Thursday, 16 May 2013

Photographs of lightning - tips and gear suggestions for getting the best photographs

On my recent trip to Africa I saw some distant lightning and it got me excited for some new lightning experiences back home and in South America.

If you are a photographer and a thrill seeker, taking pictures of storms and thunderstorms just might satisfy your desire to get out there and capture the raw power of Mother Nature.

I have done this a few times over this year, and I will say, “Once you track down a storm, the photography aspect of catching a flash of Lightning is the easy part. Set the camera up, preset the settings, pull out the remote and snap off a couple hundred images in the direction of a storm. The part that separates the amateur from the professional is identifying where the different types of Lightning are going to occur and matching that with an interesting and focused foreground.

Thunderstorms are an elusive occurrence in nature that is not stationary and will rarely co-operate with you. Not only that, but depending on where you live, most storms won't come to you - you'll have to go to them. So be prepared as storm and lightning photography will present a challenging pursuit for those who are so inclined.

There is a science to read weather patterns and forecast where storm fronts will occur, and I could give you hundreds of meteorology websites and publications where you could learn them, but for the sake of this article, we will stick with the basics and direct you to watch the weather network or look at environment Canada’s site for storms and lightning strikes. To Access this website in Canada please go to Another handy way to identify if lightening is in the area is to use your AM Radio and find an unused band. Lightening produces radio waves called sferics. Theses sudden pops and crackles are a good way to identify local activity.

But before you leave your house, remember some storm chasing gear. I would make sure that you have packed the following items with you any time you go out on a storm-shooting expedition.
•A flashlight as you will be out in the dark most times.
•A glow stick that you should tie on your tripod so that you can see where it is at all times.
•Insect repellent because many times you will be out in the country and with many heavy storms comes stale, humid weather that will bring mosquitoes.
•Take some cash for emergencies
•Take your charged cell Phone, some snacks and beverages for some long waits.
•Dry Clothes because if you are out of the vehicle, you will get wet more times than not.
•A rain cover for your camera
•A rain coat or rain suit to keep yourself dry

The Camera
Ideally, a DSLR with a 'bulb' shutter setting is the best for taking photos of lightning. Some less expensive DSLR or point-and-shoot digital cameras without a bulb function can be set on a fixed long exposure setting, such as 10 to 20 second exposures. I encourage you to check your camera's manual to see what the long exposure settings/maximum shutter speed times are. Ideally, an exposure time of at least 10 seconds is necessary for the best performance and versatility for any lightning shoot.

Cameras used in any type of storm chasing will have to endure harsh conditions and lots of abuse (especially moisture), so you may want to think twice before using your $2,000 camera to shoot lightning. Unless you've invested in a waterproof camera or proper protective gear as I have. Or, just go on eBay and buy a manual SLR for $150-$200.

The Exposure
It's hard to go wrong with an exposure of lightning. Aim the camera, hold open the shutter, and wait. If lightning strikes where you aimed, you got it! Usually you will go through dozens of frames before actually catching a lightening bolt, meaning that you won't actually have lightning in every picture on your disk (unless you're having a very good night). You might want to experiment with exposure settings for different scenes, but as a general rule, use the following:

Use the ISO 100 setting for best results in all lightning situations.

Rural Areas at Night: Focus at infinity, F-stop between F5.6 - F10. When lightning gets very close (within 1 mile, less than 5 seconds between flash-thunder), use an F-stop of F10 - F16. You'll also want to use F8 if you want to expose multiple bolts over a long period of time. In rural areas with little or no ambient light, you can leave your shutter open indefinitely until a lightning bolt flashes in your frame.

Urban Areas at Night: Focus at infinity, F-stop of F5.6 for a maximum exposure time of 10-15 seconds depending on the level of ambient light. Or, F-stop of F8 for 20 to 35 seconds. For best results, expose the scene as you would without lightning, and the lightning will take care of its own exposure when it flashes in the background. It is best to first do several test exposures of the ambient scene so see what works best.

The Lens
The lens you use is entirely up to you, but can vary depending on your location. I personally like to use a wider lens - typically my 11-22mm f/2.8, because it gives me more sky coverage without much distortion. A wider lens increases the chance that you will get a bolt to strike in the field of view. A telephoto lens can be useful for distant thunderstorms in areas with high visibilities such as the desert Southwest and the central Plains regions in the USA. In the east coast areas of Canada and the US, terrain and trees tend to obscure distant lightning on the horizon, meaning that lightning channels won't be visible until they are close - in which case you'll want to use the wide-angle configuration. But keep your telephoto lens on standby in case you get a photogenic distant storm.

