The Lightning Collector

 The Lightning Collector 

While on a trip in Kansas, USA a friend and local resident asked me how I planned to spend my weekend. I half jokingly said, “I am going to go photograph a tornado.” They laughed and exclaimed, ”I’ve lived here my whole life and I have never seen one!” I am constantly photographing skies for my elements library and thoroughly enjoy a good storm. I have always wanted to witness the awesome power of nature manifested in the form of a tornado, but never wanted to experience any of the destruction and sadness it can leave in its wake. It is a double-edged sword. The next day I was packing my gear in the hotel when I heard the tornado warning siren. I quickly loaded up the car and switched on the radio. In Kansas they have the warning system fine-tuned. The radio station gives a live play-by-play update of the location of the super-cell, and whether any funnel clouds have been spotted. With this information I was able to follow the storm for hours at a safe distance. It was invigorating watching the storm progress and watching it actually spawn into a tornado was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Fortunately the twister did not hurt anyone, and due to its fairly remote location the number of destroyed buildings was minimal. I passed smoldering and burning trees along the way, which were victims of lightning strikes. I added many lightning-streaked skies to my library that day. At one point the radio reported the location and direction of the tornado and I realized it was headed straight towards the neighborhood of my friend. I got on the phone and called him to let him know, and as we were speaking he looked out the window and saw the ominous approaching clouds. He said, “I have got to go!” and quickly ran for shelter. It was then I realized the reason he had lived his whole life in Kansas and never witnessed a tornado. He was smart. 

With these lightning photographs, my first captures for the building of the “Lightning Collector” image were secured. I used the storm photos for the backdrop of the scene. Next I had to find a tree that suited the concept. This was harder than it sounds. Finding a large ideal tree on the crest of a hill with an uncluttered background is actually a rare occurrence. When the suitable tree was found we began the process of lighting for the lightning strike. I used my Phase One 645DF+ with a 35mm lens. A Hensel stick light was used to illuminate the tree from within. The stick light is a powerful handheld strobe that can produce an omni-directional light, which was perfect in this case. A Hensel Porty Pack powered this strobe. We photographed frame after frame, slowly moving the light stick up the tree in the path that I envisioned the lightning traveling.

Eventually we had to climb the tree and use an extension pole with the strobe attached to the end, to reach the highest areas. A light rain was threatening to shut things down and we kept a careful eye on the weather. Perched halfway up a tree positioned on the crest of a hill while extending a metal pole into the sky is about the stupidest thing a person could do in inclement weather. That was not the lightning collector image I had in mind. Fortunately the weather allowed us to continue and the wind didn’t prove to be a problem. Piecing together multiple images of a tree would quickly become a nightmare if the wind blew the branches around. I needed everything still. Tree images secured, we moved on to the next element. 

The lightning collector machine was built from a variety of scrap metal including motorcycle parts and a wine rack. It was inspired by the steam-punk style. The machine was built to house the same stick light used to illuminate the tree. I wanted the actual machine to be the main light source. We sourced wardrobe to fit the scenario, including chainmail. Our model, Nathan McKay, is a local musician, who works tirelessly to promote the arts in our community. In fact, he started a fundraiser for a very young Justin Bieber to buy him his first set of drums. Photographing Nathan was a matter of setting up in a grass field with two lights, also powered by the Hensel Porty Pack: one light with a small reflector to mimic the hard light from the lightning strike, and the light stick placed inside of the collector. The machine was heavy so we used a boom stand to keep it secure while the other end was buried in the ground.


Photographing the lightning strike used in the tree was fairly intense. The team at helped me out again. They have two tesla coils, one of which is of the 3 million volt variety. It generates massive sparks that leap through the air looking for something to ground to. There is a grounding bar that can be hand-held and is attached to the machine to complete the circuit. The tricky part is the machine gets to pick the path of least resistance. If that means a Phase One with IQ260 back mounted on a tripod then so be it. When dusk arrived so did the moisture in the air. This takes the risk of unpredictable grounding up considerably. Danger-Boy owner, being a stickler for safety, shut down the shoot, and suggested moving inside to get additional captures using a smaller coil. I was happy to do this because it was a nerve-fraying experience being in the presence of the loud crackling of 3 million volts looking for a path to the ground. 

In the end all the pieces came together as they should, and no cameras, assistants or photographers were harmed in the making of the “Lightning Collector”. 

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