Thursday, 31 May 2012

Capturing Nature’s Fury… Lightning Photography Tips


Photo Courtesy of Alan Highton (our guide for the Catatumbo Lightning photo tours)
My mom used to tell me “the angels are having their bowling tournament”, my neighbor would tell me that “Lightning is how God punished the bad kids for lying”. Boy, it sure was fun growing up in the "Bible belt" in rural Ontario… LOL

Photographing lightning can be quite challenging and even dangerous if you do not use a little forethought and planning. The following tutorial will outline the necessary equipment, as well as explain the tricks and techniques you can employ to safely and successfully capture photographs of lightning the next time the bowling tournament starts in the sky near you.

The Gear: DSLR camera with BULB setting capabilities is preferred, standard telephoto lens or wide angle lens, remote cable release, a tripod for camera stabilization or bean bag for camera stabilization, a lightning trigger and a lot of patience. The lightning trigger is a device that you attach to the camera hot shoe and connect it to your camera’s electronic cable release terminal. When switched on, a forward-pointing sensor will keep an electronic eye out for quick flashes of light from a lightning storm, when it detects one, it will just trigger the camera.

My Gear: Olympus E30 DSLR camera, 14-54mm f2.8-3.5, 11-22mm f2.8-3.5mm, 50-200mm f2.8-3.5mm, cable release, glow in the dark stick to wrap around my tripod so I can see it at night, a 16 gig memory card to capture the hundreds of RAW images, kata rain cover for my camera, tripod and an old pillow case filled with rice to use as stabilization in case the tripod cannot be used.  

The Hurdles: Your first hurdle is general the unpredictability of a lightning storm. Haven’t we all said we wanted to be a weather man because they can be totally wrong on the forecast day after day and still keep their jobs? :-) Lucky for us lightning can be tracked real time and moves in a line inside a weather pattern (generally) There are radar websites that track lightning strikes in your area that you can go online and check whenever you want. This will give you a good idea of where the lightning is coming from, how intense the strikes are and how fast the front is moving.

The second hurdle is positioning. If you are in the country, the limitations of buildings are not going to be an issue for you. If you are in the city, you really need to get away from the apartments and buildings to get a better view of the travelling storm. Position yourself as you wish, just pay attention to the foreground and ground elements to capture much more interesting photos like the photo below.

The third hurdle is rain. Rain generally accompanies lightning. So keeping your camera gear dry is a concern if you are outside.
When selecting a location for shooting lightning, you should always keep a mind for safety as well as having a great view of the sky. Local lakes lend themselves quite nicely to lightning photography, unless they happen to be surrounded by lots of trees. Even so, if you can find an unobstructed view in at least one direction, you should be okay.

An open field could work, though your car may be more susceptible to being struck by lightning if there are no other, taller objects nearby. Rest assured, however, that if your car is struck by lightning while you are inside, you will be perfectly safe and unharmed, as the car’s metal exterior will absorb the electricity from the lightning.

Setting up for the shot: Setting up the camera to shoot lightning from within an automobile is as simple as placing the bean bag, or other similar support, on the dash of the car and resting the camera on the dash, with the lens resting on the bean bag. Connect the cable release and that is all that is required! If it happens to be raining when you are shooting, don’t forget to activate your windshield wipers. Doing this will not affect the photograph as slow shutter speeds will be utilized, thus causing the moving wipers to disappear.

Now would be a good time to discuss composition. Photographing lightning is different from other subjects in that you have no control over where and when lightning will strike. In fact, usually, it will strike well outside your lens’s field of view, leaving you with a black image. This can be quite frustrating, which is why I recommend lots of patience.

Setting the camera up in the middle of the dash and shooting through the windshield using a standard angle focal length will greatly increase your chances of capturing lightning bolts that strike within your camera’s field of view. Or, open the side door of the van and set the camera on a tripod. But then you could be standing in the tropics shooting a massive thunderstorm over the water far off in the distance like my buddy Alan did with the photo below.

Camera Settings: Lightning photography requires slower shutter speeds in order to provide enough time that you get at least one fork or bolt of lightning. You can then do one of two things. If you have a lightning trigger, that will trigger the shutter release for you and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the show. Or, you can use your manual shutter release, set you’re your exposure time to BULB and get involved in how long the shutter stays open.

Personally I like to use the cable release, set the camera on BULB and manually open and close the shutter while the camera sits on a tripod or bean bag.

