Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Storm Chasing part 4.

This is my 4th and final part of this series on storm chasing. I was undecided on what to cover, until a friend of Andy's and I were talking about our enjoyment of seeing and taking pictures of lightning. In part four I will try to cover the basic photography technique required to take good lightning pictures. I will cover both daytime and nighttime techniques along with some equipment ideas. Taking pictures of lightning is a challenge. However, with a little practice you will be shooting like a pro. You always see lightning when you chase. You will at times find you caught a lightning bolt by accident. Sometimes they will turn out great. However, most of the time they will be lacking the emotion you were feeling. It actually take a lot of planning to get the perfect lightning shot. I will try to convey what you need to know to have picture worth framing. Because, lightning always makes for a shockingly good picture. Sorry, I know...bad pun...well nobody is perfect. Before I get started, I will answer the question I posed in part 3. Who was the first american storm chaser? That would be Benjamin  Franklin. In 1755, Franklin saw what he called a large whirlwind...after it had passed his location he gave chase.....therefore, he was the first person in America to record a storm chase. 


Shooting lightning can be dangerous if you're not careful. Lightning kills from 50 to 300 and injurers five times that number each year in the U.S. Generally, the smart thing to do when lightning is near is head to cover (though this is no guarantee) If you're taking lightning photos, you are doing the opposite, heading out into the path of the storm. Just because you're taking pictures doesn't mean you should take chances. So don't stand in an open field, stand on top of a hill, being near a fence, or stand next to a tall object. Normally I get back in my SUV if the lightning is getting close. There have been times I don't get out of the vehicle because I thought it was just too dangerous. I've had a few close calls including a time when my the hair stood straight up while sitting in the vehicle; the lightning missed the car by just a few feet. Lightning is very unpredictable, So always think safety and  never take unnecessary chances.

Good sites to go to for lightning safety.

National Lightning Safety Institute:

National Weather Service:

Equipment Selection
Any camera that has a bulb mode and gives you the ability to control ISO , Aperture,  and Focal Length settings  will do.
A  sturdy tripod
A cable release
A micro fiber lens rag (to wipe off water)
A flashlight.
The equipment you chose is strictly up to you. I use a Canon Digital Rebel T3i DSLR camera, Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5  lens, EF-S , 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, Canon RS60-E3 cable release, vanguard espod HD Tripod, 
Camera Selection
Digital Cameras:
The best camera for lightning is a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex ) with a 'bulb' shutter setting.
Point-and-shoot digital cameras can do a good job.  These don't have a bulb function. However, you can be set  them on a fixed long exposure setting, such as 10, 20 or even 30 second exposure intervals. If you can set your camera to its lowest ISO speed.
 Film Cameras:
I know some of you still use these. and that is fine....In fact many who take lightning pictures still prefer to use film. Film Cameras are more rugged and handle splashes of rain better than their digital cousins. I've never used a film camera. So, I can't give much advice in how to use them. However generally the SLR camera settings would be the same as those used for DSLR cameras, that is listed below.
I called a friend who uses an old SLR. He said the best type of film to use is 100 speed slide film. The kind he uses is FujiChrome. Any kind of film will catch lightning, but slide film gives the best picture quality.
Here is a site that sells FujiChrome slide film.
Lens Selection
Normally, wide angle lenses perform better when you're taking lightning pictures, because you can include more sky, so your chances of catching a lightning bolt is much better. I’ve found that I mostly take pictures of lightning using a focal length between 18mm to 100mm. with 18-55mm being the sweet spot.

