Saturday, August 6, 2011

How to bottle lightning

First a little disclaimer: Photographing lightning is a high risk venture, if you choose to try it be smart and let your gear do the dangerous work while you stay safe inside a house or car

Though there are thousands of lightning photos out there,
as a photographer no subject will offer you a challenge quite like getting a great shot of lightning, nor the gratification of saying "I took this". To capture that split second of mothers natures fury you will need to be well prepared and patient.

What you will need to pull a lightning shot off: The way I did the shots in this blog was to find a night with significant electrical storm activity. I waited until the heart of the
storm passed overhead and crossed a huge lake near my home (until the thunder was very distant). Lightning can strike from miles away so I did everything I could not to hang outside for long. I set up the 7d on a tripod under a set of trees and hooked it up to a Satechi TR-C; This device has an Intervalometer that can be set to take a photo every X-seconds and take up to as many photos as you like back to back (This works for Time-Lapse photography too).

Camera setting for night time lightning action are:
- Manual Mode
- Exposure time 15 seconds
- F 5.0
- ISO 250
- Manual Focus set to infinity
- Intervalometer shoot once every 32 seconds (to cover the 15 seconds taking the shot + the 15 second noise reduction the cameras do internally)
- 11 shots a set

From the safety (and air conditioning) of my car several feet away all I did is watch the distant lightning show and keep an eye on the back of the camera. Since the Intervalometer was shooting on such a tight interval I just waited for the red processing light to turn off on the back of the camera to know the set was complete. Then I would go retrieve the camera or set up the next set of shots.


If you shoot at too high of an iso you will never see the bolt itself, just the halo around it and the cloud so this is the biggest reason why I shoot at a low iso especially for 15 seconds. The reason for the long shutter time is that you will radically increase your odds of getting one or more lightning strikes per photo. This will save lots of frustration trying to hit the shutter faster than the speed of light.

It should be known though if you do wish to have a device trigger your camera when lightning goes off they do make them; try the one from AEO Photo or the Lightning Trigger .

Hopefully this will help you get that elusive lightning photo for your portfolio. This is not an easy task so give it more than one try and someday you will get that jaw dropping shot you are after.

Be safe and good luck!