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Alum: 'Expect nothing' when chasing lightning

DAVID HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Lightning chaser and cactus painter Adam Graham sets up his equipment Thursday night in the Saguaro National Park east. Graham chases lightning throughout Southern Arizona.
By Erin Schmidt
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday October 1, 2003

While most people are home eating dinner and unwinding at 6 p.m., Adam Graham can be found watching the weather forecast with his camera ready, hoping for a lightning storm.

Just another day in the life of a lightning chaser.

Graham, 47, a former UA theatre major, has been chasing and photographing lightning for nine years.

"I chase lightning to feel like a kid again," Graham said. "It's like the excitement you felt opening presents on Christmas morning, but better."

Graham, who is an ex-comedian and a self-proposed adrenaline junkie, said chasing lightning interrupts "the coach potato disease" and helps him fight a mid-life crisis.

Every night during the eight-week monsoon season, Graham constantly watches the weather reports and checks his favorite Web site,, for active thunderstorms.

Once activity is spotted, this amateur-turned-professional photographer grabs his tripod and his Minolta X700 slide film camera and hits the road.

"All year round I am looking for perfect pull-out stops throughout Southern Arizona," Graham said. "So when lightning happens, no matter what county, I know right where to go and set up."

Last Wednesday, on a dark and rainy night, Graham anxiously talked of past lightning tales and perfect spots to park and wait. Waiting for that perfect bolt is something that he said could take hours.

"When you are on a chase, your head is constantly turning, looking at all areas of the sky," Graham said. "You are always going after the bolts, no matter where they are."

That night Graham was unlucky. Raindrops were falling heavily, but no lightning. It was well below 100 degrees, which, in a hot and dry climate, would have been the optimal conditions for a lightning strike.

A night like this is typical in a career as unpredictable as lightning chasing, he said.

"The number one rule of lightning chasing is to expect nothing," Graham said. "You are lucky to get a few good photos out of an eight-week monsoon season."

Four years ago, Graham began teaching photography to other students.

He is the teacher and mentor of one of the youngest lightning chasers in southern Arizona 9-year-old Alix Arnold.

Graham said he tries to keep it simple.

"If you know your equipment I can have you taking photos in one hour," Graham said.

He offers Web-based lessons on lightning chases through his Web site,

"I teach my students all my favorite goodies," Graham said.

Chasing lightning as a photographer can be pretty sporadic work, he said, but he will not give it up anytime soon.

"I am still looking for that perfect lightning picture," Graham said. "I live in the perfect place. Arizona lightning is pretty amazing."

Graham said one of his dream shots would be to catch a lightning bolt over Arizona Stadium.

Even if that day never comes, Graham said he will still be shooting and searching for the next best bolt.

"Nothing compares to the joy and excitement of shooting lightning," he said.

A career in chasing lightning not only involves nice photos and fast car chases. It can be dangerous, Graham said.

As a rule of thumb for any lightning chase, Graham uses the "10 rule," which is, if you can see a lightning bolt and you can't count to 10, leave.

Seventy-five to 100 people each year die from lightning strikes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Lightning photos aren't worth dying for," Graham said.

"There is no point in having a great photo if you have combusted into powder next to your camera."

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