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I worked for the Muskegon Chronicle, in Muskegon, Michigan for a time, and the weather there is very different from here in Washington State where I live now. You’ve likely heard of the reputation western Washington has for rain, and it is in large part true. The weather in Michigan, however, is that “middle of the continent” kind of stuff where you have thunderstorms, tornadoes, poofy clouds that you just don’t have here closer to the coast. One of the things that happened a lot was those thunderstorms, and they would always come in off Lake Michigan (all the weather came in from the west, thunderstorms were no exception). Every now and then we’d see one coming, and as I was always on the lookout for new and exciting pictures, I headed down to the lake to see if I could set up and get a shot for the paper.
I drove around for awhile, looking for a good vantage point so I could have something visible in the foreground to get a sense of how big the lightning bolt was, and settled on an unmanned lighthouse, and put it in the bottom right of my frame.
I could see the lightning hitting, and had a lens on the camera that could see a good field of view (not good to have a telephoto lens focused on the wrong patch of sky) – and so, considering that this was a) night, and b) lightning – I figured that the chance of me actually getting something was dramatically improved by having the camera on a tripod and taking long exposures, so I did, and I started shooting…
I’d open the shutter – leave it open for about 20 seconds – just long enough, I figured, for the light in the lighthouse to burn a hole in the film (not really, but it would make it hard to print) – and if there wasn’t any lightning – then I’d close the shutter and go to the next frame. I did this for about 25 frames or so, and just as I was closing the shutter on that 25th frame, a big, hurking bolt of lightning came down, and I wondered if I’d gotten it.
More importantly, my brain started functioning about then.
See, I was standing on a beach.
Which meant I was the highest object around.
And I was holding a metal cable release attached directly to my camera, on a metal tripod.
And that tripod was, as you might imagine, was well grounded.
- I’m not sure if the hair standing up on the back of my neck was from the realization of what could be happening, or from what was clearly about to happen – regardless, I’ve never packed up my gear so fast.
I got back to the paper and developed the film – and all but the last frame were blank (except for the lighthouse) – that last frame had a big bolt of lightning just on the left side.
And it also had a story behind it…