I love storms. I love the scent in the air as one approaches. I love the feel of “electricity” in the air. I love the lull right before, and I love to watch the rain “break”. But most of all I love lightning. The awe-inspiring spectacle of a lightning storm truly makes one appreciate the raw power and beauty of nature. Like I said, I love storms (as long as I’m not stuck out in one without an umbrella)! Now maybe you like storms too, and have tried to take some pictures of lightning bolts, only to discover that this is easier said than done!
Taking pictures of lightning is like photographing fireworks, only harder.
a bolt of lightning appears only for a fraction of a second, it is entirely unpredictable in shape or intensity, and you have no idea where one will appear. Not to mention that a lightning storm, usually including pouring rain and wind, is not the best environment for camera gear!
Still, photographing lightning can be a very rewarding pursuit and can yield some spectacular images! Here are a couple of techniques and pointers to get the best out of your lightning shots
1. A camera. More specifically, a camera where you can control the aperture and shutter speed manually. Some pocket cameras can do this, but a dslr will most likely yield better results (pocket cams generally aren’t that great at long exposures).
2. A sturdy tripod. necessity. Lightning shots involve long exposures, and you need something to hold the camera steady. The tripod should be as sturdy as possible, since where there is lightning, there is likely wind. Cameras blowing over = bad, generally speaking.
3. A remote release. As mentioned, we are dealing with long exposure times, so vibrations become a major issue. A remote shutter release (wired or wireless) will help cut down on vibrations be removing the physical button press on the camera. Alternatively, if your camera has a 2 second timer that does “mirror lock up” (ie the camera raises the mirror, waits 2 seconds, then opens the shutter) you can use that to eliminate “button press induced vibrations”
4. Some way of keeping your gear dry. Pretty self explanatory; water and electronics don’t mix. If you are fortunate to have a “weather sealed” camera and lens, this may not be as much of an issue, but generally you’ll need some way of keeping the camera dry. this may be as simple as wrapping a plastic bag around it, or as expensive as a custom underwater housing. Personally I like to just set up under an awning/overhang or some enclosed space to stay dry (I happen to have an enclosed balcony off my apartment, so that works well!)
photographing lightning is best at night or dusk, since we need long exposure times, and during the day there will probably be too much ambient light to achieve these. You can try using neutral density filters, but YMMV.
First, set your camera to the lowest ISO, generally 100 or 200. This may be counter-intuitive, but since we are opening the shutter for a long time, we need to prevent too much light from overexposing the image.
Next, pick a relatively small aperture, most likely f/11 or greater. Again, this will allow the long exposure times needed to increase the chance of capturing a bolt. Bear in mind though, that if the aperture gets *too* small, image quality will begin to suffer due to diffraction effects. I find f/9 through f/16 usually work for me depending on the level of ambient light Now, identify where most bolts are striking in the sky, and aim the camera in that general direction. Frame it up however you want. I generally like a wide angle lens to maximize the field of view.
Calibrate the exposure time. Once you’ve set your aperture, you need to find a shutter speed that will give you a good ambient exposure. I generally start with about 6-8 seconds, depending on ambient light. Check the LCD/histogram, and adjust from there. You want to wind up with an aperture/shutter combination that will leave you enough time to capture a bolt, yet expose the rest of the image properly too. I am usually shooting from my balcony in the city, so there is a lot of artifical ambient light. I usually wind up with an exposure of f/9-f/11 @ between 10-15 seconds.
Another thing to consider when deciding on exposure time is that the longer the exposure, the longer it takes to process (in many cases). This is because most dslrs use a noise reduction method called “dark frame subtraction” that increases the time to write for long exposures. The longer the exposure, the longer you get stuck “writing” and can’t take more images. This can become very frustrating, as Murphy’s law states that the best bolt of lightning will always strike *right* after your exposure finishes, while the camera is processing. Turning off noise reduction will alleviate this problem, but you may start getting a lot of noise in the images if they get really long. On my camera exposures of 10-15 seconds (what I normally use for lighting) are not a problem even with NR off. Test it both ways, YMMV…
Now you’ve got your exposure set, just start shooting! As long as a bolt hits within the camera’s field of view while the shutter is open, you’ve got a lightning photo! Yes, it’s a lot of hit-or-miss. I probably average 10-15 exposures for every bolt I capture. You can of course maximize your chances by shooting when the frequency of strikes peaks, and determining which direction most of the strikes seem to be coming from.
HAVE PATIENCE. photographing lightning takes a lot of patience. You will probably miss far more than you “hit”. You will lose tons of great bolts while your camera is processing, or pointed in the wrong direction. Keep at it, and don’t get frustrated. Eventually you will get a shot that will make it all worth it.
TO BULB OR NOT TO BULB?
If you have ever used a cable release for your camera, you are probably familiar with the “bulb” mode. This simply means that when you press the button on the release, the camera’s shutter will stay open as long as you hold down the button. I generally use this method for photographing fireworks, but not for lightning – why? With fireworks, you know exactly where they are going to occur (more or less) and you can even anticipate the timing with a bit of practice. This lets you get into a rythm of longer or shorter exposures, depending on the “flow” of the fireworks show. With Lightning, on the other hand, you have no way of predicting it – it’s pretty much entirely click and pray (after you’ve set up to maximize your chances, of course). In this case, I find it better to simply adjust the shot for the ambient exposure, and let the bolts fall where they may!
And of course, the standard silly disclaimer: I am not advocating anyone going out and standing anywhere in a storm. If you get hit by a bolt of lightning, it’s not my fault 🙂