ISO: 100 – I set my camera’s ISO setting to 100 when photographing lightning. This allows for longer shutter speeds with the minimum possible digital noise.

Aperture  or f-stop: f/9.0 - f/11 – As with the ISO setting, I set the aperture anywhere form f/9.0 to f/11. The main reason for this is to ensure as great a depth of field as possible without sacrificing sharpness of the photograph. I focus somewhere in the foreground to ensure that is in focus, then switch over to manual focus so the camera is not trying to focus everytime I click the shutter... then I just let the lightning show take care of the rest.

Shutter Speed: 4 to 6 seconds, sometimes more – The best time to attempt lightning photography is after dark, thus requiring long shutter speeds. Lightning photography can happen as early as the blue hour, butoptimal results will be achieved after dark. The fastest shutter speed I ever use for lightning photography is 4 seconds. This allows the shutter to be open long enough to capture a strike if the lightning activity is fairly frequent. The optimal shutter speed setting is 6 seconds to as much as 8 seconds depending on ambient lighting and the amount of strikes. This allows the shutter to be open long enough to capture lightning without over or underexposing the image in most cases.

White Balance: Auto – Again, I set my camera’s white balance to the auto setting and leave it because this gives the greatest flexibility and control when post-processing in the digital darkroom. There, I can fine-tune the white balance to suit my preferences for each individual image.

Image Format: RAW – Shooting in RAW format is best so as to allow the most editing options when post-processing, or “developing”, photographs in editing software.

These recommended settings will allow the smallest margin of error and largest chance of success.

Now for the personal plug… LOL… Do you want to go on a photography workshop to see the world’s best lightning storm that happens 300 nights a year in Venezuela? Please us in October of 2013 on Lake Maracaibo for two trips to see a lightning show like you have never seen before.

Happy Shooting,


Thursday, 3 May 2012

Picking The Right Photo Tour

A Photo Tour is a great way for the amateur and serious photographer, and their significant others, to visit an area that they wish to see.  However, they are not for everyone.  Photographers that go on a photo tours do so because they have itineraries built around peak photography times and locations. The average person will not want to drag themselves out of bed before sunrise to travel to a location to capture the golden hour.

But keep in mind that even within the photo tour industry there are many different types and styles of tours with a different focus and level of photography time commitment.  A photo tour I set up in India for example has an itinerary where you can choose to participate in some, none or all of the photographic outings, yet still visit the highlights of the Golden Triangle. Another trip I just set up in Tanzania is pure photography; and anyone attending the photo tour without a camera will surely be bored sitting in the back of an SUV for hours watching wildebeest and Zebra run back and forth in the Serengeti.

So how do you choose the best photo tour for you? Here are some things you should consider:

1. Style of Photography

Most people are interested in more than one style of photography. People’s interests are as diverse as landscape, architecture, fine art, people or wildlife.  Most tours are also focused on one or two styles as well.  Sometimes the destination picks the styles for you.  For example, a tour I am doing in Tanzania is most likely focused on wildlife but could also provide landscape photo opportunities.  The tour operator and lead photographer also have preferred styles of photography. You therefore need to make sure the style of photography that the tour is focused on, and the experience of the photography tour leader matches up to what you are interested in.

2. Photography Goals

What do you expect to come home with?  Will your expectations be met while you are on a photography tour?  Discuss your personal goals with the photographer leading the tour and the tour operator. Ask if you will be allowed to take the kind of photos you want to take and what rights are needed to use the photos the way you want to use them.  Laws vary country to country and your tour leaders should be able to inform you of such regulations.

Make sure the places you will visit will also give you the opportunities you are expecting.  If you have specific shots you want to take, ask if you will get the chance.

3. Number of Participants

Photo tours, like all tours, come in all shapes and sizes.  While they are typically smaller than other types of tours, they generally range from 6 – 16 people.  On the low end, you are getting more individual attention and have fewer people vying for prime spots and time with the photographer.  On the high end, you spend more time waiting for other people to be ready or to get out of your shot.  Large groups can still work if you break them into several smaller groups but you need more tour leaders and guides to do this.  Find out how many people the tour will accommodate and how it is staffed.

Less people equals more money and premium photo opportunities, larger tours equals less expensive but possible frustration waiting or vying for premium spots.

4. Experience Required

Some photo tours assume that participants have all the experience they need to take advantage of great photo ops.   Others include workshops or hands on training to take your photography to the next level.  Find out what sort of training is offered and what the experience level is for most other participants. 

