I have always been fascinated by lightning storms. I love the blindingly bright instant of each strike – and particularly love the patterns of each fork as it staggers its way across the sky towards civilisation and the Earth.

Capturing this beauty is a little more tricky than viewing it though. I currently live in Singapore, which has been reported in some sources as having the most lightning strikes of any country in the world. I do have a little moment of amusement when I see folk here trying to capture one of the many, many lightning strikes – by pointing their camera skyward, holding their breath and then pressing the shutter button as soon as they see a bolt, usually swinging their camera round to the strike area at the same time. The man (it’s always a man) then looks at their camera screen immediately, shakes his head and mutters under his breath, before repeating the process. Needless to say, he won’t get the shot with 10,000 or more attempts.

Lightning over the Bay

A purple tinged lightning bolt is reflected in the water of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

The trick is to accept that you cannot react faster than lightning. Don’t try to capture it when it strikes; you have to be aware of where it will strike, and then shoot the empty space in anticipation of the bolt.

This is where a camera with a manual mode is vital. Depending on how dark your scene is, you need to close your aperture down as small as you can get away with (high f-number), and leave your shutter open for as long as you can get away with. A tripod and a remote shutter release cable will be your bestest friends here. Once you’ve got the right combination of aperture and shutter speed (a minimum of 5 seconds, but preferably 30 seconds if it’s dark enough) you just need to compose the shot and fire away on continuous mode until you see a strike within your frame. As soon as you get a strike within your shot, release the shutter and review the image. If you need to recompose or re-expose, do so and repeat. Then, it’s very much a case of luck – but as all photographers know: you have to make your own luck, and without the preparation and patience, you won’t get the shot.

The shot above, of the lightning strike over Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, was captured after around 15 minutes of watching two storms approach from opposite directions. The tripod was setup on the deck of a small boat on which I slept for 3 days, and though the seas were calm and flat, there was still enough motion to prevent me from keeping the shutter open for long periods – even with the tripod. I watched the storms and deduced that most of the strikes were taking place over an area spanning roughly 90 degrees. So, using a wide angle lens to cover as much sky as possible, I pointed in that direction and simply shot frame after frame until I got lucky.

Lightning close by

A bolt of lightning strikes the apartment block opposite, clearly visible at close range.

This shot took around 5 minutes to capture, and was taken from my living room as I ate my dinner. With a minute or two to set the correct exposure (aperture and shutter speed combined), I simply munched on my pasta and kept an eye towards where my camera was pointed as my camera did the hard work of continuing to fire from my $20 remote cable. When I saw a strike that was within frame, I stopped and checked and saw I’d hit lucky with this bolt appearing to hit the apex of the block opposite mine. Had I bothered to remove the mosquito net from the window I may even have a shot worth tidying up and selling – such is the clarity and closeness of the lightning.

The point is, you will never be able to predict, control or react to lightning. So don’t bother. Notice where most of the strikes are happening, set up for that zone and let your camera fire away. Sooner or later you will capture a strike, and if you’ve planned your composition and exposure, it will be a clear and useable shot! My shots here were taken purely as afterthoughts, and without much time spent at all – so if I can do this and eat pasta at the same time, you can do this and capture a stunning landscape too, without much extra thought.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. […] Photographing Lightning (kpburgess.wordpress.com) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s