Behind the Image: The Lightning Tree

Cody Schultz - "The Lightning Tree" -

The story:

It amazes me how easily I can recall taking an image that I chose to finalize. Every image I have taken, I can remember the place, the feeling, the settings – for the most part, of course. I remember reading how Ansel Adams – a bit of an influence of mine – had been the same way, being able to tell you every little detail about a photograph. To make this even more impressive, he rarely looked at his notes when recalling these details and, being a film photographer, he did not have the EXIF data to refer to either. Furthermore, he had taken thousands of images, and still could manage this!

Moving a bit away from the great Ansel Adams, let’s get back to this image here. I remember the exact night I had taken this image. It was August 13th of 2016, around 12:30 midnight, if I am not mistaken. My father, Melanie, and a few family friends had gone up to the family property much earlier that night. After a while of board games, Jenga, and talking, we decided to go out on a “midnight ride” – simply riding around the property on the four-wheelers around midnight. Of course, I could not resist bringing my camera along with me, as a storm was brewing in the distance and I desperately wanted to capture some lightning for once. With the camera bag on Mel’s back – as she was on the four-wheeler sitting behind me as I drove – and the tripod strapped to the racks, we drove off.

It was not until everyone else went back to the cabin that I pulled out the camera.

Mel and I sat on the four-wheeler, talking for a bit, waiting for the storm to roll in some more. While the clouds were beginning to flash and thunder was cracking, they were not yet ready to be photographed. Their makeup was not yet finished and their clothing still needed to be adjusted a touch.

Slowly but surely I slid off the machine, standing tall on the dampening grass, dew already beginning to form. It may not have begun raining just yet, but it surely would in the coming hour or so. I began setting up my shot, composing it the best I felt I could at the time. Focus locked in, exposure where I wanted it, I began to fire the shutter, checking after every image to make sure I was getting what I wanted.


The Previsualization:

If I am honest, I don’t recall having previsualized this photograph. At the time, I was still learning what this term even meant, and was not thinking about the final image as much as I now do. All I knew was that I wanted some sort of lightning in the background with a tree as the main subject, smack-dab in the middle of the frame, cause that’s just what I like. Of course, lightning striking the image would have been amazing, albeit a bit terrifying, I am sure. As you surely have noticed, that did not happen.

In hindsight, I wish I would have stayed out longer to see what the storm was going to do, whether it would have come in more or simply dissipated. However, Mel was getting tired – as was I – and I was happy with what I had. With that, I packed it in, we got back on the four-wheeler, and we drove back to the cabin to join the rest of the group yet again.

screenshot of Photoshop layers, all turned off - The Lightning Tree

The Edit:

At the time of taking and editing this photograph, I was rather intrigued by the work of landscape photographer Ted Gore. The way he combines images to create the best representation of the scene, crafting more of a feeling than a photograph in a way, was something that I admired, and wanted to do myself. Hell, I still would love to do it and I definitely still consider him a big influence on my work. About a month prior to taking this photograph, I had bought four of his processing videos and was eager to put my newfound knowledge to the test.

When I arrived home later that weekend, I opened the files in Lightroom and began picking the shots I wanted to use. Since the composition did not change throughout the night, I was able to pay close attention to the lightning in the back left of the tree and the light/stars on the right. With this in mind, I had compiled a total of five out of the 15 or so images I had taken of the scene.

Once that was done, I did some basic adjustments in Lightroom before moving on to Photoshop, opening each file as a smart object in case further tweaking of my edits was needed. Once in Photoshop, I decided which image would be my base layer and brought the other files over, layering them over the aforementioned base layer. I then began blending in the lightning as I felt best fit the overall feeling, bulking up the clouds behind the tree, giving it a more impactful punch.

screenshot of Photoshop layers, all turned on - The Lightning Tree

Next up was the right-hand side, where the light from the nearby town was coming from. As much as I hate light pollution, this I found to be rather beneficial as it provided a yellow-ish glow that complimented the other colors rather beautifully. Although this glow was noticeable, it was not nearly as prominent as I wanted, so I brought out the brush and – on a new, blank layer – I began to paint in the area to give the glow a stunning punch.

To finish it all off, I did a bit of messing around with the colors through use of the color balance adjustment, boosting the yellows in the highlights and the blues in the shadows. Finally, I used a tone curve to darken the overall image a touch while lifting the blacks for a satin-like feel, and the blue curve shadows to add some blue tones to the blacks.


The Image:

And this is the end result, paired with the five images that made up the final product…



Left Corner


Under Tree



Right Horizon


Upper Cloud