 It won’t hurt if you have more experience than most because you can keep shooting while others are learning but it will hurt if you don’t have enough experience to take advantage of the opportunities and no one will assist you.

5. Tour Leaders and Company

Who will lead the tour?  What experience do they have?  What is their style of photography and will they be taking photos too?  You certainly want a professional photographer to accompany you on the tour but who will handle the logistics?  Does someone speak the native language?  Do they speak English?  How are unexpected events handled?  Does the tour company have the resources to correct problems quickly?  The reputation of the tour company and the tour leader should be easy to check.

This was important to me… I had several choices’ partner with unknown tour operators, do all the bookings myself or identify local tour operators that have firsthand knowledge and are accredited in the country they operate in.  I chose to partner with insured and experience operators. It may cost me a little more, but my guests will have peace of mind when travelling with me.

6. Location

Will the tour take you to locations you want to visit?  Don’t assume that all photo tours visit the same destinations in a given area. Our desire to see and experience a place is influenced by what we read or see on TV, the movies or the web.   Make sure your expectations will be met.  If you want to see and experience the great migration on the Serengeti in Africa, for example, make sure the tour you select takes you to the Serengeti and gives you the best chance of seeing it.  However, if your goals are not location dependent and you just want the best chance to photograph African wildlife up close, for example, other destinations may give you more opportunities.

7. Travel Style

How will you get from place to place?  The style of travel varies greatly in different photo tours.  Some tours drive from place to place while others fly or take boats.  Make sure you are comfortable with the mode of transportation.  Ask how many hours a day are spent travelling vs. taking photos?  Sometimes, long travel days are required to reach a desired photo site so ask about the mode and condition of transportation and how many people will be sharing it.  Eight hours on a bumpy road is far more comfortable in a new vehicle with air conditioning than it is in a 30 year old school bus.

8. Type of Accommodations and Facilities

What types of accommodations are used for the tour?  Will you be camping or staying in 5 star hotels?  What types of bathrooms will you encounter?  What level of comfort do you want?  Some destinations have a lot of choices and some don’t.  If you want to photograph tribes in the Amazon Jungle you might have to settle for basic lodges or even tents with a pit toilet.  But if you are traveling in areas that have all types of accommodation, make sure the accommodations will meet your needs.  Before you book a tour, ask for the names of all accommodations and check them out yourself.  What does Trip Advisor say about the selected hotels?  Ask how often you will be expected to settle for a bush toilet, an outhouse or an eastern style toilet and make sure you can accept those conditions.

9. Itinerary

The tour operator should be able to provide a fairly detailed itinerary for the trip.  That doesn’t mean that things won’t change based on weather, traffic and other unforeseen issues but it gives you an idea of what to expect.  Does the itinerary excite you?  It should be full of places you want to see and things you want to do.  If it includes a lot of early morning photography, make sure you’re up for that or they have a way to let you sleep in without inconveniencing the others.  If it includes a lot of free time, make sure you know what your options are for that time.  When will you upload your photos to a computer?  Will there be time to process your photos the way you want to?

10. Physical Requirements

Are you in shape for the tour?  Some tours require a lot of walking, climbing, hiking or other physically demanding tasks to reach the areas where you will take photographs.  Others are less demanding or have ways of accommodating people that cannot walk very far.  Ask how far or how much time you will be expected to walk each day and how demanding the walking is.  Find out if your camera equipment will be waiting for you nearby in the car or bus or if you have to carry it with you.  The tour operator should be able to explain the physical requirements of the tour.

11. Culture Shock

Most people don’t think about culture shock when they select a tour but they should.  What is your reaction to poverty, filthy conditions and dramatically different cultural values?  Where will you be taking photographs?  Where will you stay and eat?  Some people think they want to be immersed in the local culture, staying at homestays in local villages, for example, only to realize that they can never relax.  Find out what the conditions are like at your hotel and the restaurant you will eat at.

12. Budget

Money is always a factor when selecting any tour so make sure you understand all of the costs.  Before you compare tour prices, find out what is included or excluded in each tour so you can determine what the total cost of your tour will be.  Does the tour include meals or are you expected to pay for that separately?  What about entrance fees, camera fees and photo fees?  How much should you include for tips?  Is the flight to the starting point of the tour included?  Are flights during the tour included?  The extras can add up to thousands of dollars so make sure you are comparing total costs.

These are some of the things you should consider when choosing a photo tour.  All tours are not the same so make sure you do your research to find one that’s right for you. This is your hard earned money, you deserve the best trip possible.