How to Capture Lightning

The first rule of lightning photography is to be safe.   Do NOT put yourself in any danger to get a photo, ever. 

The story behind the photo.   With spring comes thunderstorms and I had been paying attention to the weather reports and thinking about possible vantage points.  I was looking for some place with enough elevation to get a good view without being at the top of a mountain myself.  I also wanted a view that was going to be fairly clear or artificial light, with longer shutter speeds those lights can really ruin a scene.  Though there are plenty of shots with cityscapes and lightning, but the area I am in doesn't really offer that.     I used my knowledge of the area and Google Earth to scout potential vantage points settling on a location that gave me a good view of the Connecticut river valley.

I brought my 5D Mark III, tripod and Triggertrap app on an iPad.    Now I don't have any pictures of the setup in the car, I was shooting out of the car window with the tripod spread around my lap.  It was not the most comfortable and roomy setup but I could live with it.  Truthfully I didn't end up using the Triggertrap app, for no reason other than I pulled up and lightning was happening so I rushed to setup everything. I should have taken a moment to plug in the app, the Star Trail Mode would be perfect for lightning photos.

Triggertrap Star Trails

Yes, contrary to popular belief you don't try to capture lightning by watching for a bolt and quickly pressing the shutter button - you will not be fast enough. What you do is shoot long exposures - anywhere from 6 seconds to 30 seconds can give you good results.  So the shutter is open, the sensor is recording a fairly dark scene and hopefully during the time the shutter is opening a strike will happen.   I have heard from one of my readers that if a strike happens in the middle of an exposure it is a good idea to throw  a black cloth over the lens to keep any more light from entering and potentially ruining the image.  I may try that in a future shoot.

Now when I first set up I took a few long exposures to get a sense of my composition, it was quite difficult to get a sense through live view or the view finder, so you can raise your ISO way up for a few test photos, this way your shutter speed only needs to be a few seconds - these aren't keepers, just trying to get a feel for what the camera will capture.

001_10.0 sec at f - 7.1It is a good thing I took her advice and adjusted my horizon, I would have cut off even more of this bolt.I was shooting around 40mm on a full frame camera.  That is about 22mm on a crop sensor camera like the Canon T4i/T5i.30 shots later I captured what would turn out to be the best of the night- Rollover to see the unprocessed straight out of the camera shot.  38mm on full frame at ISO 400, f/10 and 20.0 seconds shutter speed.

[himage]003_20.0 sec at f - 10

004_20.0 sec at f - 10[/himage]

I continued shooting for another 30 minutes, another 40 shots and captured a few more bolts but the storm fell apart and low level clouds rolled in making it difficult to capture individual bolts[gallery ids="3623,3622,3621,3620,3619,3624" orderby="rand"]SO if you read all of this, or skipped to this point let me give you the moral of the story.

  1. Be Safe
  2. You have a higher probability of making a cool photo with planning. Gear, Location and Knowledge all need to be considered in your planning.
  3. Be patient - I sat in my car, rain coming in the window for over an hour, in this case I was enjoying myself so it wasn't a hardship but you can't expect to roll up/show up to someplace and instantly snap something magical. Don't count on luck. Anytime I think about luck I think about Las vegas, none of those casinos are hurting for money, luck is NOT on our side most of the time.