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How To Photograph Lightning and Live to Tell About It

September 25, 2011 Nature, Techniques 20 Comments

Written by: Charlie Borland

by Jeff Colburn

The wind blew at over 40 MPH as lightning hit the ground about two miles away. It was getting closer than I liked.

My only emergency warning system, the hairs on my arms standing up, was useless in this wind. Suddenly, the wind died down to about 20 MPH, and my arm hairs were at full attention. That means that a charge rising from the ground was going through me, and attracting lightning.

I grabbed the camera and tripod and jumped into the car. Two seconds later there was a blinding flash and deafening thunder clap about 100 feet away. I had cheated Death, and my own stupidity, again.

Photographing lightning is the most amazing type of photography you will ever do. And probably the dumbest thing you can do with a camera, but I love it.Here are some tips on lightning and safety:

  • colburn Lightning0107 small How To Photograph Lightning and Live to Tell About ItBeing struck by lightning can cause many problems, including: neurological issues, memory loss, chronic pain and death. That last one’s a real bummer.
  • Count how many seconds between when you see lightning and hear the thunder. Thunder travels at about 1 miler per 5 seconds. So, 15 seconds means the lightning struck 3 miles away.
  • As a rule, if you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning. Remember the phrase, “A bolt from the blue?” It refers to the fact that you can have a clear blue-sky overhead, and still be struck by lightning. The bolt can come from a storm that’s over the horizon.
  • In the United States, hundreds of people are struck by lightning every year, and about 55 of those people are killed. I have personally met three people who have been struck by lightning.
  • A car can offer protection from lightning if it has a metal roof and is completely enclosed. Convertibles or open cabs offer no protection from lightning. In a storm, be sure not to touch anything inside the car that may be in contact with the outer body, such as door handles or window cranks.
  • Buildings must be completely enclosed too, so no carports or covered patios.
  • Want to know where the lightning is? http://cirrus.sprl.umich.edu/wxnet/radsat.html

Now for the tofu and lentils (meat and potatoes for you carnivores) of lightning photography.colburn Lightning0132 small How To Photograph Lightning and Live to Tell About It

Whether you’re shooting in daytime or nighttime, set your camera to Manual and do the following to ensure the sharpest images.

Turn off

  • Noise reduction – It takes too long to process an image after a long exposure.
  • Image stabilization – It will change the focus during exposure.
  • Auto focus – It’s too slow to focus on lightning. Focus on infinity.
  • Remove filters – They can cause a “ghosting” effect to the lightning.

When shooting at night, set the shutter on B, and hook up a wired cable release. You can use a wireless release too, but you usually need to be in front of the camera to trigger it. And always use a tripod.

Set your ISO to between 100 and 200, and using a lens between 28mm and 135mm works best. But select a focal length based on your shooting conditions.

Set your f-stop to between f/8 and f/16. For close storms you can shoot at f/8, and use f/16 when they are farther away. You don’t want to wind up with blurry lightning bolts because your depth of field is too shallow, so lean toward f/16.

If you’re shooting in daylight, there are a few things you will need to do differently. Use your camera’s light meter to determine exposure, but keep your f-stop the same as for night shooting. Take the longest exposure possible to increase your chance of getting lightning in the image. You can extend your exposure time by using neutral density filters, or a polarizer and you can go up to f/16 if you want.

Set your camera to shoot sequentially, and then lock the release button on your wired/wireless shutter release. The camera will take pictures until the chip is full. You will often fill your chip several times without getting a shot of lightning. If the chip is full, and there aren’t any lightning shots, then format the chip and start over. If you get even one lightning shot on a full chip, change the chip. You don’t want to waste time during a storm selectively deleting unwanted images.

lightning 1 How To Photograph Lightning and Live to Tell About ItIf possible, have an interesting foreground. A tree, building or rock formation can add interest to your images, and give the lightning a sense of place.

There are a few other items you should consider buying

  • A rain cover for your camera. I use the Op/Tech RainSleeve. They’re made of thin plastic, cost $8.25 for two and work great.
  • An umbrella to keep rain off of the front of your lens.
  • A headlight, the kind that attaches to your forehead with an elastic band. Mine has a white light and a red one. The red one is great for seeing what’s going on without losing your night vision. The headlight is adjustable so I can point it down, which makes it easier to see if a rattlesnake, scorpion or tarantula is coming over to me with a photography question. For added comfort there’s soft foam on the back of the light, where it’s against my forehead. I paid about $15 for this at a Big Box store. Be sure it uses AA or AAA batteries, and not those expensive button batteries.
  • A remote trigger is nice too, and makes lightning photography safer. They’re pricey, at about $400, but as long as your camera isn’t being rained on, you can sit in the safety of your car while this device does all the work. I don’t use one, yet, but you can see the Lightning Trigger at www.lightningtrigger.com

One thing I did early on was to get a map of my area and drive around looking for places to shoot. On the map I marked all the places where I could safely pull over to take photographs, and which direction I would be facing. Storms can go through an area quickly, and you don’t want to waste time trying to figure out where to properly position yourself, especially at night.

