I was just about to go to bed when I heard the soft rumbling, and went outside to note the flashes in the sky, from all directions that could be called, “west.” I came back in and pulled up this lovely site I stumbled across, a real-time lightning map. From that, I could see the bulk of activity was west-southwest of us, and appeared like it would pass to the south. So I loaded up the equipment and headed to Jordan Lake, which is one of the few locations close by with a wide-open view in a number of directions, as well as foreground elements that can be exploited at times.
I’ve said it before, numerous times, but lightning photography can be challenging. Where and when the bolts will appear is, of course, wildly variable, and getting a good setting, preferably with some foreground interest, lined up with the active part of a storm is also tricky. And then there’s the rain, which naturally you won’t want your equipment in even if you’re cool with it yourself. It was raining hard enough that I not only was shooting out of the open side door of the van, but I had to back up a bit to keep the wind from blowing rain onto the camera. In the image above, you can see the edges of the van intruding into the photo, but one other thing which I would have liked to have occurred more often: a bright strike had occurred behind me, illuminating the foreground trees just enough to give them a little color and distinction beyond ‘silhouette.’ Too bad that’s the only thing that image has going for it. Both of these have barely visible bolts within them, but well off to the side, small and undramatic. That happens a lot too, but I have even more frames with just cloud glow, no visible lightning at all.
By the way, I feel the need to point out that it was full dark all during these frames – the light is all produced by the lightning, and when I didn’t capture enough flashes, the frames were quite dark. These were facing north, where I’d just come from and where the brunt of the storm had passed – The Girlfriend informed me that it pretty much blew straight through the neighborhood, and sleep was out of the question. So much for that prediction.
However, seeing which way the wind was blowing (sorry,) I had switched positions, and these are now facing east after the storm had passed. The foreground is better, and I captured a few distinct bolts within the frame, even though most of what I was seeing were still cloud flashes. This is at 19mm and f6.3 to f8, ISO 250, exposure times varying – I was judging how long to have the shutter open by how many flashes occurred, and how bright they were. There are really no good guidelines for this, except that if you’ve captured three bright flashes, close the shutter and try again. It’s easy to super-expose the sky and lose any of the cloud detail that might have been there, plus you have to recognize that the clouds are moving while the shutter is open, which won’t show up unless they’re illuminated by lightning enough times, in which case you might overlay several different positions atop one another and muddy them out.
Sometimes, however, you know exactly when to close the shutter.
This isn’t half as close as it appears, and certainly did not hit that tree – the strike was actually kilometers away, and I barely heard a rumble of thunder from it. But this was what I’ve been after for a while: a distinct lightning bolt taking up a significant portion of the frame, with a worthwhile foreground element.
Except… it’s actually too centered. I mean, just a little off to one side or the other, and it would have been so much better. This is full-frame, so I’ll play around with the cropping…
Also, if you look closely, you can see the evidence of raindrops on the lens, especially right under the island – thankfully they didn’t obscure the bolt. I’d been trying to keep the lens clear, but it was all up to the wind gusts. The camera, as I type this, is out of the bag and both are drying out – keeping a camera in a wet bag is a great way to drive humidity deep within, not a good thing.
Anyway, that was the start of my day. I’m probably not going to top this.
[While I’m on the subject, you should also check out the last storm I was shooting in, this past September.]