One of the most exhilarating, and yet dangerous, things I photograph is lightning. I am the crazy person that when the skies light up at night I go out with my camera and try to capture it. The only thing I can think of that makes me as giddy is photographing a tornado. I haven’t even photographed one of those yet. The closest I got was half of a waterspout. I’ll fill you in on the technical side of how I do this.
Most people seem to think backwards about capturing a lightning bolt. A lot of people seem to think you have to be really quick to capture lightning. They are half right. It all depends on what look you are going for. If you are photographing a thunderstorm during the day then you have to have a higher shutter speed to get detail in the sky. 99% of the time I am not trying to photograph lightning during the day but instead at night. In fact I have only ever gotten one image of lightning during the sunlight hours.
When I go out at night to photograph lightning it is for one reason only. It is the only way I can do it. When its dark outside I drag that shutter as long as I can. Normally 30 seconds. Seems counter-intuitive to most. Lightning is there and gone in a flash, literally. How does keeping the shutter open for a long time help. Here’s how. When you leave the shutter open, as I do for 30 seconds. Anything and everything that happens in those 30 seconds will be exposed onto the sensor of the camera. Sometimes during 30 seconds I won’t get a single bolt. Other times I’ll get a bunch. This particular shot I got 6 bolts in one shot.
Along with the long shutter speed another critical piece of equipment here is a tripod. Without one getting a usable shot is impossible. Even with one sometimes it is difficult. The camera sitting on top of a tripod turns into a lovely place for the wind to hit. Thunderstorms aren’t generally a calm wind event. The slightest bit of camera shake due to the wind is magnified immensely when you have a telephoto lens on. The goal is to lock the tripod down as sturdy as possible. If the situation allows it, I will also try to keep it out of the wind. This becomes even more important if I am trying to do this in the rain. If it is raining the camera gets a protective weather bag the goes over it. This does a great job or keeping the camera dry but it also turns the camera into a giant wind sock.
There are a few technical pieces you can use to make capturing these bolts easier. One is called an intervalometer. It is basically a really smart cable release that will take multiple images for you as often as you set it for. Remember the guy on the infomercials that said set it and forget it? That is basically what one of those things does for you. The other piece of equipment is basically cheating to me and I highly doubt I will every use one. It is a lightning trigger. It screws onto your camera and when it detects lighting it triggers the camera. Boom lighting every time it happens.
Just having the tools to take the image doesn’t mean you’re going to get a shot. As soon as I hear thunder or if I know of a storm in advance, there are things I start to do. One is obvious, keep an eye on the weather. Bay news 9 has a fantastic website radar with a lighting map, telling where the strikes have been and how recently. These storms can move fast and they can lose the lighting quickly as well. I also try to plan out where I can go to shoot based on where the storm is. I don’t want to get too close to the storm. It is dangerous and lets be honest, it could kill you. I don’t want to die photographing lightning. I will also try to shoot from under cover. Some of the lighting you see over the water I was in the lifeguard tower shooting. If I can’t find cover I’ll set the camera up and stay in my car. I learned my lesson last year. I thought I was safe and far enough away from the storm. I was shooting on the Cortez bridge looking South. There was no rain hitting me. I hadn’t felt the cold air drop as the front passed me. There was no lighting within a few miles of me. I was doing the cool lighting to thunder counting trick. As I was photographing maybe 10 minutes into shooting a bolt hit on the North side of the bridge maybe a few hundred yards away. This is a constant reminder to me when I shoot that I don’t know everything and that those bolts are unpredictable.
Back to how to do this. I think the most difficult part of these is keeping them in focus. How do you set focus to something that you don’t know where it will be when it happens? The annoying part is I have to guess where I think the bolt will hit. In order to raise my chances of getting a bolt in the camera view I normally shoot with a wider lens and crop in later. (The shot above this is an exception to the rule, bolt after bolt hit in almost the exact same spot. I lined the camera up there and it paid off.) Not only do I have to guess where in the sky it is going to strike but I also have to set a focal distance. This is tricky. My trick is when I find myself at my location I try to find a light way off in the distance. I set the focus to that light and then turn the auto-focus feature off and leave it there till I capture a bolt in the camera. Once I do that I double check the focus and make adjustments as need be. As I mentioned before I don’t want to be right on top of the storm so more often than not an infinity focus works really well. Also to help with this I set the aperture to a middle to high setting. This has a two pronged reason. If I set the F stop (aperture) to f2.8 I will let in more light but my depth of field, or working focal distance, is much much smaller. Also the lightning bolt will be WAY brighter. Not a good bright, but I can’t see anything but white bright. I will normally set the f/ around 11 and then a 30 second exposure. If you are a camera geek you may be thinking Billy you left out ISO. I am always at 200 ISO. Just from trial and error I have always been most happy when I leave the ISO on 200.
These are just a few of the hundred or so shots I have of these beautiful moments created by mother nature. It is such a thrill when I manage to capture one of these. It is a feeling uncomparable to anything else I photograph. The chase and the anticipation of getting one of these shots is a feeling I cannot express. I will always wake up at 2am to go photograph these. If you decide this is something you want to try to photograph always keep safety first in your mind. Shoot from a covered place. Keep an eye on your surroundings. If you feel that air temperature drop drastically, roll out or make sure you are under cover.
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