I have always been fascinated by natural extremes. So when the opportunity to go and shoot a volcano, thunderstorm, hurricane or tornado presents itself I can be ready to go at a moments notice. My natural extremes footage has been used in feature films, natural history programmes, TV commercials and I expect there is a good chance that you will have seen some of it somewhere at some point. I’ve been shooting severe weather for over 25 years, so know how to stay safe in bad weather.
With the UK set to see a couple of days of strong and severe thunderstorms I thought I would put together a very quick guide to shooting lightning with both stills cameras and video cameras. Your first issue will be finding somewhere dry to shoot from, you don’t want rain on your camera or lens. You also do need to consider safety. Lightning is dangerous, it can strike many miles from a thunderstorm. If you can hear thunder you are in the strike risk area, so do take care. One of the safest places to be in a thunderstorm is inside a car. If the car is struck the electricity will pass through the body of the car and not through the occupants, before jumping from the underside of the car to the ground. If you are shooting from a car stay inside the car, don’t sit with your feet out of the door or any part of you touching the ground. Don’t sit in the car while holding on to a camera on a tripod outside the car. Don’t stand under trees, they can explode when struck by lightning, don’t stand on the very top of a hill. Use your common sense.
For either stills or video you’re really going to want to use a tripod to get the very best results. As you often get strong winds around thunderstorms you want a good stable tripod. If it is windy keep a close eye on the camera and tripod, you don’t want it blown over by a strong gust of wind.
A wide angle lens will increase your chances of getting a lightning bolt in your shot, but the wider the shot the less detail you will see in the lightning bolt. You can always crop in to a wide shot a bit if it’s too wide. I like to have something in the foreground to give some interest to the image, but try to avoid too many obstructions to the skyline as these will block your view of the lightning.
This is probably the easiest for still photos, but it has many challenges. One is focus as it’s hard to focus on a brief flash of lightning. You will need to use manual focus, autofocus will not work. Start by focussing on a very distant object, perhaps lights on the horizon, the moon, stars or any other VERY distant object, preferably a mile or more away. Then check and double check your focus. Lightning is very fine and if it’s out of focus it will ruin the shot. If you don’t have anything to focus on set the lens to infinity, the sideways “8” symbol is infinity and there will normally be a line to mark the point of infinity focus. Infinity is often NOT at the very end of the lenses focus travel so check for the proper infinity mark. By the way, take a torch/flashlight if your going out in the dark!
STILL PHOTO’s or DSLR AT NIGHT:
You will need to use a tripod. If you have a cable release or other electronic shutter release use it to trigger the camera to prevent shaking the camera as you will need to use a long exposure. As you will be using a long exposure you want to use a low ISO. I typically use 200ISO with an exposure of between 10 and 30 seconds depending on the frequency of the lightning and how bright the surrounding area is. If you are in a town or city with lots of street light you will probably need to use a shorter exposure, maybe 10 to 15 seconds. Out in the countryside you might be able to use 20 to 30 seconds. For the aperture you don’t want super shallow depth of field as this will show up any focus errors, so don’t use your lens wide open. I normally use somewhere around f4 to f8, so f5.6 is probably a good starting point. Take some test shots and check that you are not over exposed.
As a starting point try: 200ISO, f5.6, 10 second exposures, manual focus.
Once the camera is set, it simply a case of snapping away taking pictures until you get lucky and capture one in the frame. It takes a bit of luck and patience, but don’t give up too soon, just keep snapping away. You can just delete all the no good shots later.
DAY and NIGHT VIDEO:
If your camcorder has a CMOS sensor (as most do these days) you want to use the slowest shutter speed that you can get away with. If you can control the shutter manually turn it off or reduce it to 1/25 or 1/30. This will reduce the likelihood of you getting lightning bolts that only go half way down the screen, an effect know as “rolling shutter” or “flash band”. If shooting after dark, if you have a camera with full manual control then instead of shooting at the usual 24, 25 or 30 frames per second, consider shooting at half of this, perhaps at 12, 12.5 or 15 frames per second (S&Q motion, slow shutter etc), again with the shutter set to OFF. While this does mean that the motion in your final video will be sped up it almost guarantees that you won’t get any rolling shutter issues. You will need to have the camera on a tripod if doing this to prevent excessive image blur from movement of the camera. The slightly sped up video can also give the pleasing (but fake) impression that the lightning is more frequent than it really is making your shots more dramtic. If you don’t want this simply play the video back at half speed.
STILL PHOTOS DURING THE DAY:
This is really tough unless you have special equipment. You can’t use a long exposure as you would at night because the bright daytime light will wash out the lightning bolts.
Very often a lightning bolt is made up of several flashes in rapid succession. If you do have fast enough reactions and a fast enough camera, you can get the secondary flashes. You will need to use manual focus and manual exposure so there isn’t a delay while the camera thinks about focus and exposure which delays the release of the shutter. Use a tripod with a cable release or remote shutter and use a longish exposure, 1/30th or 1/15th as there can be up to 1/10th of a second delay between flashes and there could be multiple flashes, you don’t want too fast a shutter speed. Set your focus on a very distant object, use a low ISO, again I typically use 100 or 200 ISO. Shoot a couple of test images and set the aperture so that you have a very slightly underexposed shot, may -1EV to -1.5EV, the slightly darker overall image will help the bright lightning show up better. Then it’s just a case of pointing the camera at the storm on a tripod, with your finger on the trigger and try to hit that shutter release as soon as you see any lightning. I find it’s better to not look through the viewfinder, just look in the direction the camera is pointed. You may be lucky, maybe not, a lot will depend on the type of lightning in the storm and your reaction speed. A better way is to use a dedicated lightning trigger such as a Patchmaster: http://www.fotokonijnenberg.nl/patchmaster. This will trigger the camera electronically if it detects any lightning. It’s MUCH faster and can react much quicker than any human, but it still has some lag time so even a lightning trigger won’t capture every bolt.
A final daytime method is to use an adaptation of the night time DSLR method. If you add a strong ND filter a small aperture around f16 and use a low ISO you may be able to get an acceptable long exposure during daytime, perhaps a couple of seconds. Then set the camera to take photo’s continuously (so when you hold the shutter button down the camera will take one photo after another). By locking down a remote shutter release the camera will take a continuous stream of photos with only a very minimal gap between each picture taken. So you have a high likely hood of capturing any lightning bolts, but you will also end up with a lot of pictures that don’t have any lightning in them. You can either discard these empty frames or use all the frames to create a time-lapse video of the storm.
Have fun, stay safe.
If you find the guide useful, please consider buying me a beer or a coffee.
I’m off to Arizona on Thursday for a long weekend to shoot the monsoon thunderstorms. I had postponed this trip from earlier in the month when the weather just wasn’t right. This tim around the forecast is really good (for storms that is). I will be shooting with my PDW-700 and my EX1. I will also be giving the Nanoflash a shake down making good use of the cache function to capture what I hope will be some great lightning storms.?Anyone want to join me? I have a couple of spare seats in the car and motel rooms are peanuts.