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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Lightning Storm Photography explained and "How To"

Last night there was one of the most intense lightning storms I have ever seen.  However it's hard to remember the others since they were so long ago.  It didn't dawn on me until it was almost too late that there were intense lighting strikes happening about every 2-10 seconds right outside my backyard.  I ran for my camera and without a tripod, I shot some handheld exposures up to 30 seconds.  I quickly ran out of time and had to retreat as the hail was soaking me and my camera!  In the end I love the few photographs I obtained and wanted to share them with you and explain how you can do it yourself!

PHOTO #1:   F11, ISO 500,  30sec exposure
Notice the blurry alley and definition of the houses?  Or how about the squiggly looking yellow lights along the bottom of the photograph?  This is because I hand held the camera (without a tripod) to create this effect.  Ideally if I had more time I would have tried both methods but I knew in advance that the lightning strikes would freeze everything from it's "flash" like qualities.  The blur in the houses is as a result of multiple strikes in the same photo.  The "squiggly lines" are street and solar lights in peoples backyards that slowly burned their image into the frame as I tried to hold the camera still.  However I knew that a bit of motion is almost better and adds a cool artistic effect that you cannot achieve with a tripod.

PHOTO #2:   F11, ISO 500, 30sec exposure
This photo was shot with the same settings and method as the one above.  The difference?... obviously the editing in post production.  I converted to monochrome and split toned the photograph in the shadows for the "Transylvania look ;)"  This photo captured 4 separate bolts!
PHOTO #3:   F5.6, ISO 1000, 1/2 sec exposure
This photo is interesting.  After achieving the two above photographs I wanted to create a sharper image with less blur. I switched my camera manually to a 1/2 second exposure and began to fire. F5.6 still kept things in focus but lets in twice the amount of light from F11.  Again the ISO increased from 500 to 1000 in order to double the sensitivity to light.  I hoped this would work since the shutter speed time was being cut significantly.  It worked!  A single bolt exposure at the edge of the storm created a flash great enough to light up the scene like it was daytime.  Without the bolt, this photograph would be completely black.  And because it was only 1 bolt, the scene is sharp and without blur.  The 1/2 exposure also helped keep the street and solar lights sharp by cutting down on the hand shake. Notice all the specs in the photo?  That's hail.

PHOTO#4:   F5.6, ISO1000, 1/2sec exposure
Same settings and monochrome edit as above.  This one was the last photo I shot basically in the middle of the storm.   There is no definition in the sky and the hail was coming down hard.  I liked the single bolt composition of this photograph.  It is well balanced with the single large home and diagonal lines of the deck with two solar lights.  The bolt reflects the light off of the soaked railing on the wood.

Want to take your own photographs of lightning?  Here's some tips of how you can achieve your own.

1. Sit around and wait for a storm with multiple strikes per minute to increase your chances of catching a bolt.  Think ahead of time of a landscape you would like to include as your horizon (not a back alley like me!)  Grab a tripod and aim for the storm.  Get there early so you have good sky definition along the edge of the storm unlike photo#4 which is pure grey sky.  Be prepared to pack up quickly from the hail and rain about to hit you.

2. Use an SLR camera with manual or shutter speed priority settings.  At first use and ISO that gives you good quality but still accepts a decent amount of lights (100 - 800).  Your F stop should default to a setting that produces a sharp image that keeps the whole scene in focus.  IE F11.  Focus on a distant subject with Auto focus then switch to manual focus to keep that focus.  Now you camera won't delay trying to re-focus with each photograph.

3. Play around with your shutter speed.  Judge the amount of strikes per minute.  If there is lighting every few seconds try a speed lasting only 10 seconds.  If they are few and far between, a minute or more is acceptable to capture a bolt.  Once the photo is complete, review, adjust as necessary, and continue shooting like crazy!  You want that shutter open before the strike because I doubt you will have time to react once there is a strike!

4.  Once you know you have a few good ones, experiment with some handheld shots like I did with 15-30 second exposures.  Feel free to move the camera around a little to get some artistic effect from other lights in the photo ie streetlights, car headlights, signs, etc etc.  This can add a cool effect.

5. Use an editing program to crop, straighten and enhance the image and adjust the exposure.  If you shoot in RAW, which I always recommend, you will have more room to edit since the file is not already compressed.

I think that's it!  You should be on your way to shooting great shots soon.  Oh yeah, and stay safe out there.  Lightning storms can be very dangerous.  Choose safe locations that you have the ability to retreat quickly and safely.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below and I will answer them right away!


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