Tyson V. Rininger's Blog

TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!

How to capture stunning lightning photos

Lightning is one of the most unpredictable and awe inspiring creations of nature one can photograph, but it can be the most unforgiving and dangerous as well.

In the blink of an eye, Nature can turn the night skies into day. Just in case you were blinking, she’ll let you know of her powers with an ominous roar. Everyone is affected by lightning in some way, be it the child who can’t be pried from the windowsill or the little brother stuck under the bed. Perhaps it is the mother consoling her 6-year-old daughter after the power was knocked out or the firefighter on his way to a new brush fire.

Living in California, not many of these storms arise, but when they do, their power and animated life become the talk of the town the next morning. The best part of these mysterious creations is that no one is able to agree on how those spectacular bolts looked. Some say they streaked across the sky from one cloud to another. Others insist these strings of light rose from the ground disappearing into the clouds and then there are those who simply saw the clouds light up and nothing more. I have to agree with all of them.

Lightning appears as a series of jagged bolts. Despite the desire to use a high ISO, lightning is bright and the details are fine. Use a low ISO whenever possible.

Lightning bolts are remembered as bright streaks of jagged light yet, there is so much more to them as only a photograph could show. Working in a camera store for many years, I see numerous valiant efforts in trying to capture lightning on film, but few know how.

In the world of photography, lightning is unique. On any given morning, you can rise before the sun and choose to photograph a flower that blooms this time of year. Or perhaps, try to capture the morning mist rising from the pond nearby, for the fourteenth time. With very few exceptions, can you decide to photograph lightning when you feel like it. It just happens. Be ready. Be prepared. Be smart.

I think back to one particular time when I was photographing lightning and always laugh at the memory. There I was, standing on the shore of the Elkhorn Slough, a marshy estuary half way between Monterey and Santa Cruz, California. I had my trusty aluminum tripod with my camera atop and cable release in hand. The cell phone rings, “You getting all this?” asks a friend. Not only should I have been struck by lightning – repeatedly, but also my odds of winning the lottery must have improved ten fold.

Safety

Rule #1 (through however many you can think of): Never stand next to a large body of water surrounded by trees grasping an aluminum ‘lightning rod’ while talking on a cell phone during a thunder storm. Since that time, I have been turned down by six life insurance providers and have undergone intense mental studies. I’m better now.

Wooden tripods have become my best friends along with lengthy cable releases. No longer do I wear steel-toed shoes or metal belt buckles. Both of those are good conductors of electricity. They may not be the cause of getting struck, but heaven forbid that should happen, any metal on the body might result in serious additional burns. I have also learned to sit in the truck when photographing. The rubber tires prevent the vehicle from becoming a direct conductor to the ground. Most importantly, no matter how strong the desire may be to keep dry, never stand beneath a tree. Besides, the branches will get the way of an otherwise great photograph.

These are just some of the tips I have learned to adhere to over time without becoming too paranoid. Although some may say that I’m the first to take a risk in an effort to obtain that perfect photo, I’ll never lose sight of the fact that I’m still around to do so.

So let’s get to the fun stuff already!!!

Despite the advent of the digital camera, long exposure images still don’t fair too well with digital. As the length of exposure increases, so does a phenomenon known as ‘noise’. Noise is similar to grain in film, thus more noise would be akin to a higher ISO or more grain. Because lightning requires rather lengthy exposures, I still prefer to use film over digital. Additionally with most digital cameras, the elements presented during a lightning storm aren’t too friendly to digital cameras versus the older manual film cameras.

Although lightning itself is a beautiful thing, be aware of your foregrounds. Not only do you want to keep power poles and power lines out of your photos, you may want to include some things like your car or distinct trees, etc.

Film

Film has always remained a personal preference. Some are loyal to only one type, while others choose a plethora of styles. If black and white is your forte, Ilford’s Pan F 50 would be a good choice. This film has an incredibly fine grain structure as well as extreme contrast values. When it comes to color, the Fuji Velvia rated at ISO 50, Fuji Provia 100F and Kodak’s E100 VS can produce vibrant colors beyond what we can see with the naked eye. Plus, these films are incredibly fine-grained.