Go on out and try your hand at lightning photography, but always keep safety first. lightning 9 How To Photograph Lightning and Live to Tell About It

And if you’re driving around the Sedona, Arizona area during a lighting storm, and on a high spot on the side of the road you see some crazy photographer standing a few feet away from a metal car, and a few inches away from a metal tripod, while holding an umbrella over a camera, that’s me. Just wave, and enjoy being in your dry and safe car. Shaking your head in disbelief is optional.

Have Fun,

Jeff

If you want to learn more about me and my photography, check out my blog, http://www.TheCreativesCorner.com. It’s a site for those who use, and create, photographs. You can also connect at my Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fine-Art-Photographs-by-Jeff-Colburn/188581077820679

And check out my ebook for photographers, “How To Assemble And Show Your Portfolio” at http://www.portfolioebook.com/. You’ll learn how to make a professional photography portfolio, to get the assignments you want and deserve. Read it now to learn how to become a successful photographer, today!

If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

Related Posts: Sean Heavey Captures a Once-in-a-Lifetime Photo, Russ Finley Captures the Perfect Storm Over the Grand Canyon

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Currently there are "20 comments" on this Article:

  1. Hi Jeff,

    What a great article! The kid who used to live next door to us in La Pine got hit by lightening a couple of years ago. Thank goodness he was okay.

    I just stay inside with the dogs during our storms, but I appreciate all the work you did in telling us how to be a successful lightening photographer. I really enjoy your beautiful photos.

    Take care,

    Kathy M.

  2. [...] 25 September, 2011 (14:29) | Article, Photography, Tutorial Check out my new article “How To Photography Lightning, And Live To Tell About It” at Pro Nature Photographer http://www.pronaturephotographer.com/2011/09/how-to-photograph-lightning-and-live-to-tell-about-it/#… [...]

  3. A good and timely article. We don’t see much lightning in the Bay Area. But I recently caught a wild storm in the Sierra. At one point I counted nearly 30 bolts in 45 seconds.

    You can see one of the images I got during that storm:
    http://www.enlightphoto.com/views/2011/09/24/a-moment-in-the-storm.htm

    I definitely wish I had a lightning trigger for when it was still daylight out.

  4. Jeff Colburn says:

    Thanks Kathy, I’m glad you like my photos. Staying inside is definitely safer than what I do.

    Thanks Gary. The photo you took in the Sierra is great. And 30 bolts in 45 seconds is amazing. I wish I had been there.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

  5. Mike Russell says:

    Thanks for the post Jeff, I love the monsoons in Arizona and definitly wish I had the skill and patience to capture some of the beautiful lightning storms. I recently was caught in a heavy storm while camping near Lake Powell, so I can appreciate the danger in being out in a storm, with tent poles that seem like perfect lightning rods, it is certainly a risk.

    Be safe,
    Mike

  6. Jeff Colburn says:

    Thanks Mike.

    I experience the lightning rod feeling every year when I work at the Celtic Festival in Flagstaff. I’m usually standing in half an inch of water, in the Blarney Pub when a lightning storm comes through. I look up at all the metal poles holding up the tent, and the water I’m standing in. Warm and fuzzy it’s not.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

  7. Karen Ulvestad says:

    Great article! I love your photos. Thanks for sharing lightening safety too. I’ve experienced a monson like storm with lightening. Thankfully, we were in the car, on the road that had been cut through a small hill. We felt all the hair on our bodies stand-up, heard the thunder, and felt the lightening. It was raining so hard we didn’t see where it struck, but it felt like quite the jolt. Thankfully, we were all ok, and it was a cool experience.

    Thanks again for the great article. . .Karen

  8. Jeff Colburn says:

    Thanks Karen, I’m glad you liked it.

