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Stars and Lightning over Mount Kilimanjaro!

Milky Way and lightning storm over Mount Kilimanjaro!

Milky Way and lightning storm over Mount Kilimanjaro!

As far as experiences go, this is one of those “once in a lifetime that will never be repeated” moments.

My brother, myself and our two Italian gentlemen fellow travellers had arrived at the Amboseli Sopa Lodge for our final two nights on safari.

It was a nice lodge overlooking Mount Kilimanjaro, with friendly staff and spacious rooms with furniture and decoration courtesy of Fred Flintstone.

We were the only four tourists staying there that first night. They were expecting another group to arrive the next day but for now we had the place to ourselves!

After our evening meal in the deserted restaurant, we went outside wondering “what can we do for the rest of the night?”

I happened to look up at the night sky as we left. It was filled with stars. We all stopped to look.

As our eyes adjusted from the artificial lights of the lodge to the darkness, we could see the Milky Way stretching across the sky.

Thanks to the Star Walk app on my phone and the lodge’s free wifi, we were able to identify a couple of constellations.

There were some bats silently flying around above us but they didn’t bother me. At least they were eating the insects that otherwise would have been feasting on us!

Then came the lightning.

It was in the distance but it lit up the sky as a complement to the stars. There was no thunder.

I went back for my camera. Not my big expensive Canon 5D MK III with the Sigma 70-200mm lens attached, but my “cheap” little Canon 100D with a 24mm pancake lens.

At first it didn’t go well. I began slowly and tentatively but achieved nothing but a blank screen. No matter what settings I changed it made no difference.

Then I realised I had made the beginner’s mistake: lens cap!

From there it improved. I took a sweeping shot of the sky with lots of stars but I wasn’t really focusing anywhere. Mainly because I was resting my camera on a wall on top of my hoodie for the long exposures.

I moved further away from the lights of the bar and restaurant but now I was resting my camera on a chair which was even lower than the wall.

Then Pietro (who had a big Canon camera with the Canon 70-200mm plus the 2x extender but he was not taking photos that night) loaned me his tripod. Now things really began to get interesting!

I was able to aim the camera further down to include the foreground bushes and get a focus reference.

After a handful of much improved photos I realised that the lightning was silhouetting Mount Kilimanjaro on the horizon! 

A quick adjustment of the tripod, another 30-second exposure and a dramatic flash of lightning brought “Ooooh!”s from the four of us as the resulting image flashed up on the small camera screen.

I went for another. Again a huge flash of lightning! But our reaction for this second shot was a mere “Meh” compared to the drama of the first image.

After a few more attempts I knew that the photograph that caused the biggest reaction was going to be the best I would get that night.

The following night it was cloudy. That night had been my one chance to get those photographs and had I waited an hour later the clouds may well have moved further across the sky.

Of course the image looked good on the camera screen, but how would it turn out on my 21” iMac?

I need not have worried.

Yes, the bushes in the foreground were way too bright and there was some movement in some stars from the long exposure but the camera had picked up more stars than the naked eye and the silhouette of the mountain was as crisp as it was going to get.

I knew it would take some editing to get the image how I wanted it to look in my mind, but how?

In Lightroom I played around with some settings, exposure and contrast sliders and presets but it still did not look right.

In my sleep-deprived state it took me longer than it should have to notice I could easily remove the rope fence that was strung across the image above the bushes. Once that was out of the way it freed me up to try other things.

In Photoshop I tried layer masks and adjustment layers but again the foreground was too bright.

It was nearly 8pm when I remembered the gradient masks in Lightroom and they solved my problem!

Not only did they desaturate the bushes while keeping the lightning bright, but they allowed me to slightly lighten the sky above the highest point of Kilimanjaro to give its outline more emphasis.

One of my goals while on safari was to attempt a night sky image, weather permitting. I had hoped maybe I would get one night with lots of stars and perhaps a nondescript acacia tree lit up in the foreground as a focal point.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that Mount Kilimanjaro would turn out to be my focal point against a backdrop of billions of stars, the Milky Way and accompanied by a lightning storm!