8 unusual (and fleeting) natural events that make spectacular photographs

First published:
October 12, 2021
February 14, 2024

8 unusual (and fleeting) natural events that make spectacular photographs

First published:
October 12, 2021
February 14, 2024

Cover image by Jim Brown

Top tips for taking photos of nature at its most elusive and exclusive.

Great photography often involves a lot of planning and patience. What settings you dial into your camera are all-important, but even more crucial is getting yourself in the right place at the right time. That’s never truer than for fleeting natural events.

From seasonal events to freak phenomena, here are some photography favourites to make a plan to capture one day… 

1 ’Sakura’ cherry blossom season

How about a cherry tree in blossom in front of Mount Fuji while a Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ whizzes by? We’ve all seen that photo a dozen times, but Japan’s sakura season is nevertheless one of the best times to visit this extraordinarily photogenic country. Whether you visit the ‘Philosopher's Walk’ in Kyoto, Tokyo’s Yoshino or Fuji Five Lakes near Mount Fuji in spring, you won’t be alone; hanami  sessions (cherry blossom viewing) is a centuries-old Japanese tradition.

Japan’s sakura season is one of the best times to visit this extraordinarily photogenic country. Image from pramudyakevin -
Author tip:

The sakura advances across Japan from south to north, with the first blooms in Kyushu in late March and the last in Hokkaido in May. 

2 Horsetail Falls ‘catching fire’

Yosemite National Park is one of the top photography locations on the planet, but if you visit towards the end of February be prepared for the weirdest sight of a waterfall catching fire. The strange phenomenon is the result of the Sun setting at a specific angle and its light streaming down the Yosemite Valley to make water flowing over Horsetail Falls appear yellow, orange and eventually red. 

If you're planning to photograph the falls, make sure you arrive early to get a good position. Photo by Jim Brown - f/8 | 1/125s | ISO 640
Author’s tip:

Yosemite’s ‘firefall’ occurs for a few days in a row, but lasts just a few minutes. However, whether you’ll actually see it or not depends on there being a clear sky and some recent rainfall. Either way, you won’t be the only photographer there.

A spectacular total solar eclipse

It’s perhaps nature’s greatest event of all, but photographing a total solar eclipse – when a New Moon gets precisely between Earth and the Sun – is not an easy task. The first problem is getting into the narrow ‘path of totality’ – the Moon’s shadow – across the Earth’s surface. The second is making sure you’re somewhere with clear skies, something which involves as many weather apps as your phone can hold and nerves of steel to go ‘eclipse chasing’. The third is the shot itself, which involves a telephoto lens on a tripod and an exposure planned and rehearsed well in advance.

The prize is something simply spectacular; the Sun’s mighty white corona set against a darkened daytime sky, possibly with a split-second ‘diamond ring’ as the emerging Sun’s rays begin to filter through the valleys of the Moon. 

A total solar eclipse is a logistically challenging phenomena to photograph, but the amazing scene to be witness makes it worth it - Photo by Claudio Ghiglione
Author tip:

The next three total solar eclipses are:
  • December 4, 2021: Antarctica (1 minute 54 seconds max.)
  • April 20, 2023: Western Australia, Timor Leste and West Papua (1 minute 16 seconds max.)
  • April 8, 2024: Mexico, USA and Canada (4 minutes 28 seconds max.)

4 'Superblooms' in a desert

There are few odder or more welcome sights than a sudden and unpredicted ‘superbloom’ of wildflowers in a desert. Though mostly in permanent drought conditions, just occasionally there’s enough rainfall during spring to elicit a ‘superbloom’ or ‘hundred year bloom’.

Difficult to predict, it’s necessary to get moving the moment you hear about a potential ‘superbloom’, not only because the crop of red, purple or yellow wildflowers are short-lived, but they tend to attract large crowds.

A desert 'superbloom' is a rare and unpredictable sight, and if you hear that one is happening - don't wait around. Photo by Kirk Peters - f/4 | 1/1000s | ISO 80
Author tip:

‘Superblooms’ tend to be the most popular and publicised in the USA, where typical locations for spontaneous canopies of flowers include Death Valley National Park in Nevada, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Antelope Valley and Lake Elsinore in California. 