    I’m glad everyone in your car was okay. You’re pretty safe from lightning in a car. The double wall construction, not the rubber tires, prevents the current from getting inside the car. Just be sure not to touch anything that may be touching the outer body, like window cranks or door handles.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

  9. Overall a good article, but I can’t agree with your aperture suggestions, or the rationale behind them. If DOF is any concern, the lightning is hitting WAY too close! :) Treat lightning like a flash unit, and match aperture to brightness. In general, f/8 is IMO a good starting point for reasonably close action, assuming you’re shooting at ISO 100. Adjust to achieve the ‘look’ you want; open the lens for ‘fatter,’ brighter lightning (http://www.flickr.com/photos/19806236@N00/4603117048/in/set-72157622800084513), or stop down a little to preserve the crisp details (http://www.flickr.com/photos/19806236@N00/4154307225/in/set-72157622800084513). At greater distances, or when rain or haze diminish the brightness, open up as far as is necessary. Also, using ND filters or extreme apertures during the day or around sunset will certainly lengthen the exposure time, but will also greatly diminish the lightning’s appearance. Use as a last resort, and don’t expect too much detail.

    Glad you mentioned the critters! Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed the uninvited company of two snakes (It’s Aridzona, so of course they were RATTLEsnakes!), and one rather handsome Gila Monster. One snake got within a few feet before I noticed him. If you’ve been standing in one place for any period of time, always LOOK before moving!

    Your paragraph on preparation is dead on. If you plan to shoot scenic lightning, you pretty much have to scout around during the day and take notes of a given vista’s arc of view, foreground, background goodies, etc.

    It’s been less than a month since the lightnings have gone away and I already have withdrawal symptoms….

  10. John Douglas says:

    Jeff,

    Gregs comments on aperture and the reasoning behind it are correct. I found f-11 here in Tucson to be good for close in storms at 100 ISO.

    That is a great idea for daytime shooting (and nighttime with longer exposures) – I’ll try filling cards using an intervalometer next season by using 1/4 second or so exposures.

    You really need two contacts inside a car to be in danger – but then again you are sitting on a seat with possibly metal springs real close to your …

    I see a lot of comments concerning metal poles, etc. Metal has very little to do with where lighting will strike. It will be determined by perturbations on the electrostaic field before the strike. Anything wet or moisture containing will look like metal. After the strike, lighting will take a path based on the electrical resistance of the medium it has found compared to its own plasma channel. But 1/100,000 of the typical current in a lightning bolt can be lethal and the inside of the body is a pretty good conductor.

    And yes, I used to build lighting simulators for the military industrial complex. I had great fun splitting 12″ by 12″ by many feet long “dry” wooden structural beams with a megavolt & megajoule capacitor bank (really a marx generator) when I still worked for a living.

    John Douglas

  11. Jeff Colburn says:

    Thanks Greg, I’m glad you liked the article. I do envy you having a Gila Monster just walk up to you. After 18 years in Arizona I still haven’t seen one.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

  12. Jeff Colburn says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve seen video of lightning testing in the military, and it looks like it would be great fun playing with that.

    Yes, more than metal can effect where lightning strikes. Like you say, anything that can conduct a current. I’ve seen leaders coming up from the ground where no metal was located. Like most things in nature, lightning pretty much does whatever it wants.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

  13. Jeff Colburn says:

    Greg, I forgot to mention in my previous post that I really like your lightning photos.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

  14. [...] Posts: How to Photography Lightning and Live To Tell About It, 5 Tips for Shooting Marketable [...]

  15. Greg Campbell says:

    Jeff, here’s hoping a Gila Monster says ‘hello’ to you soon! :)

    Herps are a worry, but my most primally frightening encounter involved a tarantula hawk (giant killer wasp!!!) flying around in the car with me at dusk. I did manage to stop the car (more or less) before LEAPING out the door and running a good 30 yards. The combination of that unholy buzzz, and not being able to see it gave me a good 15 minute adrenaline shake. By the time I was functional, the critter was gone. After giving the car a VERY thorough inspection, I managed to get back in and drive home. I’ve never seen them active after sunset, but that one clearly didn’t ‘get the memo.’ It’s nice to leave the windows open, but you never know what the heck may decide to visit.

    The critters can be a worry, but are nothing compared to your hair raising near miss. The few very close strikes I’ve enjoyed were fortunately experienced from within the car.

    John, I’ve considered making a small roll-up rubber mat, backed with aluminum foil or a metal screen, that I could stand on when shooting. This should (?) offer nearly ideal protection against ground voltages resulting from a nearby strike. What do you think.

    -Greg

  16. Jeff Colburn says:

    Hi Greg,

    Yes, tarantula hawks are interesting, and big. Fortunately, I’ve never had one in the car with me, but I have had to bob and weave to miss having them slam into me. I’ve never know anyone who’s been stung by one, but I’ll bet it hurts like the dickens.

    Have Fun,
    Jeff

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