Like I said earlier, You will need a good sturdy tripod, so you can take long exposure shots. However, Many times it's just too dangerous to get out of the car. when this happens you can place something on the dash to support the camera and lens. Then just hookup the cable release and your ready to go. You might have to use your windshield wipers, but don't worry most of the time your shutter speed will be slow enough that the wipers won't even show up in the picture.  
DSLR Settings
Noise Reduction:
If you're using a long exposure have one of these digital cameras that allows long exposure turn this setting off. If it's on the time between shots will be incredibility long.  
ISO Settings:
Always set your camera to its lowest ISO speed. You will be using a tripod so you don't have to worry about camera shake.  
Mirror Lockup and Timer:
Lock up the mirror so you minimize camera movements as much as possible  
When your shooting lightning pictures you should keep the aperture between f/5.6 and f/8.
Shoot RAW:
If you will be using  digital darkroom editing software like Photoshop, shooting in RAW gives you the most flexibility.
The exposure time will greatly depend on the light conditions.  
Set your lens on Manual Focus and focus for infinity.  
What Thunderstorms to pick for the best results
An isolated active thunderstorm is always a good choice.  Also squall lines , mesoscale convective systems (MCS) and of course supercell storms are also great candidates. Always avoid taking pictures if there is a lot of rain between you and the storm. Rainfall washes out the lightning and produces a very low contrast image.
Taking the shot
The best and most interesting lightning shots have part of the ground and other objects in it. I've been trying to keep a lot of the photography lingo out of this. However, I can't leave this out. You may have heard of the rule of  thirds; It is also popular amongst artists. It works like this:  Imaginary lines are drawn dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. You place important elements of your composition where these lines intersect. The rule is not always desirable for lightning pictures. I have a Rule of Sixth. It works the same as the other rule. For this to work you would frame the shot for something around 4/5ths or 5/6ths sky; this will make the picture much more dynamic. When you frame the scene you want to be on the lookout for power lines and tree branches, these could spoil the picture.  when shooting at night watch out for Streetlights and car headlights. They will make you cut your exposure time or cause glare.
You've found a good thunderstorm and you're in a safe spot. Now what? The first thing you do is study the storm. You want to pick the part of the storm that's producing the most lighting. When you've found it you set your ISO, secure your camera on the tripod or on the dash, frame the camera for the composition you want, set the aperture and shutter speed. It's always a good idea to take a few test shots to make sure you have the setting right. The settings will depend on the time of day or night. Nighttime shots are easier than daytime shots. I will show you some general settings that will give you a place to start.
Night Time Lightning Photography:
Taking pictures of lightning a night is fairly easy. Here are the basic steps.
 Set your camera on a tripod or on the dash of your car..
Don't forget to connect a cable shutter release to reduce camera movement.  If you don't have a shutter release you can try to use the camera timer.
Next you  focus at infinity and lock it in place.
 Set the shutter speed to bulb 'B' (this will keep the  shutter for as long as you hold it open)  If  you're not using a DSLR you will have to set the exposure time between 10 and 30 seconds.
Set the aperture somewhere  between F2.8 and F5.6. you will have to take a few test shots to get it right. I would not take the aperture much higher than 5.6; if you do you could overexpose the shot.
Frame the shot.
 As you're observing the storm you will notice some  lightning can last longer than others. Some of the cloud to ground (CG) lightning strikes only last for a fraction of a second, while CG can last for as long as 2 seconds.  it has flashed and gone). Other CG bolts strobe or pulse for anything up to 2 seconds. If you're fortunate enough to see an anvil crawler ( lightning that spreads across the cloud and sky) you will see these can last a few seconds.  If you  have the exposure to high you will blur the storm. Therefore if the storm is fairly close the exposure time should be 5 to 10 seconds and never longer than 15 seconds. If the storm is a fair way away then exposure time can between 20 seconds and 2 minutes.

                                                                 Taken in Texas

Late Afternoon or Early Morning (low daylight):
You would setup your camera and frame and compose the shot just like at nighttime.
 Set the shutter speed to 'B' if you want to control the length of the exposure, otherwise I recommend setting the speed to aperture priority setting if you have this. For a Canon DSLR it's called Av mode, for a Nikon it's called mode A. I'm not sure what it's called on the other DSLR's.
 Set the aperture higher than for night time I would say somewhere between  F5.6 - F16
 Frame the picture where the most lightning is occurring, or where the most spectacular clouds are.
 You can either wait for the lightning to occur then press the cable shutter release to open the shutter, or just press  the cable shutter release and hope you  have lighting flash fairly  quickly.
Daytime lightning photography:
Trying to capture lightning in the daytime can  be a challenge. There isn't much to tell you here, you have to react quickly and be pointing the camera in the right direction. Observe the lightning before you attempt any shots. if the bolts a quick (only lasting a fraction of a second) your reaction time won't be fast enough) However if the bolts last at least a second you may have a chance to capture a few.
You setup, frame, and compose the same way as always.
I would recommend you use the cameras light meter to find the exposure. Then if the lightning is over a five miles away drop one F stop, if the lightning is closer than that drop two stops.
you can also use continuous mode (taking shot after shot).  This work fine with a large memory card. However, with film not so much.
One other option:
Use a lightning trigger. These hook to the hot shoe and will catch most lightning, Lightning triggers react by sudden changes in light level. The problem is  it will trigger even if lightning is not in your camera's view. However, it will capture a lot of lightning bolts in the cameras field of view. They are expensive but you may think they're worth it.  I feel personal reaction (at daytime) is more at least as effective. At night, you won't need a trigger anyway.

Well that's about all there is to it. Just remember safety first when photographing lightning.


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