JK: You made this spectacular photograph during a recent sunset. How did you end up in the right place at the right time?
JD: The problem with lightning shots, to me, is that they can be nice pictures of lightning and lousy pictures of scenery. Finding a composition like this is somewhat rare in the Sonoran Desert — often, there are paloverde or mesquite trees getting in the way of a clean shot — and having Picacho Peak, a recognizable mountain, in the background is a bonus. This is one of seven or eight locations I have mapped out in my mind, and if I look at the weather app on my phone and see a storm cell is going to intersect one of those areas, that’s where I’m going to go.
JK: What are the challenges in making photos of lightning?
JD: I use a lightning trigger to activate my camera shutter, but you don’t get much of an opportunity to practice and make sure your equipment is working correctly. You can test the trigger using a strobe before you leave the house, but out in the field, you never know if it’s going to work. In this case, the different components were not playing nicely together and I was missing some good opportunities to photograph the storm.
JK: You’re a big believer in backup plans. How did that help you here?
JD: After I watched barrage after barrage of lightning not get recorded, I took out my backup camera and swapped it in to see what would happen. As soon as I got it set up, this flash of lightning triggered the shutter and I made this image.
JK: For novice photographers, what’s the lesson here?
JD: Research and preparation are everything. For this kind of photography, you have to be familiar with locations, movement of storm cells and maps of the area so you can find a place to set up for a shoot. None of it is easy, and it’s rare that it all comes together, but the result can be very rewarding. And, if possible, have backup equipment in case something goes wrong.
JK: What’s the allure of photographing sunsets and lightning for you?
JD: It starts with living in Arizona. People in the Midwest, where I’m from, often don’t think the sunset colors in my photos are natural, but there are days when the traffic in Tucson literally stops and people get out of their cars to watch the sunset. That kind of light is a gift in the Southwest. When it comes to lightning, I’ve had a couple of close calls with this incredible force of nature — one at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, and one at Cape Royal on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon — and some of my fascination probably comes from those experiences.