For Jerry Zimmer, the sky is filled with eagles, lightning bolts, and fireworks.
The Hager City photographer has spent more than 25 years on dark hilltops, face to face with approaching thunderstorms, hoping to get a good lightning photo before wind and rain drive him back to his car or inside his house.
On June 1 at 11:45 p.m., his determination paid off with a photo of a lightning bolt that resembles the outline of Wisconsin.
"The night I took that photo, there were four or five storms going through to the north," Zimmer recalled. "What I do is I go home and look on my computer. I look at the radar, and I try to figure out how close a storm is coming, or if I should go chase it."
He said it is often a balancing act. If the storm is too far away, the lightning bolts are too small in the photo. However, getting too close to the storm presents a different sort of problem.
"This is a very scary hobby," Zimmer said. "I have had some very close calls because of this. There have been some times when I have heard the sizzle before I saw the lightning. You don't get these shots by going home."
Ready to shoot
To take lightning photos, Zimmer sets his camera on manual and uses a timer remote controller which keeps the shutter open until he pushes a button to close it. The camera records anything it sees during the entire time the shutter is open.
"A few years ago, back in the days of film, I had a picture which had five separate lightning bolts in one photo, because of the shutter being open during that time," he said.
The night he took the photo of the Wisconsin lightning bolt, he held the shutter open for 21 seconds before he shut it down. The storm was moving fast, so he only got three photos before he had to quit and take cover.
"I went home and put it on my computer screen, and I thought it was a pretty cool picture," he said. "Later, I put it on Facebook, and a guy I work with said, 'Hey, that looks like Wisconsin.' That's when it took off."
The photo has been shared thousands of times. His photos of lightning have been used on television weather reports in the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison, and other locations.
"My mom totally hates me doing this," Zimmer said. "I never tell her when I am out shooting photos in a storm, but this photo was getting spread around so many places, I knew she was going to find out, so I told her. Now, with the publicity I got with this photo, she wants me to print a large one, so she can hang it on her wall."
Focusing a camera on a dark night is a challenge, and Zimmer said he has often uses a street light or yard light in the distance to focus while he is waiting for the lightning to show up.
"This is a hobby of patience and lack of sleep," he said. "I have this automatic alarm clock in my head. If I hear thunder, I get up and go to the computer to see where the storm is. When storms first develop is when you get the most intense lightning bolts. That's when the power is really in it."
Eagles in winter
In the winter, Zimmer, who has worked at the tannery in Red Wing since 1980, gets off work at 2 p.m. and often goes to Colvill Park to watch for eagles.
"I've been going to Colvill for at least 10 years," he said. "People come from all over, from Illinois, Iowa, and other places to see Colvill in winter. It is probably one of the best places to get photos of eagles."
When the river freezes, there is often open water near Red Wing, so the eagles visit, looking for food, according to Zimmer. He waits for the eagles to fly out of the trees before shooting his photos.
"Most people like a picture of an eagle in a tree," he said, "but I want an action shot."
He has taken photos of eagles, wings back, claws forward in the moment they are reaching for a fish. He captured one image of three eagles in flight with two trying to steal a fish from the third one.
"I see them do this all the time," he said. "They will spend more time trying to steal a fish than trying to catch one on their own."
Once, Zimmer was near Maiden Rock looking for eagles. He saw several cars pulled to the side of the road, so he stopped. He saw eagles circling in an updraft and took a photo. Later, at home, he put the photo on his computer screen and counted 95 eagles.
Fireworks in July
For several years, Zimmer has gone to Memorial Park on Sorin's Bluff to shoot photos of the fireworks show on the Fourth of July. He has found a spot where he can be away from the crowds of people and have a good view of the Red Wing fireworks. Although taking photos of a fireworks display may be safer than sitting in front of the leading edge of a thunderstorm, Zimmer said he has battled mosquitoes and poison ivy at those events.
Zimmer has never taken a photography class. He taught himself over the years to use the techniques to get the photos he wanted.
"With photography, you never stop learning," he said. "That why you see people who have such a passion for it."
Zimmer said one thing on his bucket list would be to go to Texas or Oklahoma and take photos of a tornado.
"I have always been fascinated with storms," he said. "People don't know how hard it is to get pictures of lightning. I know a lot of guys who do photography, but they don't want to do this."