Disclaimer: Lightning can be dangerous. Being out at night can also be dangerous. Shoot, now that I think about it, just about everything you do can be dangerous. Don’t forget when you pack your camera bag to make sure you’ve included common sense in the bag as well. The only person responsible for your safety before you step out of your front door is you.
With the newly arrived summer, my favorite outdoors time of year begins. Living in the mountains, the stunning vistas and nature’s endless variety never fail to impress. I guess the most impressive of these displays is the summertime evening thunder/lightning storms.
One of my favorite misconceptions about lightning is the quote I’ve heard many times over, “Man, you’ve got to be really fast to get that picture at just the right time.” It’s a natural assumption. It’s also completely wrong.
For your trip into the world of lightning photography you’ll need a couple of things, here’s the list:
A remote release cable for your camera, (so you don’t have to push the button to make the camera fire, you just press the release button without having to touch the camera
Note: If you don’t have a shutter release cable, your next best option is the delayed shutter release (timer function) on your camera.
A tripod or camera stand. This is critical, since the pictures will require you to hold the camera steady for lengthy periods of time, if you’re a human being, you can’t hold that still for the time required.
An understanding of your local weather patterns, a weather radio, or other news source and a keen sense of awareness of your surroundings as this next part can be risky if it catches you unaware.
Beginning lightning photography with amazing results:
Step one: This is only possible after dusk or after nightfall (Low light environments).
Step two: Choose a nice silhouette or distant recognizable feature. Since I overlook the city of Santa Fe about thirty miles from my favorite shooting spot, the mountains beyond the city make for a nice background, the lights of the city add nice foreground elements.
With your camera set up on your tripod, or on a fixed location with the shutter release attached, if you have one. If you don’t have a cable release, set the shutter release/timer function to fire after you take your hands off of the camera. You don’t want your button-pressing shaking up the image and ruining the picture you’re in the process of creating.
Step three: You will have to experiment with the length of the shutter speed, and ISO settings. Your aperature should be set to something around f/18 or f/22 if you’re shooting distant objects and you want the maximum depth of field (sharp focus).
Step four: Since you are doing this at night, your camera will be experimenting and trying to use its auto-focus mode, but will be unable to because it will be too dark for it to “see:” the image it’s trying to focus on. Manually focus on the lightning strikes in the distance, usually this is the farthest or “infinity” setting on your lens.
Remember I told you the secret to photographic success is the right combination of Aperature, ISO, and Shutter Speed? Here comes the experiment. Based on the amount of lightning flashes lighting up the night, you will have to vary the amount of time your shutter stays open to record the image. With the cable release and the camera set in “bulb” mode, you can just hold the button down and the shutter stays open for as long as the button on the cable release is pressed. With the camera set for “Automatic” or “Timed Mode” or “T”, the max the shutter will usually stay open is thirty seconds on most cameras. Sometimes a setting of thirty seconds is acceptable with multiple lightning flashes, sometimes you may have to keep the shutter open for a minute or two.
So, how does this work? The shutter open allows the camera to continuously record the light levels and locations on the image sensor. When the lightning flashes it highlights the specific part if the sensor recording the lightning strike from start to finish. The light given off by the lightning also lights up, or illuminates the sky and the scenery surrounding the strike, giving you enough light for your picture.
You can record multiple lightning strikes in the single image, and it makes for an impressive shot, but remember, too much light and you overexpose the image. Experimentation is the key.
Play, experiment, shoot tons of pictures…but remember, be safe. No picture is worth yours or anyone else’s life, so shoot only when it’s safe to do so. Lightning can strike as far as 10-15 miles in front of or behind a thunderstorm.
Here are two examples that I took last night: