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Photographing Lightning (updated 16-07-08)

The quick and dirty guide to night time lightning photography. Page 1

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I have been asked on numerous occasions how I get photo's like this......

BOOM - multi CG

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........

The Gear

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 passionate stormchaser)
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.

The nikon D70

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).

A warning!

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) equipment.

The settings

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 needed. THIS 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.
  • MANUAL MODE - The key. using this setting allows full control over shutter and aperture
  • 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 OFF autofocus!

Autofocus and infinity

manual setting

DON'T FORGET!! Switch off Autofocus and manually set focus to infinity!

**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.

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 best.
    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 DSLR's)
camera settings on the D70
Don't forget to experiment to find your camera and lens combo's best performing setting. On digital setups this is free!

The Storm

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 "storm" paths.

Move to next page for some more hints and examples.



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