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How to photograph lightning

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Category: Specialist

How to photograph lightning - Rather than burying your head under cover why not have a go at recording those impressive lightning streak on film?

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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.

How to photograph lightningSo 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!

How to photograph lightningNext 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.



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Comments

TonyLD
TonyLD  7 United Kingdom
30 May 2007 - 2:42 PM


Quote: When you hear thunder count in seconds the gap before the lightning strikes.

I always thought that you saw the lightening first, then heard the thunder because light travels faster than sound!

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30 Apr 2008 - 8:28 AM

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Pete
Pete Site Moderator 1218416 forum postsPete vcard ePz Advertiser England96 Constructive Critique Points
30 Apr 2008 - 8:28 AM

Adjusted the copy so it clarifies.

magnus
magnus  9661 forum posts United Arab Emirates5 Constructive Critique Points
14 Sep 2008 - 11:01 AM

Nope - still wrong!

stormchayser
25 Sep 2008 - 5:31 PM

ok, the general info on this is pretty accurate, but i feel that i should give some aditional advice to photographing lightning. When i first started shooting i was going out with 30 sec exposures & high aperture settings & eventually when i did get a strike i had mixed emotions of joy & annoyance.The reasons for the frustration were :- In the middle of the countryside it was pitch black & yet i still had an orage glow of light polution, 30 sec exposure was the cause for this. The clouds seemed to be shadowed or duplicated across the print, again the 30 sec exposure was the reason for this as everytime there was a flash during this 30sec the clouds would light up & thus be exposed to the film. Distant lightning or lightning in a heavy raincore doens't always show up due to the apperture being set so high.
Solution:- After many years of stormchasing both here & over in the States in Tornado alley i've found that to achieve the best results is to have the camera time set to bulb (you need to have control of that shutter), apperture of around f8, ISO 100 or even 50 i tend to take a few test shots & look at the result on the camera first to negate or reduce the light polution, it's all about balance. Always use a cable release or remote, open the shutter & count to around 10 seconds & close even if there's been no discharge of lightning, then re-open the shutter for another 10 secs etc....
If you're under a slow moving storm then you can start to increase your exposure times but not by a lot as that old cloud is going to be moving & changing shape all the time & ruin shots if you get multiple discharges during your open shutter time.
On a safety aspect, if you're outside shooting lightning always be aware of how close you are & your surroundings. Storms can move at a terrific rate & if you dont have a car or a house close by to take shelter in you need to be very aware of what's going on. If you're getting wet by rain then YOU ARE TO CLOSE!!! get out of the rain & into safety, lightning can travel 10-15 miles out from a storm & travels oh so very easily in a damp/wet atmosphere & you are a tempting earth rod.
I tend to shoot from inside my car with the camera on a tripod pushed against the windscreen or out of the back with the tailgate open this keeps me & my equipment both dry & relativley safe. I'm at risk because of the exposed area's i tend to try to put myslef into to get "clear" shots.
After all said & done photographing lightning is a fantastic & exciting experience, when you get your fist squiggly line on film/memory card (no matter how small) it will fill you with a warm glowing feeling of satisfaction & the desire to better yourself with something closer & more stunning.
If anyone needs any further advise please feel free to get in touch & ask, i'm no expert but i know a little more than the average bear Wink
Good luck & stay safe but have fun doing it. Pete.

Last Modified By stormchayser at 25 Sep 2008 - 5:36 PM
JackAllTog
JackAllTog e2 Member 53469 forum postsJackAllTog vcard United Kingdom58 Constructive Critique Points
7 Sep 2009 - 3:55 PM

Nope the other way round, You see the flash then hear the thunder from that flash.

Quote: 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.

Counting the seconds in between will allow you to know if the storm is moving toward or away from you.
I use a shutter release and adjust ISO/Apeture to try to get a good exposure between 10-30 seconds. Then i lock the shutter release on (canon EOS400) and the shot is taken, but having locked the cable release it takes another and another etc (continuos mode) until the memory card fills up or i unlock the shutter cable. Lots of dark sky shots but hopefully some that contain lighting strikes.

Last Modified By JackAllTog at 7 Sep 2009 - 3:56 PM
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