How I Take Lightning Photos

September 10, 2008 at 10:42 am | Posted in Flickr, Photography | Leave a comment
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First off, let me tell you that this is not a definitive tutorial on the “right way” to take lightning photos!

This is just how I have done it lately. Early on, I did it the harder way…stand in the pouring rain and point your camera around with the shutter open for as long as it can, or as long you think you can hold it somewhat steady. My first lightning photo was taken this way, and I’ve been trying to improve on that since.

This latest photo, was done using my now preferred method.

I wait for the evening monsoons to roll into the Phoenix area, then I grab my Canon 20D (which hopefully has a full battery charge), a fresh memory card, and my tripod. Oh yeah, and the Wireless Remote Control for the camera. Oh – and the stone bag for the tripod.

What’s a stone bag? Well, its pretty much what it sounds like. Its a three sided canvas bag that clips onto my tripod legs. When the tripod is standing, and the bag is opened – you can toss stones, dirt, water or whatever else might be on location into the bag to add weight. Essential concept if you have a thousand bucks sitting 6 feet above the ground in a decent wind!

Ok, so now the tripod is set up, camera atop it. Stones in place. I point the camera towards where there is lots of lightning. Then I fumble with the controls since it is dark and get the camera set to manual. Lens Focus to Manual – infinity. Aperture to around f8 as a starting point. Shutter to around 15 seconds. This setting allows me to click the shutter a few times without seeming like forever to see if I got any lightning strikes into the camera. With any luck, I have a couple of shots out of 20 that have some strikes. This allows me to see if I need to crank the aperture up or down.

If the bolts are really bright, I may go down to like f11 or if they are far away and quick – maybe bump it up to f5 or so. All depends on how much light is getting in, and how fat I want the bolts. Remember – the shutter is open for 15 seconds and the bolt is pretty darned quick so its 15 seconds of ambient light (street lights, porch lights, headlights, what have you) trying to balance out a blast from the sky that is about a gazillion times brighter, only really fast. Keep in mind when you get to your computer and load these images up for viewing at full resolution 2000*2000 or whatever you are shooting at – all this ambient light will create noise problems. That’s a different story altogether…

So, back to the shots. I started at 15 seconds, f8. By now I have determined how bright the bolts are after a few captures, and adjusted aperture. Now, I can switch the camera to bulb mode and vary the length of shutter. If I get lucky, I open the shutter and BAM! Lightning bolt. Close shutter. Usually, it is open shutter, wait…30 seconds later figure the shot is doomed to noise hell close shutter…BAM! Lightning Bolt.

If there is one thing for sure when snapping lightning photos, the best bolts WILL happen right after you close the shutter. Or, right after you turn the camera in another direction there will be a bolt that splits into 50 fingers that would have filled your megapixels with glory, had you not got impatient and pointed away.

So, that’s it. A little methodology…a lot of luck. As for other details like ISO – I start at around 200 and go up from there. The higher I go, the shorter my shots are. No ISO 1600 shots for 5 minutes. Bad idea, at least with my camera. Perhaps you have a better one.

Oh yeah – safety. This is an inherently risky hobby. That’s why I am not telling YOU how to do it. I am telling you how I do it. But, in the sake of safety – a great way to do it would be to find a parking garage where you can see lightning from and shoot from the 2nd highest level, so you have a roof over your head to protect you and the gear from rain and death. If you find a parking garage that is unguarded, surrounded by cool backdrops that are photogenic at night…good for you. I haven’t found that yet, but I read somewhere on the net that it is an excellent way to do this safely.

Seriously. Standing in a thunderstorm with a thousand bucks or more standing on a metal tripod is risky business. If you can’t hear the thunder but are getting good shots…stay at it. If you hear thunder when you see the bolts…pack up and go home. If you are lying down on the ground and shooting the bolts directly above you…please write up a quick note willing your gear over to me after your death. Have it notarized.

So, that’s it for now. Check out my flickr pages on weather for some shots…

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