Sunday, July 15, 2007

Photographing Lightning

Lightning can be both a beautiful and yet frightening part of nature. Many of us find awe in watching the momentary bolts of lightning and have seen photographs which seem to have captured more bolts of lightning than are possible in a split second.

When photographing lightning, as with any unpredictable subject, the ability to capture that one fleeting moment is something we do not have the luxury of doing. Yet, what we can capture is quite impressive when we use the proper techniques. With lightning, the key is to let it do its show for us, and not to attempt to capture a momentary bolt. Here are some helpful lightning photography tips.

As lightning is a split second event, and often lightning bolts come in groups, we can use the lightning for our source of light. We do this by using a slow speed film (a low ISO on digital cameras), a small aperture, and a long exposure time at a point when the lightning's activity has increased. This exposure can be from 1 second to many seconds depending on the amount of lightning activity, and if we are taking the shot during the day or night. Even if we are taking the exposure during the day, often lighting conditions are very reduced during a storm; by as much as 7 stops or more from sunny conditions.

The idea is for us to pick our spot from which we are going to shoot during the storm; such as a cityscape, farm, church, or any other area we feel would make a good background (or subject) for the lightning. We can select areas from which we would like to shoot during a non-storm period and go to those locations when a storm is brewing.

If we are to set up the camera in an outside location, we need a sturdy tripod with some additional weight to hold it down during potentially high winds, and some waterproof cover for the camera. The use of a cable release is a must, for the sake of safety, and the best type to use is an air-bulb release as it does not use metal in the tube; not giving a source of continuity back to us in case the camera is struck by lightning. We need to set the camera to the bulb (B) setting for shutter speed, and probably an f/16 with the lens set to infinity, or a pre-determined hyperfocal distance. We then need to get to our safe place from where we are to trip the shutter.

An alternative to setting up the camera in an outdoor location is to use a windowpod we can attach to our car windows and attach the camera to it. The window should be rolled up as much as possible and the camera still needs to have a cover for protection. For those of us lucky enough to have a good view from our home, we can position the camera at a window, either opening the window or pushing the lens up against the window glass, making certain that any interior lights for the room we are using are turned off.

Taking pictures is a matter of holding the shutter open for a few seconds so we can capture one or more bolts of lightning. For the best results, we need to do this several times as we cannot pre-measure the exposure value of the lightning. We should plan to kill of a full roll of film (here, digital cameras have an advantage) doing this for different exposure times and various lightning effects. The end result will be several successful exposures with some really neat lightning effects.

A lesson on taking pictures of lightning cannot be closed without mentioning the potential danger in doing such. Lightning is electricity with an equivalency of thousands of volts of potential delivering enough joules to make the electric company salivate. Capital punishment by electrocution uses less power than what a lightning bolt can potentially deliver.

Safety during a lightning storm involves keeping yourself in a protected place such as a shelter where you are not exposed to an opening or a vehicle which is well protected from lightning due to it not being grounded, as lightning is attracted to portions of the earth which have an imbalance in their electrical state. Being separated from the ground breaks the continuity and prevents you from becoming an attractor for the lightning.

If you find yourself outside during a lightning storm and you feel the hair on the back of your neck and limbs stand up, quickly get away from the area as this is a precursor of a lightning strike. Wearing protective clothing such as a rubber raincoat and boots with rubber galoshes over them can add protection, but it is not a cure. Staying away from trees during a lightning storm is advised, not due to making you a better target (as it does not), but if the tree is hit and the ground is moist enough, you can still be struck due to continuity of the electrical charge or the splitting of the bolt; not to mention having a tree fall on you.

The effects on someone from being struck by lightning can range from the loss of fingernails and toenails, loss of hearing, severe burns, loss of sight, loss of all body hair, organ and tissue damage, organ failure, brain damage, fusion of skin, to outright death which is not uncommon from lightning strikes.

I hope my warnings about the dangers of lightning have not fallen on deaf ears. Taking photos of lightning can be quite a rewarding experience. Being alive to share those photos can be an even more rewarding experience. You do not want to end up being the butt of the old photographer joke where their last picture was a beauty.


This article is copyrighted 2005 by Robert Meeks. All rights reserved. Webmasters are allowed to use this article on their site so long as the content and copyright information stays intact and a link is provided, on the same page as the article, to Zhorkow's CargoShip.

About the Author

I have been involved with portrait and wedding photography professionally since the early 90s and been into photography since 1980. I presently write articles on photography and entertainment subjects as well do web design.