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,