I have been asked on numerous occasions how I get
photo's like this......
While it is not as difficult as many may think, there
are certain methods to follow that increase your chances of hitting
the photographic jackpot. This is my way of doing things........
I think it is fair
to say that to get good quality lightning shots requires an SLR
camera with full manual control. Be it digital or film,
the SLR offers many advantages ranging from a huge choice of lenses,
fast operation, easy night time composition with "real"
viewfinders and a true bulb setting. I began with DSLR using the
exceptional Nikon D70 that performs extremly well, is robust while
still quite portable. (As of early 2008 I updated to the D300.
This is a SUPERB camera and I rate it extremely highly for the
Also essential is a good sturdy tripod.
I can't stress enough the importance of this item. It keeps the
camera steady under all conditions. Speed of operation is also
important and for this reason I have a quick release head and
pistol grip tripod.
You will also need a cable release or (if your camera
suppots it) an IR remote to trigger the shutter and hold it open for
longer than the (usual) camera limit of 30 seconds available under the
built in program modes. There are pros and cons to both but I use a
small infra red remote control with the D70 and a tethered/IR optioned
remote on the D300. A remote release also reduces camera vibration to
a minimum allowing sharper captures of your foreground. The tripod also
is integral in achieving sharp shots.
A hotly debated topic is whether to use film or digital.
Some will argue that film is better and vice versa. There are advantages
to either system. Personally I shoot digital for the convenience of
speed of image retreival, cost (try rattling off 200 images a night
on film without mortgaging a kidney!) and full control over the final
printed product. As in which remote to use, there is no right or wrong,
just personal preference.
Footnote - The D300 which has replaced my D70 is the closest
to film for detail, colour and dynamic range of any digital I have used.
For me personally film is now well and truly dead and while I still
hold my old film SLR with reverence its shutter is no longer in use.
You mileage and opinion may vary and this is fine. Its all about the
image, not the equipment (nor the brand of camera).
Storms are dangerous.
Never ever take them for granted as they are unpredictable. Always be
alert as to the direction of travel and when bolts get too close (10km
is my rule) seek cover. I have seen strikes rip out and come down a
long way from the storms centre. This is unpredictable. I shoot from
inside the back of my ute or the cabin when it moves in close. This
also provides shelter from rain protecting valuable (and expensive)
No two storms have the same conditions. As such be
prepared to change settings quickly if required. There is still a baseline
on which to start. (this relates to digital)
The following are "checklist settings"
always check these before shooting.
- ISO - Alwyas
set the ISO sensitivity to the lowest setting. This gives cleaner
shots with less image noise and allows for longer exposures and greater
quality if needed. The one real exception is when trying to freeze
cloud structure when shooting individual cells. Multiple strikes can
"ghost" the image as the storm cell moves. Short exposures
to avoid this often do not catch enough light and higher ISO is then
IMAGE is an example shot at ISO 1000 to freeze cloud structure.
- WHITE BALANCE
- This can be tricky with multpile light sources that can cover the
whole spectrum. Most cameras do quite well in the "auto"
setting. With experience you will be able to assess the scene and
light source choosing the appropriate white balance preset. Shooting
in RAW gives the greatest flexibility as white balance disasters can
be fixed later with no degredation to the image file. RAW also provides
the best quality image files but is generally much larger in size
requiring bigger (and faster write) memory cards. The tradeoff is
well worth it in my opinion.
- SHOT MODE - People
automatically assume that to catch lightning you ned to be quick and
use continuous drive. For night time this is just not true, so leave
your cam on single shot. This also allows you to delete "dud"
pics on the fly thereby saving card space and saving work sorting
out shots later on.
**NB** cheaper lenses will not have the infinity
point marked on the lens. In these cases try to focus on distant houses
or town lights if available. In most cases reasonable infinity can be
acheived this way. Experiment during the day to see if infinity focus
can be amrked on the lens focal ring. Remember that many zoom lenses will
have slight variations depending on their focal length.
- MANUAL MODE -
The key. using this setting allows full control over shutter
- MANUAL FOCUS TO INFINITY
- At night its hard to impossible to
get a focus lock. By doing this setting it allows you have the
scene in focus at a given distance from the camera to infinity.
The infinity mark is on your lens and looks like a sideways
"8" See the image below. DON"T forget to switch
DON'T FORGET!! Switch off Autofocus and
manually set focus to infinity!
Aperture, Shutter and more.....
- APERTURE -
Also known as "F" stop. This is vital. Most of my shots
are in the F4- F7.1 range. This allows enough light gathering while
preventing most "blow outs" from powerful or close bolts.
These apertures often yield sharper images. F6.3 works the best for
my "favourite" lens. Experiment with your lens to find the
In some circumstances it is fine to open the lens right up (low F
number). If the storm is weak or strikes are a long distance away
then more light is needed. This is best acheived by opening up the
lens aperture as wide as it can go. Poor quality lenses are often
soft and render lower quality images when wide open. There is the
option of raising ISO to gather more light. But resist this unless
absolutely necessary to keep images as clean as possible. Experiment
with your particular lens to find out what it is capable of.
In almost all occasions closing the aperture too much (higher F numbers)
will result in degraded images. Not only will not enough light be
gathered to keep foreground detail but image sharpness drops off quickly
as you approach the limit of your lens.
It does need to be mentioned that bolts that are "rain wrapped"
will need higher apertures to limit image blowout. Experience will
dictate the best compromise and has seen me go as high as F18 in one
particular storm such was the power of the bolts and the position
of the rain shafts.
- SHUTTER -
"leave her open!" This is of couse limited by ambient
light (such as cities etc), but the longer the shutter the better
chance of capturing the strikes. Murpheys law dictates that the best
bolts will always occur when the shutter is closed so the more time
open the better. I usually close the shutter after capturing one bolt
or quick repeating sequence of bolts. Too many strikes in the one
frame can look fake. This is my own personal preference. Have your
image preview switched on so that on finishing the shot you can review
the taken pic and decide whether or not to "keep or delete".
yes this does take a millisecond of time, but its quicker to do this
that to have to swap memory cards at a critical moment because of
a card full of crap pics.
- FOCAL LENGTH - It
is rare to use focal lengths below 24mm. (on a 1.5 crop DSLR) If you
are then the storm is mighty close and you should be under cover!
In general between 30 and 50mm is ideal. Of course this all depends
on your and the storms location and the composition elements of the
picture. I have shot storms from 18-300mm, but my best are between
the aforementioned focal lengths. (**nb this is for the 1.5 crop sensor
forget to experiment to find your camera and lens combo's best
performing setting. On digital setups this is free!
Reading the storm is important. For lightning you
need to be in front of the storm to avoid rainfall and catch the clear
air strikes. There are oportunities at the back edge but in my experience
here in my home state of South Australia the front gives the best bolts.
So watch the storm and direction of travel. It is possible to anticipate
where lightning activity should occur most by picking the areas of greatest
instability. Rain shafts often are an indicator of this. Try to zoom
(set focal length) to encompass the instability completely so the bolts
fill the frame as much as possible.
This is the hardest bit really and is also the bit you have the least
control over. Its also the part of the challenge that is so addictive!
Local knowledge goes a long way as storms will often follow well trodden
to next page for some more hints and examples.