, August, and September. They often bring dramatic storms and their massive thunderheads are spectacular when lit by the setting sun. So when my wife and I (and a few hundred other locals) walk up Tumamoc Hill to get some exercise once the sun starts to go down, I will sometimes bring my camera if the sky looks promising. But as the primary goal is to get some exercise and not take pictures, I don’t bring along any gear that I can’t hold in one hand, and certainly not a tripod.

Four years ago, this was one of those occasions where the ominous skies unleashed a spectacular storm on the Tucson Mountains to our northwest. Fortunately for us, we were watching the storm from a few miles away and not underneath it.

As it happened, this definitely turned out to be an occasion where a tripod would have been handy. It was getting pretty dark, and I pushed the camera up to ISO 1600, which is about as high as I was comfortable going with the Nikon D800. The lens was as wide-open as it would go, too—which at f/4.5 is not very wide. Even with all of this, the shutter speed was still down at 1/6 sec, which is really too slow to expect much from the lens’ vibration reduction. I adopted the common strategy for this situation of taking multiple photos so that I would eventually get lucky with the image stabilization and get a sharp one. But since I really wanted a lightning flash, too, I had to get doubly lucky. So I took a bunch and in the end, I chose the sharpest image that also had a lightning flash.

Analysis

This image is divided into three horizontal bands: the dark gray clouds above, the black ground below, and the pale orange band of sky between them. Obscuring much of that orange strip is an impressive downpour—the obvious focal point of the image—lit from within by lightning. In the lower part of the image, the many tiny lights add some detail and also provide a sense of scale: the massive storm absolutely dwarfs the inhabitants. While most of the lights are white pin-pricks, some of the closer ones are orange and echo the orange in the sky; in addition, they also light the trees in the parking lot and add a contrasting patch of green to the image. Finally, there are delicate curving wisps of rain visible on the right side of the image that contrast with the massive rainfall on the left. These smaller features, in addition to the lightning-lit detail in the overhead clouds and crisp silouette of the dark mountains against the storm, provide the viewer a lot of areas to explore before returning to the primary point of interest—the storm itself.

Creation

This image, while chosen as the best of a healthy batch, was a single exposure. In addition to exposure adjustments and dodging and burning to bring out the detail in the rain, the clouds, and the trees in the lit parking lot, the D800 at ISO 1600 definitely required some noise reduction. All of this was done in Adobe Lightroom. It was clear from all of the lights in the image that their was some motion blur despite the best efforts of the lens’ vibration reduction. Although this image was taken and initially edited over four years ago, it was only earlier this year that I attempted to remove the camera motion blur using a trial license of Focus Magic. This process involves a bit of trial and error to choose the best direction and magnitude for the motion blur, but the streetlights make it easy to tell when you have the adjustments about right.

Technical Data

Nikon D800 with Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 at 52mm, 1/6 sec, f/4.8, ISO 1600, hand-held.

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