I debated with myself about writing this because it has become somewhat a cliche. Describing the lead up to finally photographing a much anticipated scene has become common place. However, I’ve succumbed, and decided to spend few minutes of my life to pen some words on this photo. Not necessarily for anyone else, but to document this for myself, because this image was one for me.
I’ve had the honor of witnessing some incredible sights over the last few years. From standing under the northern lights in northern Canada, hiking through the timeless valley of Yosemite, touching the ancient walls inside the great pyramid of Giza and walking the myriad of sinking streets in Venice. If my passport was cancelled tomorrow, I really couldn’t complain. But when it comes down to it, the one shot I wanted to capture in my lifetime was right in my backyard.
Around 12 months ago I was engaged in a photography based discussion with my good friend Cameron Sandercock (something of a common occurrence). Somehow the topic shifted to ‘the one photo we wanted to capture before we die’. Instantly my mind drifted to distant shores, visualising mountains, icebergs and auroras. But as eye catching as a photo might be, without meaning and purpose, its lifeless. Pondering the question for a few moments, I couldn’t shake the thought of a cerain rock, a sea stack that I have shared many mornings with, a shore upon which I learned and fell in love with photography. Cathedral rocks at Kiama.
I’d photographed this place in most lighting and tidal conditions, under the milky way and fiery dawn skies, in fog, rain and midday sun. I’ve spent mornings here in solitude and others shared with the local birds, distant whales and dolphins whilst other times I enjoyed a chat with photographers as I led workshops. But the one, unique condition I was yet to experience here was a storm. A bolt of lightning breaking over and seemingly hitting the spire was my vision. Number one on my photo bucket list and something I was mentally prepared to wait years for.
The end of November 2014 was a pivotal and memorable time in my life, as my son Judah entered the world. Two weeks after his birth, being rather sleep deprived, a 5 day row of storms battered our coastline. Something unseen here in over a decade. Up until this point, I already had several attempts at this shot. Storms don’t roll by often here, this opportunity was rare.
Storms tend to roll by in the afternoon when it is still too bright. To make this image, I needed the storm to be in the twilight hour, I wanted the sky to look a certain way which would also allow for a longer exposure. Family is my priority, so leaving my wife and newborn at home during a severe storm obviously wasn’t high on my list of things to do as a husband and father. As the storms rolled across from the west on the second afternoon, everything fell into place. The house was in order and Judah had just fed and drifted to sleep. My wife looked at me with those familiar eyes and smile, encouraging me to go. The rush of grabbing my camera bag and jumping in the car to chase light doesn’t get old.
Examining the radar, conditions were near perfect. The storm front was moving in the exact location desired with little rain. Even with something as sporadic as lightning, its hard to not to let your hopes and expectations run high.
I arrived just after sunset and set up. The light was too bright so I waited patiently. An all too familiar event. There are a multitude of composition options here but I selected one that not only worked best with the storms location but is also the traditional view of this place. I My tripod was placed in the main entry corridor, through my lens revealed what is seen as you first walk into the cathedral. A sight that is intricately ingrained in my mind.
With the storm now overhead, light rain began to fall. I said a prayer for the second time. A common practice for me when out in the elements. Something usually is said not in relation to photography, but in thankfulness for the moment, the many of which I have experienced.
I was positioned sitting on the ground with an umbrella protecting me and my camera. A few nearby flashes delivered hope but because I was shooting narrow at 50mm ,the window of opportunity was small. For some reason a psalm popped into my head, psalm 23. Perhaps to comfort myself, I began to speak the words of the psalmist aloud. ”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Half way through the next exposure, I saw it. A spike of lightning pierced the sky directly over the spire. If I was in the business of digitally manipulating photos, this is where I would put a bolt. An intense calm flooded my body. I knew that was the one. With the cameras shutter open, the bright photons would have been captured by the cameras sensor, creating an image of what I just saw. As I heard my camera finish the exposure, I didn’t look at what I caught, although I was extremely joyful, it was almost as if a tiny part of me was disappointed that the moment had been and gone.
I shot two more exposures and then viewed the image and really couldn’t believe it. Heavy rain soon forced me to run for cover and I ended up inside an all familiar cave. I took advantage of my position and continued shooting. In between bolts my hand was barely visible before my face yet intermittent strikes would allow me to see every aged and wave afflicted stone that comprised this shore.
An hour would pass before it was safe to leave. The storm lasted until 4am and was declared one of the biggest to grace the region. As I listened to the thunderous cry of the sky throughout the night at home, I rested peacefully knowing I had given my all in the hope of chasing a dream, doing something I have come to truly love. Photography means something different for each individual. For me, it seems to be about seeking moments that make me feel comfortably small in a vast, complex universe. Whatever it is for you, don’t be afraid to chase your dreams. Happy shooting. WP