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Lightning Photography Tips

Storm chasing is one of the most thrilling, exciting and humbling activities. One is exposed to nature at it finest moments, in the severe cases one is witness to both nature’s beauty and it’s ferocity. Lightning is one of the more thrilling events in severe weather, not only is it beautiful to look at but it’s also extremely dangerous. In South Africa alone, each year there are numerous deaths caused by lightning strikes. While the average person seeks cover when there is a thunderstorm, us storm chasers and weather enthusiasts seek to see as much as we can, this is extremely true in cases such as Cape Town where thunderstorms are rare occurrences, as such every lightning photo is a cherished gem.

I started taking lightning photographs back in 2004, before I was able to afford a decent camera I was using a point and shoot camera. While it is possible to capture lightning on point-and-shoots, I definitely don’t recommend it as there is little talent involved in the lightning photographs, it is primarily based on a quick finger and nothing more, in most cases one is also unable to control the shot.

For this tutorial I will assume you have the following:

– DSLR Camera with manual capabilities
– Tripod
– Remote/Cable Shutter Release (optional)

First it is essential that you understand the basics of photography in regards to your camera, just to run through a short guide on the settings you will be using to take lightning photographs: the shutter speed is essential, it is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds… The number is equivalent to the amount of time that your shutter will stay open for. Given that you will most lightly to be taking photographs of lightning at night, this feature will be used a lot. The longer you leave the shutter open for, the more light gets let into the camera while the quicker the shutter speed, the less light will be allowed through. Secondly there is the F-Stop or Aperture which changes your depth of field, when taking photos of objects such as flowers you will use a F-Stop with a low value in most cases as this will put the focus on the flower in question, while when taking photographs of landscapes you will opt for a higher F-Stop number so that there is a greater depth of field. It is important to remember that the higher the F-Stop, the less light will be let into the camera, this will need to be compensated for by ISO or Shutter Speed change, the trick is to balance all these factors. This brings us onto the ISO, a low ISO creates the least noise in photography and the higher the ISO, naturally, the more noise you will experience in your photos. High ISOs are typically used when one wants more light in a photograph but doesn’t have a remote shutter release. Reason for this is that it will also give you more ‘light’ in your photograph while not requirement as much of a steady hand as lowering your shutter speed. As you may know, in film photography ISO is typically determined by the spool of film used, and is not a manual setting in film cameras, while there is much more to ISO and it’s relation to movement and blurring, they have little to do with lightning photography so I will not go into details.

cloud-to-cloud lightning

Cloud to cloud Lightning in Johannesburg

 

Different Types of Lightning

There isn’t only one type of lightning in terms of the appearance. First you should make sure that the lightning is conducive for good lightning photography, it makes little sense to do the work of finding an open area and setting up your camera and tripod only to have obstructed cloud-to-cloud lightning. Cloud to cloud lightning is also referred to as ‘sheet lightning’, and while in some cases it may make for some great photographs given the right clouds overhead, in many cases you will find that cloud-to-cloud lightning takes place between two cumulonimbus clouds which from the ground, are being hidden by a lower layer of altocumulus clouds. In cases where altocumulus clouds are densely present and cloud to cloud lightning is taking place, you may not see any of the lightning bolts at all, and rather just see a flash of light in the clouds. Note that altocumulus clouds are not always the end of your lightning experience, when cloud to ground lightning is taking place they should not affect your photographs too much. When cloud to cloud lightning is not interrupted by altocumulus you often get some spectacular lightning strikes where the anvil crawling lightning moves across the base of the cloud.

Cloud to ground is the most popular form of lightning, or the most common I should say. Cloud to ground is typically best for photography because of the reasons mentioned above, lower lying clouds do not interrupt the visuals of the lightning.

 

Day time lightning

Day time lightning in Johannesburg

 

Lightning Photography Tips in the Day

Getting shots of lightning in the day is definitely more difficult than getting shots at night. Unlike at night where you have a very vast range of shutter speeds which can be used without destroying your image, during the day time you are always restricted to a fairly high shutter speed, even when you have your ISO down at 100. There are several techniques which can be used to try to get successful daytime lightning shots.

The easiest way to go about it would be the simple way, aim the camera in the direction of the lightning and hope that you can click fast enough after seeing the lightning strike that you may catch one of the later pulses.

My suggestion would be the following…

Lower your ISO and put your F-Stop way up, this will now mean that you will need to compensate for these settings by having a longer shutter speed, this longer shutter speed will mean an increased chance of catching lightning. For this method you will need to use your tripod and even using a cable or remote shutter release will be best. This method also requires some luck though, you obviously stand the best chance if you take picture after picture, so make sure you have enough storage space on your CF card, especially if you’re shooting in RAW.

