I love to photograph lightning. Lightning is unpredictable, energizing (pun intended), and most recently, the act of photographing lightning pulled me out of the doldrums that i have been metaphorically sailing in for the last four months.
There are many approaches to photographing lightning. Some photographers rely on battery-powered triggers to, hopefully, capture a bolt of lightning as it traverses the sky. Some photographers use an intervalometer and let the camera merrily click away with the hope that a frame or two will have lightning in it. This is actually not a bad way to photograph lightning because if you let the camera run long enough you will also have the files that you need to create a nice time-lapse of the event. I’ve never used a lightning trigger and I probably never will. I’ve used the intervalometer method with mixed results. My favorite method is to place the camera in Bulb and trip the shutter when I feel that it is time to make a photograph.
What does “time to make a photograph” mean? Do I have a keenly honed sense of what the storm is going to do that allows me to predict the instant that a bolt of lightning is going to erupt from the cloud? No. I do not. Every storm has a randomness that defies predicting when and where lightning will strike. However, if you pay attention to it, you will find that the storm has areas of higher energy that produce more lightning events than other areas. The areas move within the storm in an unpredictable manner. Sometimes they move in the direction that the storm is moving. Sometimes they move toward the tail of the storm. Sometimes they are at both ends and all through the middle. Bonus! Where the higher energy is, for some unpredictable period of time, lightning is produced at a higher rate.
Now might be a good time to mention that it’s not uncommon for lightning to travel 20 miles or more before it finds a place to return to earth. You do not want to be standing at the return point when that happens. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that anytime that you photograph lightning you are at risk of being struck. Nothing I’m about to write is going to prevent lightning from striking you. Photographing lightning is dangerous.
It is very important to pay attention to where the storm is going and what the lightning is doing. Not only for photographic reasons but for your safety as well. During my most recent outing I photographed a very energetic storm. It was an easy storm to capture lightning from. It was coming toward me. Typically, when a storm is inbound as opposed to crossing or receding, the rain will drive me to seek shelter well before the lightning gets close enough to concern me. I use 6 miles as the drop dead, time to go inside distance. With today’s smart phones it’s easy to see nearly realtime weather radar to help you decide when it’s time to go indoors. Again, 6 miles is my “safe zone” number. In actuality there is nothing safe about it. It’s a feel good number that is usually superseded by rain from the storm.
In the case of the most recent storm that I photographed, the rain didn’t come until I had been inside for almost 45 minutes. The storm was still building. The gust front winds were warm and flowing toward the storm. That indicates that updraft forces are pulling the surrounding warm air into the storm, energizing it, and helping to create the intense light show that I was seeing. A storm that is mature or dying will usually have a gust front composed of the cold air aloft. The cold air is dragged down, so to speak, by the rain falling from the clouds, and when it strikes the ground it flows out in all directions. This is indicative of the collapse of the storm. What goes up must come down.
I waited for the rain to send me running for shelter and it never came. At some point the thunder got loud enough that it penetrated my thick skull and I took stock of my entire surroundings and not just the beautiful light show in front of me. I had lightning behind me, above me, and in front of me. When I saw that lightning surrounded me I packed everything up and went inside. The storm front was only about two miles away. It took almost 20 minutes for the large cloud to ground strikes that the storm was producing to start to pop near me. By near I mean flash and then count to 1 or 2 before the thunder sounded. It took 45 minutes for the 70+ mph wind gusts and driving rain to arrive. Sadly I did not think to video the scene. The feeling of raw power that the storm produced was amazing. Less than an hour later the storm spawned at least two tornadoes in remote areas. No property damage or injuries were reported that I’m aware of.
That should do for the Amateur Meteorology 101 part of this blog post. I give you this information because it is important to know something about the anatomy of a storm and to read what phase it is in. The web is full of better information than what I just gave you. Please look into it for your own safety.
The process of photographing the image below was really very simple. Camera shutter in Bulb mode. ISO 100. f2.8. Focus at infinity. When I felt that it was time to make an image I tripped the shutter for a 12 count. 12 seconds in other words. When the storm was farther away I used ISO 200 and a 15 second exposure. Exposure is easily determined from the histogram and ISO makes a great coarse exposure adjustment. Fine tune the exposure with the length of time that you hold the shutter open.
A lot can happen in 12 seconds when a storm as energetic as the one that I was photographing is in the viewfinder. The following image is the second image out of a dozen or so that I made. They all had lightning in them. I credit the storms intensity with the high rate of keepers. Typically I have some dark frames or frames with nothing more than illuminated clouds in them. Some storms yield a high percentage of lightning in the frames. Some make the photographer work hard for one mediocre image. Some give you nothing but the satisfaction of being there. Some of my best misses (images that I missed) occurred as I was walking away with my camera and tripod over my shoulder.
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