It's also best to avoid the use of filters (ND, UV, etc) when shooting lightning. Additional layers of glass can cause reflections and 'ghosting' of bright light sources like lightning.

Tripod and Cable Release
You will need a tripod to hold your camera steady during time exposures. Virtually any brand and type of tripod will work, though generally, the more expensive brands tend to last longer and be more sturdy. But even a $20 tripod from Wal-Mart will get the job done.

You might also want to consider a small tripod or clamp mount that you can set up inside of your car, enabling you to photograph out of the window.

A cable release or shutter release is a small, flexible device that plugs into a camera's shutter trigger. In the case of a DSLR, cable releases are electrical switches with a cord that plugs onto a socket on the camera. A cable release allows you to open and close the shutter without touching/jarring the camera. Most cable releases have a locking device that lets you hold the shutter open for long periods of time hands-free.

Since the brightness of lightning, for all intents and purposes, is the same in any situation (day, night, urban, or rural), you will always want to keep your aperture between F5.6 and F11, regardless of any ambient light levels. Closing the aperture beyond F11 will allow for longer exposure times, but you will also be restricting the amount of light exposed by the lightning itself, which will result in thinner, underexposed bolts. In addition to that, any street lighting will then have a starburst effect.

Opening the aperture beyond F5.6 in most cases will overexpose or 'white out' the lightning channels (and even the clouds), resulting in wide, bright white columns of light enshrouding the bolts. You will find that some bolts are more intense than others - meaning that a strike may still overexpose at F8 or underexpose at F5.6. It is nearly impossible, however, to accurately predict how bright each strike will be, so just keep to the known averages. Not every bolt will come out perfectly.

Location, Location, LocationO
ften, the most difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming part of lightning photography is simply finding a good place to take pictures. You will usually need to 'scout out' and make notes of good places to shoot - preferably during the day before the storms arrive. Ideally, a good setup location needs:
1. An unbroken view of the sky. Unsightly power lines and tree branches across your photo usually will detract from the drama of the image. It's true that some photographers have incorporated power lines into their photos on purpose with very good results. But as a general rule, it's best to avoid any wires across your frame. Keep in mind that power lines are hard to see at night, and usually won't show up in your picture until you get your film developed. In most parts of the country, vantage points free of these obstructions are very hard to find.

2. Low ambient light levels close to the camera. Streetlights and car headlights will force you to either cut your exposures short or accept strong glares on your image. Keep this in mind when choosing a location. (This rule can be broken for special situations where you want to be creative).

3. Protection from the elements. Rain and lightning should be a concern when considering a setup location. Lightning is an obvious threat to your safety, while raindrops on your camera lens will reflect/refract light and ruin a good photo. Parking garages, highway underpasses, and large buildings can keep you and your camera safe from both. Setting up inside your car may be an option, but is one that provides less shelter from rain. Heavy rain or wind will end a lightning photo session, even at the best locations, due to fine mist and spray that forms as a result of rain splashing onto the ground. If your dedication levels are high, you can carry a rag out with you to wipe the lens dry every 15 seconds or so.

Breaking the Rules
These suggestions are only general guidelines for lightning photos. When the time and place is right, you might want to 'break the rules'. For instance, in some cases, there will be an object across the sky that will add to a photo rather than detract from it, such as a building, bridge or national monument like the photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial below.

In your lightning shot, you'll always want to include the horizon and part of the ground in your photo, rather than just pointing your camera up at the sky. Aside from lightning in urban scenes, use of the 'rule or thirds' is not always desirable, since the ground will usually be totally black in the exposure. You'll want more of a 4/5ths or 5/6ths sky, 1/6th ground configuration to give you more of a 'canvas' for the lightning to pose on.

For closer lightning, you might want to include a little more of the ground in the event that a bolt strikes nearby - allowing the lightning's contact point with the ground to be captured

Final Thought
Plan ahead and be patient! Always be ready for a storm- most of them will come up unexpectedly. Have your camera ready and memory card loaded. Figure out ahead of time where you can safely set up your camera.

There is no guarantee you will get a good picture every time. But, if you are persistent you will be successful.

Finally, I want to say… I am not condoning that you attempt this type of photography. It is dangerous and if you do so, it is at your own risk. I will not be liable for any personal injury or structural damage due to your lightning photography outing(s). Know what you are doing, and stay safe!

Lightning Adventure of a Lifetime
If you want to join me on the lightening photography experience of a lifetime, check out this workshop to Venezuela. I am going to see the Catatumbo lightening in October of 2013 with Len Silvester, ... Check out this link as I have put up photos of the Catatumbo Lightning...