Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Lightning Storm

Who doesn't enjoy a wild lightning shot?

They are violent, beautiful, unpredictable, colorful, and dramatic examples of the earth sciences in practice -- not to mention gorgeous works of art.

In addition to sharing my two recent lightning captures (second one is below), I'm going to share with you the technique behind the capture -- camera settings and things to keep in mind for your own lightning shots.

Theory (the secret behind a cool lightning shot)

It's nearly impossible to capture a lightning bolt, perfectly-positioned and perfectly-exposed, by clicking the shutter when you see it, point-and-shoot-style.

The short of it is, one must:

-Set up, on a tripod, pointed in an advantageous position, where the action seems to be happening
-Shoot long exposures and hope the bolt shoots down from the sky within your frame during that exposure time

To explain further...

Before the shoot

Safety is key. A camera on a tripod can act as a lightning rod, so be safe!

Check the weather radar and track from which direction the storm is coming. Weatherbug is a nice little iPhone app which can do the trick, while out in the field.

Technical things

Camera -- Use a DSLR, if possible. It will give you the most opportunities to control your image through the multitude of settings. I used a Canon EOS 7D.

Lens -- Wide angle would be the obvious choice, because it will capture a wide expanse of landscape and give you the best opportunity to catch a strike. I used a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM (not a wide angle lens) for this recent image, simply because this lens gives me terrific color, and I wanted to see what it could do with lightning color.

Tripod -- With long exposure times, you will need to position your camera on a tripod to ensure sharp images, free of camera shake.

Sharp images -- To give myself the best chance for a sharp image, in addition to using a tripod, I enabled the mirror lock function. This allows me to manually control the flip up of the mirror, inside the camera, and then open the shutter after the slight jarring subsides. Under ordinary circumstances, that slight vibration of the mirror flipping up, just milliseconds before the shutter opens, can cause just enough shake to notice in an image with a long exposure time.

The last order of sharpness business is to use a remote shutter release, to remove the possibility of my finger causing any movement to the camera upon depressing the on-camera shutter button. I control the release of both the mirror and shutter with a hand-held remote trigger. The receiver is attached to my camera's hot shoe.

Camera settings -- I set up in "bulb" setting, which allows me to control exactly how long to keep the shutter open.

I used f/9.0. This gave me decent depth of field, and gave me exposures that struck just the right balance between illumination for a 15-40-second exposure time (depending on how close the storm was) and a reasonable time to let a bolt or two strike the scene.

I used ISO 320. This also gave me a good balance of light sensitivity with those shutter and f-stop settings while minimizing noise.

It's time to shoot

Composition -- Compose your scene and prepare to set up for a while. Patience is key. I find it's good to include part of the landscape in the scene to give the viewer a sense of size and distance, and something and somewhere to anchor them. Plus, it helps tell a story.

Focus -- My first few shots were to get my focus set. You'll often see advice to focus to infinity. But, I pulled in, just a bit, so my landscape elements were in focus. I experimented with a few shots to get the best manual focus setting. Once you are there, leave it.

Exposure time -- My next few shots were intended to figure out how long I should keep the shutter open to capture the bolts and keep a well-exposed image.

Lightning was happening fast and furious, so I found, when the storm was close, 10-20-seconds gave me an exposure that was pleasingly-exposed (using the other settings, above) and yielded a dramatic bolt or two in the frame, most every time. When the storm was distant, 40 seconds was just the ticket.

I checked my watch with every click of the shutter and timed myself. If I didn't, I ran the risk of overexposing my images with too much ambient light -- hard to believe with the night sky, but that's what happened. Photographing lightning requires diligence, too!

Then what?

"Strike" while the iron is hot. Keep shooting and shooting until the action moves. Keep your eye out to see where it may be moving to, and re-position your camera for a new series from another vantage point, and a new composition.

The above image was from a series captured in a 15-minute span.

Think about capturing a sense of space with lightning shots. If you can capture a close-up storm, the cloud-to-ground dynamic is quite stellar and shows where the strikes are happening from the clouds, relative to the distance on the landscape.

Also consider the difference in appearance and illumination of a lightning storm when it's approaching from far away versus when it is almost on top of you. The size and brightness of the bolts are different, as are the ambient colors.


Doing the camera work is only half the process. Creating a final image, for me, includes image editing software to pull out the best from any given photograph, particularly when compositing is involved, like with this one.

Before I sign-off, here's another composite, taken when the storm was farther away and still approaching.

I hope this is helpful! Show me your own images of lightning, and feel free to add your own tips!

Are you interested in your own shoot? Contact me at the link, below, about scheduling a glamour or portrait session. I'd love to discuss it with you!

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