The storms have arrived! Once again, after a muggy summers day, the sky goes dark, the heavens open and we experience thunder bolts and lightning, very, very frightening... Rather than burying your head under cover why not have a go at recording those impressive lightning streak on film?
Words & Pictures Peter Bargh of ePHOTOzine
You may think that to capture lightning on film youd have to have the reactions of a Superman. Well youd be wrong. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. If you spend a few minutes watching the sky you'll see that the lightning tends to move across the sky but often falls in the same areas intermitantly. There's no way you can predict exactly when and where the next fork will drop but you can predict an area where something should happen in the next few minutes. And that's the key. If you set your camera to a long shutter speed the chances are you will record a streak in full flow. It's hit and miss but after a few minutes you'll start to get a feel for it.
What you need
You need a camera that has a long exposure setting. A speed of 30 seconds is perfect any shorter and your chances of hitting the spot are reduced. The shutter speed could be set manually, but it will also work if the camera has an auto setting, providing you can turn the automated flash off.
You'll need a tripod to keep the camera steady and preferably a camera with a wider angle lens so you can cover a wider area of the sky and stand more chances of capturing the lightning. Ideally you should shoot in the evening when the sky's dark. You can shoot in daylight, but the chances of getting a long shutter speed without overexposing the sky are limited.
So here's what to do
Mount the camera on a tripod and point the camera at an area where you think the lightning will strike. Set the camera to the smallest aperture f/16 or f/22. If your camera is fully automatic and doesn't have control over exposure just ensure that it's set to flash off mode. And check that it's capable of the long exposure by reading the instruction manual.
In nature, light travels faster than sound, so lightening strikes first followed by thunder, but us photographers can reverse the process and use the events to time a shot and predict roughly when lightning will stike.
When you hear thunder count in seconds the gap before the lightning strikes. If after the next rumble the lighting strikes quicker, it's likely that the storm is moving towards you and strikes will become more frequent until it passes over. Use this time to determine roughly when to fire the shutter. A cable-release will help ensure there's no movement.
Fire the shutter and keep your fingers crossed that the lightning will strike within the frame. If your camera has a separate viewfinder you will be able to look through and see if the lightning is captured. The disadvantage with an SLR is that the mirror will be up so you can just hope you caught it,
Digital cameras have the advantage here as you can preview the image once it's taken. If you've missed the lightning, delete and start again.
If your camera has a B setting you can leave the shutter open and use card to cover the lens. Remove the card when you think a lightning strike will occur and put it back over when it's happened. Again timing is essential here. You need the overall exposure to be about 30 seconds and you could get several streaks on one frame. I managed two! (see below)
Where to shoot lightning
The thought of being out in lightning puts most of us off going outdoors, so you're probably going to want to shoot from the safety of your room. You'd be right too! According to the University of Strathclyde if you're outside and lightning strikes near by, avoid trees! You should go into a house, a building or a car. If you are in a car, be sure that the windows are rolled up. Indoors you should stay away from windows, water, pipes and electrical sockets and avoid using the phone. Taking their advice on board, see if you can set the camera up near a window and operate the camera from a distance using an electronic or cable-release. If you can get a view through an open window you won't have problems with glass reflections or imperfections reducing the quality or causing the camera's focusing to play up. If you have to shoot through a closed window, switch off the room lights and use torch to illuminate the camera dials when necessary. Also set an autofocus camera to manual focus or infinity mode (symbol showing two mountain peaks) if it has one.
Choose a window that gives you a clearer view so you get the full fork. Alternatively go out in the car and choose an open spot that can be shot through the side window (but be aware of the dangers).
If you prefer to go outside, as I did for these shots (possibly foolish but people also get killed photographing motorsports so I was prepared to take my chance), catch the lightning at the beginning of the storm when it isn't raining. If you shoot in the rain you'll need to protect the camera. Special cases are available for this sort of shooting, some photographers use a plastic bag wrapped around the camera with a hole punched through for the lens. Remember keep away from trees!
Next month we will show you how to enhance a lightning picture using a digital technique or two to get pictures like this one on the left.
For more info on lightning visit the National Weather Service web site.