Don Naumann needs a good thunderstorm to create a work of art. Mounting his tripod and camera on the shoreline of Crystal Beach or the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs, he waits for the perfect moment — a strong bolt of lightning striking the water.
With shutter open, Naumann gets his shot.
"Every time I go out there, I'm deathly afraid of being struck," says the 63-year-old photographer.
He has good reason to be afraid, since Florida is the lightning capital of the country. Over the past 50 years, about 425 people were killed and 2,000 injured by lightning in the Sunshine State.
Naumann, who refinishes antiques for a steady income, is always on the alert for an approaching storm and the split-second flashes that dominate his photos. He uses a 1959 Swedish-made Hasselblad 500, the same type of camera Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used on their moon walk in 1969.
Lightning may be crucial to Naumann's photos, but it doesn't tell the whole story. He usually envisions an entire scene — a particular boat or barnacle-crusted pier with the lightning strike behind the object of interest.
"If I shot nothing but lightning strikes, I'd have thousands of shots." he said. "But I work very hard on my compositions and may end up with only two show-quality shots a year."
The longtime lightning photographer has regular collectors, but he also exhibits at local art shows. He shows his work at the Tarpon Springs Fine Arts Festival in the spring, the Art Harvest of Dunedin in the fall, the Crystal Beach show in spring and fall, and the Palm Harbor Fine Arts and Crafts Festival in December.
Prints begin at $20 and originals at $500. Pricing varies by size and framing.
On a wall of Naumann's living room in Crystal Beach, visitors can see the result of one of his magical moments — a multi-pronged branch of lightning striking just behind an old wooden fishing boat anchored in St. Joseph's Sound.
It took Naumann two years to get that shot. Often, he said, that particular boat is off trolling in the middle ground of the gulf. The perfect photo necessitated the anchored boat, the storm and a good blast of bolts from the sky.
Naumann seems to require little besides his good eye. His studio is the beach and the tools of his trade are few. Along with the tripod and camera he takes a lightning detector, a small hand-held device that runs on electricity or batteries. It can detect lightning up to 60 miles away.
"Lightning 20 or 25 miles away is ideal," he said. "Sometimes I have to change location to follow the direction of the storm."
The Cleveland native, who in 1974 moved to his grandparents' winter retreat in Crystal Beach, knew he wanted to be a photographer as a teenager.
But lightning became his dominant theme accidentally. In the early 1990s, Naumann was taking photography classes at the former St. Petersburg Junior College. He set up a darkroom on his porch, developing black and white pictures.
"I had to wait until it got pitch dark since I couldn't afford a real darkroom," he said.
One evening a storm was brewing, the camera was set up on the tripod, and in 30 seconds Naumann had a lightning shot. He liked what he saw and so did his instructors. That was the defining incident for Naumann's future specialty.
Naumann said his challenge is always to capture the perfect scene — storm, boat, sea and the split-second flash of lightning.
"When I get a good shot, I'm overwhelmed," he said. "Every single one is a gift I feel has been given to me."