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Behind the Image: A Landscape Diary of How-To’s; Lightning and the Grand Landscape

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Backstory to "Prairie Light"

Anyone who knows me is aware I love getting off the beaten path in search of new locations finding something different and unique - it’s exhilarating. The inability to simply look up someone’s GPS coordinates or a blog post with details and descriptions to me means there is the opportunity of carving out the trip ahead and really making it your own. It also means there is a great likelihood photographers haven’t been focusing on that specific location anytime recently. This is another bonus when you love exploring new areas and hopefully capturing a new and solid image for your portfolio - each photo is your own and from your own mental vision.

This was the impetus for my good friend Ian Plant and I to get into the remote area of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in northern Montana a couple of months ago: we wanted to get off the beaten path and find something new, something unique and let the experience take us for a ride. We both wanted to dive in and be exposed to all it could offer, this is how the best images are made. For the next six days and five nights we canoed 50 miles, hiked countless miles, ate delicious freeze-dried meals and attempted to read weather by just watching the clouds and wind, hoping for the best and also generally just enjoyed our time out camping under the stars.

Montana truly is big sky country and capturing this image was worth the week of heat, bugs, pop tarts each morning and constant alertness of snakes - I was on high watch having had a recent close call with a prairie rattlesnake so this trip was putting all of my senses into overdrive.


This composition was a tough one, but what I wanted to convey and told Ian from day one: If I could capture one image that would tell the story of the location, this is what I wanted to do. Our location was prairie, the Missouri River, possible weather and rugged landscape: how do you put all these together in one photo? It was tough to fit it all in though I feel I succeeded, but it took days to accomplish and so much patience I could hardly stand it ;)

All of these thoughts in my mind led us both to this overlook and comp: I always go for high, being able to get up high (higher is generally always better) allows you to see the landscape and this is important, it shows the scene. Once there I saw these ridges beginning to glow in the setting sunlight and decided to position them to run at an angle from lower right to mid-left which was really putting the balance of the image at risk: the left of the frame was getting very heavy. This was a risky composition as the energy in the frame ran to the left of the image with these formations, but they drew me in instantly once my eye saw them so I wanted to try and make this work. I also saw the river below with an angle to the upper right and wanted to work this into the frame to incorporate it into the final scene. Angles everywhere. As I watched the storm’s path after it passed directly overhead with wind, rain and lightning, I saw it was traveling in a diagonal path to the northeast which had the potential to be perfect to balance out the weight of the photo if I got a lighting strike. The lightning being in the upper right of the frame would give the photograph the balance it needed to keep the eye and viewer interested by creating a dynamic and balanced scene.

Thought Process to Capture the Scene, How it all went down in my mind

To photograph lighting with a gorgeous setting in front of you, you pretty much just have to be in the right place at the right time. No sugar coating here. We happened to be in a great spot, but we also had to really work to find this location and the weather also had to cooperate. There’s no real magic to this or button to press. However, the mechanics to capture lightning isn’t that difficult to work out and with a lighting trigger you will have a much higher success rate than I did getting a bolt in your frame.

This image I honestly just tried to get a feel for the frequency of the strikes through dedicated watching, counting between strikes and at that point I began pressing the shutter when I “felt” it was time. I honestly didn’t take a thousand images to get this one here. As this is not my first lightning image captured without a lightning trigger, I have found one method, albeit not foolproof, is to simply be aware immersing yourself into the scene and “feel” all that is around you, which I believe we all should be doing more of anyway being truly present in the moment. Lighting seems to reinforce this for us which I love: it reminds us things in life aren’t always so instant and being patient for something so special can lead to true rewards. The irony.

Camera Settings & Technical Info

This photo is comprised of four images for sharpness: two in the foreground and two for the spaced out lightning strikes, I just really liked the small addition to the image that first, smaller, bolt added to the overall image. These final two images: lightning 1 & 2, both were focused at infinity achieving both sharpness at that depth of field and also the capturing the lightning bolts.

Foreground Image (closest to me):

Aperture Priority

ISO 640 (the wind was really blowing, I wanted to freeze the motion of the grasses and plants so they weren’t blurred in this initial image)

Aperture f/11

Shutter 1/60 second

Second Image focused on hoo-doos in shadows:

ISO 100


Shutter 1/13

Lightning/Infinity images (I blended the two bolts together into the final):

ISO 100


Shutter 1/13

Final Image:

Thank you for taking the time to read this post and I hope it was both informative and entertaining seeing the process in the field during capture and later in post-processing. If you are interested in purchasing this image, or any of my images, simply click on the photo above and be taken directly to "Prairie Light" or my general Prints page which will link you to my Prints gallery where you can view more images of mine and easily order for your office or home. I am updating titles and descriptions in the gallery, some of the images might not have full content yet added to them and I am aware of this.

If you wish to have a custom print tailored to your specific decor in home or office and have it hand-signed by myself before shipping, please email me at and I will be more than happy to create this one of a kind setup for you.

Good light to you and stay safe and well,

Joseph Roybal


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