Another very interesting idea I’ve heard recently is that of using lens filters such as polarizing filters in order to darken the shot and thus require a higher shutter speed and increase one’s chances of capturing the lightning.

 

strand night lightning

Lightning strikes across the ocean, Strand Beach

 

Lightning Photography Tips at Night

Taking photographs of lightning at night is far easier and more skill reliant than taking them in the day time. Everyone, once having read this article should be able to take photographs of lightning at night, the trick though is to do it well. I like to think of my lightning photography in such a way that the lightning does not remain the only subject in the photograph, I like to think to myself- “How would this photo look if the lightning were not in the frame”. The style of the image and way you go about it also depends highly on the distance of the storm, if the storm is far away it would be best to use a telephoto lens, but do not get caught up on the idea that you need to do this. If you find yourself at a distance from an isolated storm cell, you may find yourself with one of my personal favourite types of shots… The image of an illuminated storm cell in the distance with complete structure visible as well as lightning, these shots are quite rare and would make a trophy for any portfolio. Also remember that lightning which is located in the distance will often require a lower F-stop number due to the lack of light it produces.

First thing is first when taking photographs of lightning at night, find yourself an open area with a good view point. Tree branches or buildings obstructing your photograph will just not do! If you live in a city type environment I’d suggest a high level patio or even the top of the building depending on how close the thunderstorm is.

If you live in more of a rural environment and are able to get to an open field, I’d recommend doing that. In many cases this will allow you to face whichever direction the lightning may be occurring in at the time.

If you live near water such as lakes, dams or even the ocean, you’re capable of getting some lovely shots! The reflection of lightning off water is beautiful and some of my personal favourite shots I’ve taken of lightning were taken on the beach with the lightning reflecting off of the shallow water.

Once you have located the area you are going to be shooting from it’s time to set up your tripod and camera, if you have a cable or remote shutter now is when get that setup too. Now is the time to get your shutter speed, ISO and F-Stop right. First I’d suggest you monitor the lightning activity (mainly for those without cable or remote shutters) and see how often the lightning is striking, if there are 5-10 strikes per minutes a 1 minute shutter speed will capture 5-10 bolts in a single image, same like this appearance but I personally find a few bolts far more appealing; for those of you with shutter releases .After you have decided what  is best for your situation you can complete the other settings and begin taking a few test shots. Personally I don’t own a shutter release cable so I have to rely on a steady hand and a shutter speed that isn’t too high, as not to have 1000 bolts in one of my photographs. Like I said, it would depend on how many lightning strikes are occurring per a minute.

A rule of thumb that I use, for those of you without a release- is to count the amount of strikes in 1 minute and divide that number by 3 to get your shutter speed in seconds, though of course you can toy with the settings as you wish, depending on what you find most appealing.

As I touched upon above, the shutter speed will stay open for however long you decide, and during this period it will capture any light in front of the lens, so should 10 strikes of lightning take place while your shutter is open, all will remain in the final photo. The method I use requires a bit more throwing away of ‘nothing’ shots that you may get during a lull in lightning activity but I don’t find this a worry. If you want to the use the Bulb setting on your shutter speed (not recommended without cable release) you will in most cases be forced to hold down the button during whatever duration it is you desire, this will often cause shake and blur on your photo even if you’re using a tripod.

For those with shutter release cables or remotes, the task is a lot easier. You set up your ISO and F-Stop and set your cameras shutter speed setting to bulb. This will mean that the shutter will stay open for as long as you want, whether it be a few seconds or a few minutes. This is the preferred method of lightning photography as you are then able to stop right after a strike and can easily control the amount of lightning bolts in your photograph. Though it is important to take into account the lighting around you as you don’t want an over-exposed landscape.

Another important issue to take into account with lightning photography when using long exposures is the cloud movement. The longer the exposure the more chance of the clouds becoming

 

The Easy Method

For those of you who don’t want to go through all the hassle and do things the ‘cheap’ way. There is always the option of buying a lightning detection unit for your camera. The way this works is by taking a photograph every time lightning is picked up on the censor. This means you get to sit back and relax while your camera does all the work.

Safety Notice

 

It is vital to remember that lightning is extremely dangerous and has the potential to kill you. Sometimes you may need to sacrifice your safety to achieve the best images, though this will be a choice you will have to make. I may be irresponsible when I take photos and care little about the chances of being struck but I definitely do not promote this behaviour to others. Think carefully when you take your photographs and remember that no one’s safety is guaranteed in severe weather.

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