Just chock full of analogies

Some days back, I made an offhand note about trying to get some lightning pics, and decided the revisit the subject (and springboard from it) for a new post. Lest I give you the wrong impression, no, the image above isn’t recent, but actually a composite of two frames, taken minutes apart, from Florida a few years ago.

Lightning photography is a tricky thing. In theory, it’s actually not hard. The idea of shots like this is, you find a storm and lock the shutter open – this is what the “B” setting of the camera is for. It stands for, believe it or not, “Bulb,” which is how, 540 years ago, you could hold the shutter open as long as you wanted (I’m being facetious with that number – it’s a little less than 400 years.) Anyway, you open the shutter, and it stays open, exposing your film/sensor until you close it again. This would make a terrible mess of your image unless you a) use a tripod, and b) pick a dark area to be aimed at. Sometime while that shutter is open, however, lightning cooperatively strikes right inside your frame in a vivid manner, and you can then close your shutter with a nice photo of lightning all captured inside.

Yeah right. All photography is easy, you just point the camera and click! The devil, of course, is in the details. A storm that gives you a good view of its approach, or better its retreat, is the first part. The second part is it doing this at night, when conditions are dark enough to leave the shutter open for a while. Having some kind of landscape that gives you an unimpeded view of the storm and some foreground interest helps a lot, especially foreground interest that stands up under the dark conditions.

Then, you make a best guess as to where the lightning will strike, and wait. Most fronts are fairly wide and present a large area for lightning to appear within. So it’s hard to frame the image the way you might for most other subjects, and shooting with a wider angle lens provides the best chances, unless you get really lucky and have a small, active thunderhead that you can zoom in on – I’ve had this happen once, and it can be seen in the header images eventually (refresh the page for a new one.) The thing is, a wider angle lens makes everything appear smaller, which can reduce the dramatic impact of the lightning bolt itself, especially if you’re maintaining a safe distance from the storm.

That’s a crucial bit, by the way. Not only keeping yourself and your equipment out of the rain, but too often when attempting this your best vantage point is out in the open. Lightning can strike well ahead of the apparent front, so protecting yourself should be at the front of your mind, and I heartily recommend trying for retreating storms.

Then, of course, there’s the lightning strikes themselves. Cloud-to-cloud strikes, inner-cloud strikes, weak wandering bolts – these are all common and can expose your frame while not giving you anything photogenic. A few inner-cloud strikes can dramatically light up the puffy thunderheads, and I’ve done plenty of shots like this, but they’re not the same as a nice clear bolt. Too many things like this mean that, if you leave the shutter open to wait for the nice bolt, you end up with far too much light in the sky and everything becomes kind of muddy. Remember that the clouds are often moving while your shutter is open, so repeated inner-cloud strikes don’t provide nice detail from the clouds, but instead overlaps them and smears details together. If you’ve had three bright inner-cloud strikes without a clear bolt, you’re going to have too much light and should simply close the shutter and skip that frame for a new one.

You would think that timing a strike would be completely random, but here’s something funny: in my experience, lightning actually follows a loose timing pattern. When you see a bright bolt, start counting until you see the next one in the same area, and use this as a baseline. Then, about ten seconds before you reach that count again, open the shutter and wait. Lightning seems to follow a pattern of building the charge, and this rough timing gives a little bit of an edge. I said “in the same area” above because different portions of a front can have their own timing – a bright strike here every forty seconds, a weaker strike over there every thirty, and so on. I’ve even seen alternating weak and strong strikes. It’s not guaranteed, but I’ve seen this pattern too often not to use it anymore.

Camera settings are a hard thing to recommend, because they depend on your foreground subject and lighting, as well as how active the storm is. This is a photo subject that digital helps with, because you can review a rough idea of your results (I have yet to see a preview LCD that gives an accurate rendition of exposure.) As a starting point, I can say ISO 100 (for color rendition and detail,) aperture set at f8. Lightning strikes are brief enough to act as a strobe and light up your landscape at times, but this is difficult to count on. A strike that gives your foreground enough light will blow the bolt itself out into low detail most times, which is why reflective water works pretty well – you’ll notice in the pic above, not much land detail has been captured. The storm itself, though appearing over the land, is actually miles beyond the narrow barrier islands that make up the land in my composition, so they’re actually backlit. All of the cloud illumination comes from within, but a hint of it, at upper right, actually comes from a full moon making an appearance – you can even make out a couple of stars above the clouds. The orange glow in the upper right corner is from low-lying clouds reflecting the city lights out of the frame.

Location, of course, can help a lot. Florida is the world leader in lightning, because of its unique weather conditions as a narrow peninsula with warm air masses driven across from the gulf. In summer, violent thunderstorms late in the day are very common. We’re starting to see this same trend here in NC this summer, but the land is not as flat and the storm fronts not as distinct, which means so far, I’ve not gotten a decent shot at one recently. Lakes can provide a nice setting and good view of the storm, but this also puts you and your tripod out in open space, making you more of a target for a strike. Be careful. Scouting out areas ahead of time, with the knowledge of how most storms move through your area, can only help – this applies to sunrise/sunset pics as well. Do you think most dramatic pics from the pros just happen? Chances are, they spotted the conditions for the image long before they came back at the right time to capture the pic with that kind of light.

But, given all these tricks, it is still (pardon the expression) hit-or-miss. And this is where the analogies come in, because all of nature photography is like this. You can do your best with knowing the conditions and preparing ahead of time, and knowing habits or tendencies, and knowing what settings it can take to get the best results. And a lot of your success will still be dependent on that lightning strike, the moment of drama that you capture in an instant. You increase your chances by knowing as much as you can, but you’re still subject to random factors that can make a photo expedition virtually fruitless (I have thrown away more failed lightning frames than I can count, to say nothing of all of the other subjects I chase.) The best way of dealing with this is to let it roll off your back and try again later. You’ll get another chance, and that time, you’ll have the experience you gained through failure. Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can, though – you won’t succeed without trying.