5 ‘Crystal caves’ inside glaciers

Hidden inside or under glaciers, ice caves offer strange photogenic environments of blue light and transparent walls.

Ice caves are only accessible in the depths of winter, and even then nothing is certain. The problem is melting ice, which can quickly flood an ice cave and make it unstable. Either way, explore with a professional local ice cave guide, who will know which caves are safe and how to stay safe. You’ll have limited time in the caves. Don’t expect to be able to put your camera backpack down and make sure you can easily access your tripod, camera and wide-angle lens. 

Standing under the ice roof in the ice cave of Vatnajokull glacier, south east of Iceland. Always book a trip with a guide. Photo by Jórunn Sjöfn Guðlaugsdóttir - f/5.6 | 2s | ISO 200
Author tip:

The most famous and most visited ice caves are Vatnajokull and Langjokull glaciers in Iceland. However, there are numerous other options including the Ice Pavilion at Mittelallalin in Switzerland, Dobšinská in Slovakia, Mer de Glace near Chamonix, France, and at the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers in New Zealand. 

6 A ‘supercell’ storm

‘Tornado Alley’ is no place for the faint of heart. In late March through May each year in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, USA, updrafts and downdrafts of unstable air bring danger and, if you’re lucky, a tornado at a same distance. Storm-chasing requires patience as well as nerves; expect to wait for thunderstorms and the elusive monster ‘supercell’ storms to roll in. The price, of course, is that perfect storm picture. 

"A massive supercell came through Clayton, New Mexico as the tornado sirens sounded. It was a fantastic sight to behold." Photo by Jason Hudson - f/8 | 1/20s | ISO 200
Author’s tip:

Midwest USA isn’t the only place to photograph storms. The Sundarbans in India and Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal get some terrifically powerful storms, as does the Pampas region of Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil. 

7 'Manhattanhenge' in New York City

If you ever fancy a photography trip to Manhattan, New York City, consider going in either late May or early July. That’s when you can catch an image of the setting Sun between skyscrapers on Manhattan’s iconic streets. A consequence of the city's transit grid being arranged perfectly with the compass points, the perfect solar alignment sees the Sun ‘kiss the grid’ for four sunsets and four sunrises every year.

To photograph a ‘Manhattanhenge’ you need to be in the middle of any of the east-west crossing numbered streets on the grid. 

With the right conditions, the elusive 'Manhattanhenge' can yield incredible photo opportunities. Like with this example from Steve Heap - f/18 | 2s | ISO 100
Author tip:

The phenomenon happens in the lead up to, and retreat from, late June’s solstice, which is when the Sun sets at its most northwesterly point. Around 29/30 May a ‘half Sun’ sets on the grid as seen from any street with a clear view west to the Hudson River, followed the next evening by a ‘full Sun’ doing the same thing. You then get five weeks of nights where the setting Sun drifts between skyscrapers (the so-called ‘Manhattanhenge Effect’), but doesn’t set between them, until around 11/12 July, when a ‘full Sun’ kissing the grid is followed by a ‘half Sun’. 

8 A red ‘blood moon’

Compared to a total solar eclipse a total lunar eclipse is a decidedly laid-back affair. Instead of just a few minutes or even seconds to get a shot, a so-called ‘blood moon’ can last for a few hours. Occurring when the Earth gets precisely between the Sun and a Full Moon, you can watch as our satellite drifts slowly into our planet’s vast shadow in space. The visual effect is like hundreds of sunsets being projected onto the lunar surface at the same time, with a pinky-orange-reddish hue the result. 

Editor's note:

Read our technical guide on how to photograph the blood moon and get great results, here!

A Blood Moon over Brussels, Belgium. January 21, 2019. Photo from AGAMI - f/8 | 1/8s | ISO 2500
Author tip:

The next lunar eclipse is a partial event on November 19, 2021 during which 97% of the Moon will be eclipsed. The next total lunar eclipses are on May 16, 2022 and November 8, 2022

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