One of my favorite photography passions is weather photography. This is one of the areas in which I first got started in photography, along with other types of landscape portraiture. Lightning Photography can be very challenging, but even if you are a beginner, this is something you can very easily master. The key is to be at the right place for the storm and be prepared to move with the storm for optimal viewing as well as having a good background or foreground. First off, let’s get into the lightning aspect and the different type of lightning.
Lightning is a static discharge from within a thunderstorm. If the lightning is close enough, it will be followed by a clap of thunder as the air around the lightning strike is super heated creating the thunder shock-wave. Lightning comes in several types:
- CG – Cloud to Ground
- CC – Cloud to Cloud
- CA – Cloud to Air
- IC – Intra Cloud
Of these 4 types of lightning, the Cloud to Ground lightning is the most popular to photograph and if you time your exposure the right way, you could end up with Staccato Lightning, which is a single flash bolt with lots of branching. This photo of a form of staccato lightning was taken near Selden, Kansas just shortly after sunset. This supercell did not have a lot of intra cloud lightning within its structure and gave quite a show to me through the evening and into the early part of the night. Once you learn how to manipulate your camera and capture these types of lightning strikes, you can very easily transition into other type of lightning photography and begin to master your images. Lightning can happen any time of the year, if the conditions are right for thunderstorm development. Typically, the most prolific lightning can be seen during the late spring and summer months, when thunderstorms have much more energy from the heated atmosphere. That is not to say that you cannot get something in the winter months, if the conditions are right.
SAFETY. Now that you have an understanding on the types of lightning, your safety and the safety of others who are photographing are of the utmost importance. Lightning can strike 15 miles outside of a parent thunderstorm if conditions are right. This is what is know ans a “Bolt form the Blue” Make sure that when you are photographing lightning, that you are not the tallest object around. So, when are you too close? That is a hard question to answer. You must use your own judgement and make that determination. I tend to get a bit nervous when I am out photographing and the lightning and thunder are simultaneous. That is my cue to move further away from the storm to get out in front of it. Doing this type of photography professionally , you do inherit certain risks, as you would with anything you do, including driving down the street. Be cognizant of your surroundings, and if you feel uncomfortable about your location, by all means move away and reposition. If you feel your hair standing up or get a tingling sensation, chances are you are a target for a lightning strike and you need to leave the area. I am by no means advocating that you do this type of photography, but if you choose to, you do at your own risk.
EQUIPMENT. Your camera equipment is the key to getting a successful photo, but you do not need a high-end expensive camera to get the job done. I started doing lightning photography with a Canon T3 and a standard kit lens. Since then I have upgraded to a Canon 6D and a Canon 5D Mark II with 3 different “L” lenses that Canon offers. I shoot with a Canon 17-40 (2.8), 24-70 (2.8) and a 70-200 (2.8). These lenses give me great depth of field to either go wide angle or zoom depending on the subject matter that I want the lightning to have in its background or foreground. When it comes to cameras, please remember that your basic point and shoot may not work for this type of photography due to not being able to manipulate the camera manually with regards to your ISO, F-Stop and exposure duration. Here is a list of what you need to start capturing lightning:
- DSLR Camera with various lenses.
- Tripod. (A must have to keep a steady shot)
- Remote Shutter Release. (This will keep your finger off the shutter button thus preventing camera shake.)
- Lightning Trigger. (This is optional. Lightning triggers such as Pluto Trigger, MIOPS, or the Lightning Trigger brand by Stepping Stone do work to capture lightning by automatically operating the camera shutter once a lighting flash is detected by the trigger sensor.)
- PATIENCE! Patience is the one thing that you will have to have in order to get a great shot with excellent composure. Watching the storms will clue you in to keys to look for in order to capture these photos.
SETTINGS. In reality, it took me quite a while to get the hang of finding the perfect camera settings in order to capture lightning the way I wanted to. If there is one thing to take away from this blog, that one thing is that you will have over exposed shots at times. I am not saying it will happen all the time, but once you begin to experiment with the manual setting of your camera, you will develop and remember key settings through trial and error that will get you to where you need to be. Do not think that you have to have your ISO set very high in order to capture lightning. This is the one mistake I initially made and found out how to correct it. Lightning flashes are extremely bright, and especially more so when they are closer to you. In learning photography so many years ago, one thing I was taught was that when it it dark outside, you need to bring the ISO up to allow more exposure. With lightning photography, a higher ISO setting will increase your chances of over exposing the lightning flash ans therefore “blowing out” the picture altogether. But using the right combination of settings, you will be able to better equip yourself for getting the perfect shot. I initially photographed lightning manually just using the camera, tripod and remote shutter release. I purchased a trigger several years ago from Stepping Stone Products in Colorado after seeing their booth at a storm chasing convention. www.lightningtrigger.com. The trigger cost me around $330 and I got about 4 years use out of it before I sold it to another photographer and went back to manually shooting. I recently purchased a Pluto Trigger https:\\plutotrigger.com through Amazon ($119) but have yet to use it for lightning. I will do a product review of it for a future blog. With using the trigger, you will have to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for camera setting in order for the trigger’s sensor to capture the strike or flash. Each camera setting is different with each individual trigger.
What works for me is the following settings:
- ISO – 100 to 200 (the lower the better)
- F/Stop – F 9 to F 11 is a good range to start in. Don’t get frustrated if the lightning looks to dark, it still may be too far away. Decreasing your F/Stop below F 9 will increase your chances for blowing out the lightning and over exposing the shot.
- Exposure – This is a tricky one. It all depends on what you want to accomplish and what time of day it is. Capturing daytime lightning can be accomplished, but it is very hard to see the branching of the Staccato lightning during the daytime. I tend to shoot closer to sundown and after dark to really make the pictures stand out. If the lightning is close and at twilight, I will typically set my exposure to 1 or 2 seconds. As it gets dark, I increase the exposure time anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 seconds. Again, these are just rules of thumb as to what has worked with me in the past and what currently works for me now. It is all trial and error.
Post Processing. Now that you have gone out and taken over 200 photos of lightning, some with strikes and some without, what comes next? I tend to be very selective of my photos in order to tell a story with them as to what I witnessed. Any of the photos that were dark due to no lightning activity, or photos that were over exposed due to close proximity to the strike, I delete immediately. This leaves me my shots that I want to create either as individual art or as time lapsed art to show movement over time for a particular area. I post process everything in Photoshop CC 2017 with Topaz Labs software. The photograph shown here was taken just west of Ashland, Kansas about a month ago. This storm initiated near Copeland, Kansas and traveled southeast over time. I parked my vehicle on a hill that overlooked the valley to the north and west. The sun was just setting behind the storms, giving way to the orange tint on the horizon. I was not the tallest object around, as there was a cell tower immediately to my west and about 100 yards from me. The lightning here was roughly 2 miles away. I left my camera in the same focal depth of field and did not move it. The lightning captured was at 2 second intervals. I stacked the photos in Photoshop using the stack images tab and then used the “lighten” button to bring each strike into frame. This picture is 10 stacked images composed into one image showing how much lightning was striking the ground in 20 seconds. (10 pictures @ 2 second exposures) Your post processing techniques can be dome in Lightroom, Photoshop, or whatever photo editing software you have in your computer. The link to the Topaz software is www.topazlabs.com
With time, patience, the right equipment and a little bit of luck, you can create stunning lighting photography. For more information on how to accomplish these photos for yourself, please feel free to contact me here on my blog site or through my website, www.grobertsonphotography.com. Good luck and get out there and have fun with photography.