Lightning Strikes; The Photography Of Tom Willett And Jeff Smith Page 2

Film Or Digital?
The photographers believe there's room for both digital and film cameras when it comes to photographing extreme weather. Smith states, "Someone starting out may want to shoot some images on a digital camera to get a sense of where the exposure might be--it would give them something to go for.

Located along I-10 near Tucson, this substation offers an interesting dichotomy between the harnessed power of man and the natural power of nature.
© 2003 Jeff Smith

"With digital you can see the image immediately; you can tell if you have something and you can judge your exposure. Unfortunately, digital doesn't hold the information well for super bright highlights and black shadows; it gets blown out. And, it can be frustrating for a beginner to shoot a great lightning storm on a low-quality digital camera because of the excessive noise in the file."

In order to get the kind of quality they like for large prints, Smith and Willett feel they would need high-end digital backs such as Hasselblad's H System, which runs about $30,000. "It's not cost effective for us, especially since we're putting equipment in the rain and we're not sure how waterproof the backs are. Film costs $5 and you can dry off the camera.

Looking across I-10 east of Vail one of the largest single bolts I have ever photographed dropped down right in the middle of my frame. Moments before this I said aloud, "God, give me one good bolt and I'll go home." I closed my camera and went home.
© 1988 Jeff Smith

"Also," Willett notes, "there can be stray voltage from a lightning strike, which could possibly fry a camera like that, and insurance might not cover it."

Tracking A Storm
Willett and Smith choose their storms using a variety of methods and tools, including radar, online sources, satellite loops, and an Apple iPhone so they can get radar from the National Weather Service. "The more up-to-date weather you have access to, the better." They also make sure they have a full tank of gas, terrain maps, protective eyewear, GPS, water, food, lots of film, batteries, and towels to dry things off.

"We get together an hour before it gets dark and head in the direction we've decided on. We have to wait 15-20 minutes after sunset before we can shoot. Sometimes we drive in the wrong direction and the storm fizzles out. We never know where it's going to be; we evaluate what's going on as we're driving.

Jeff Smith and A. T. Willett wait for the lightning in the desert southwest of Tucson.
© 2007 Jeff Smith

"Chasing storms is similar to how surfer's look for waves," Smith adds. "We do it visually. And that's why it's good we work together--one person is driving, one is looking. We suggest you go with another person rather than alone. It's more interesting to share the experience with somebody else because you can talk about it, but it's also safer. You don't want to be out there hurt, alone. This year we got two close hits--one was a bolt that hit within 50 feet--scared the hell out of us. It makes you remember why you don't want to get hit by lightning."

The pair tries to work as far from the road as possible on "high spots," but in the desert, the roads are far and few between. "We look for places where the road tapers off and/or for hills," Willett states, "because that's where we can get a clear shot above all the cactus and mesquite trees.

"You shouldn't stray too far from the car. The car is your safe haven where you're relatively protected. If lightning gets too close, we pack up our gear and move to another spot." Note: Willett suggests you set up your camera(s), get back in the car, and only get out to open and close each camera.

After the rain in 1989 the beautiful wet desert glows.
© 1989 Jeff Smith

On The Road
Last summer, the pair drove more than 2800 miles in their quest for the perfect lightning shot. "There were a couple of years in the 1980s that we had more than a couple of good nights. We don't know if it's global warming or the cement around cities now, but it seems to have changed a lot," Smith says. "On the best nights there's some extreme dynamic in the atmosphere that causes either an excessive amount of lightning or great big lightning bolts. We keep our eyes to the sky looking for the next extreme storm.

"Sometimes [a storm] is more interesting to the eye than it is to photograph. But, like anything, you have to take all those photos to get the great photos you're after. There are also other images you can photograph--that you get to see because you're out there--that have nothing to do with lightning, like the beautiful sunsets, dust storms, cars driving in rain, and extra rainbows."

Willett recalls, "Last year we saw some lightning we've never seen before. The lightning came straight at us like pulsating points of light--60 little flickers in a minute (we're pretty certain it was a natural phenomenon and not an alien visit)."

Although that lightning didn't translate well to film, they were excited to have seen it. "No matter what happens during a storm," Willett concludes, "we want to be out there experiencing it!"

Willett and Smith's extensive collection of extreme weather photographs are sold through and/or via