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Photographing Storms and Lightning

Something I've tried and failed to successfully capture is lightning during storms - for those that have - how did you do it?
7 years ago, June 12th 2008 No: 1 Msg: #38293  
B Posts: 5,137
I spent a cold wet night in Koh Phangan a few years ago with a tripod, umbrella and my camera trying to capture the masses of forked lightning that was seemingly everywhere.

Unfortunately the results were either;

Completely flooded out - just white everywhere.

Completely black - nothing much at all.

I think I'd tried every obvious settings; from low ISO long shutter speeds, to high ISO short shutter speeds... what was I missing?

How did Cumberland Sausage do it?
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7 years ago, June 12th 2008 No: 2 Msg: #38327  
I use the bulb setting--the shutter stays open as long as long as I'm holding down the button. But this doesn't really work unless you use a cable release so you're not touching the camera to hold down the button. You want the night sky to be a little bit underexposed without lightning, so the lightning doesn't overexpose it (overexposed lightning sometimes just lights up the whole sky in a cool lavender colour, but it's not the desired effect). I usually set the ISO as low as possible, and the f-stop as large as possible. Then I just sit, and hold down the cable release for about a second or two--unless I get a flash of lightning, in which case the photo is done.

I spent one evening last year photographing a storm from the comfort of my apartment, with the sliding doors to the balcony thrown wide open but me and my camera inside. I think I took about 500 photos to get one good shot. I've double-checked the exif data, and my exposure was 1 second, f-stop was 22, ISO was 100. It was about two hours before sunset, but the storm was intense enough to darken the sky for photos.

The more lightning there is, the better the chances of getting a good shot. In some really wicked storms, I think it's possible to get multiple flashes of lightning in one shot. I think if I had been somewhere a bit more exposed, with more sky to fit into the frame, I would have had more shots.

The cool thing when you actually get one, is that you see so much detail that the eye misses in the single bright flash. The flash of lightning I saw only had one branch on it, but the camera captured several more! Reply to this

7 years ago, June 12th 2008 No: 3 Msg: #38329  

Well, there was a lot of luck.

Matt and I were on an Exodus overland truck. After an afternoon playing volleyball in the pool by the side of the hippo and croc-infested Luangwe River we saw a storm whipping up. We both rushed to get our tripods and cameras and setup on the veranda. I set lowest ISO, aperture priority and the narrowest aperture (f22 upwards, depending on the lense). Once I had a 30s exposure I just kept pointing the camera at the lightning and clicking away.

The lightning was actually quite a long way away so a mid-range telephoto was needed. Unfortunately it also covered the whole sky - so I actually got lightning in the frame in a tiny percentage of the shots I took. This was one of the first and easily the best - in the other frames in which I captured lightning it wasn't as elegant or dramatic as this.

I had in-camera noise reduction enabled on my camera which meant every 30s exposure actually took 1 minute which was frustrating but I didn't have the confidence or experience to turn it off.

I stood there for more than an hour, repeatedly pressing the shutter, as the storm raged around me. Matt, alas, had to leave early as he was on cook duty. He got better Hippo photos though.

Extrapolating from this experience, you need a camera with a bulb (B) setting allowing more than 30s exposure and a cable or wireless release. I'm not sure if my EOS 20D had a B setting but if it did I had no way to control it - I was firing the shutter with the countdown timer.

There's a series of stunning postcards of table mountain with lightning shots - one here ...


I can only think these were taken with exposures of several minutes, which may mean a narrower aperture than many cheaper DSLR lenses will offer, although possibly not. From memory this shot will have been taken with a wide angle lens so no need to chase the lightning around the sky - just sit and wait. Not sure if you can do any sensible exposure calculation when it's that dark - maybe you can using a light meter - but at that point every stop exposure represents such a long time you'd probably get decent results just guessing.

Similar thing with fireworks really, although I've found shorter exposures can work well in that case and longer exposures tend to burn out as there are too many fireworks in the same place.

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7 years ago, August 31st 2008 No: 4 Msg: #47356  

7 years ago, October 1st 2008 No: 5 Msg: #50441  

Don't bother trying to capture lightening in rain or fog, because the refraction from the rain or moisture will white you out every time.

If it's clear, an easy way to do it is to set the ISO to 50 (or 100 if you can't do 50), reduce the aperture to 1/16 or less, and experiment with holding the shutter down through one, two, or three lightening strikes to test the exposure.

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6 years ago, May 29th 2009 No: 6 Msg: #74351  
B Posts: 137
Kicking an old thread in the side... I've only attempted to capture lightning twice. Once was in my teenage years when I used the bulb mode on my old Konica and wasted most of a 24-roll and managing to get nothing at all, since the strikes mainly came in between shots or as mentioned above just drowned in excessive daylight.

Two years ago I did an improvised experiment from my hotel room in Hong Kong as a storm was rolling in. This was just before I converted to digital so i spent the last frames on my 36-roll and they were mildly successful to say the least. I again used the bulb mode and a wide angle lens and then patched a string of unremarkable 20 second shots together, when linked they become an amusing document of sorts.

Next time I'll bite the bullet and go outdoors, use a proper tripod and refrain from shooting through a window (nice curtains dude...) Reply to this

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