With few exceptions, I have managed to stay away from print films since most come out murky or difficult to control as far as detail is concerned.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Reciprocity characteristics are what enable film to record lightning in such vivid colors. These characteristics vary by film type, so try ’em all ’til ya find one you like.

Equipment

You’ve probably taken a moment to browse through the photos to see if this article was worth your time. If you’ve made it this far, I think it’s safe to assume that you too would like to create images like these. Sorry, won’t happen. You see that’s what makes lightning such a thrill to photograph. We’ve all seen the clichés, the poppy field, Half Dome and those two white wooden lawn chairs beneath the bent palm tree in the Bahamas. Instantly, pictures came to mind, huh? But, when you think of lightning, is there any one photo that you can think of? Probably not. Well here’s your chance to break away from the clichés.

First, you need a camera. In my opinion, there are only two types that will work in the 35mm size. A completely manual camera such as the venerable Pentax K1000, Ricoh KR-5 series or the Nikon FM-10 or, second, a professional weather resistant SLR like the higher end Canons or Nikons combined with their pro lenses.

Why? When there is lightning, generally, there is rain. In the older manual cameras, there is very little circuitry to be ruined by the weather. This, of course, does not guarantee your camera is invincible. If you happen to be in an area that receives 8 inches of rain in 14.3 seconds, no warranty will cover the removal of fish between the optics of your lens. However, if you are cautious about the amount of elements your equipment is exposed to, you should have no problems enjoying the thrill of photographing lightning again and again.

Taken from a mechanical Hasselblad 500C/M with a 80mm 2.8. Mechanical cameras work wonderfully in the field as weather has little effect on their ability to function.

No matter whom you talk to in the photo industry, they will tell you water is bad. They are 100% correct. If you can avoid water, do so. If you can’t avoid water, remember to wipe down your equipment thoroughly and immediately. I have tried everything to protect my equipment by using Zip Lock bags to trash bags, all of which caused more hassles than it was worth. Which brings us to the professional line up.

I personally use Canon’s EOS-1V due to its resilience against the elements, and a 70-200 f/2.8 for the same reason. Of course, what idiot would ever think of leaving that type of outfit in the rain? Need I refer back to the ‘lightning rod’ incident? O.K., it was an accident. I left it on the roof of my truck overnight after unloading equipment. After all, it’s not supposed to rain in California, right? In the morning, the camera performed flawlessly, and to this day, it has seen many storms and braved them successfully. Kudos to Canon. One major reason for using the 70-200 2.8 instead of a wider lens, is the enormous lens hood that protects the front element from any water that may ultimately distort the image.

In the medium format realm, I use a Hasselblad 500C/M with either a 50mm or an 80mm lens. This camera serves the same purpose as the mechanical 35mm in that it has no circuitry. The reasoning for the choice of lenses is that I am already using a slight telephoto on the 35mm set up. This gives me an opportunity to capture the textured sky as the bolts light up the clouds above. Also, the sharp Carl Zeiss lenses enable me to crop tighter if need be. The only downside is the lack of protection on the front element from water.

As far as 4×5 goes, have a blast. I never use mine in the rain simply because there are too many entrances for the water to reach the film. When it is not raining, I prefer either a 90mm or a 150mm. Basically the same as medium format. Just remember to mark your infinity focus point on the rails before you go out. Trying to find infinity in the dark is pretty difficult!

A final camera of choice that could suffice, if need be, would be the 35mm Pentax IQZoom 90WR, 38-90, all-weather point-and -shoot camera, or it’s replacement, the IQZoom 105WR. Simply set the cameras at their widest angle and attach a C-clamp enabling the shutter to remain depressed. Most of the Pentax line of point-and-shoot cameras have ‘bulb’ capability however, there is nothing to keep water from hitting the front lens element. This may result in slightly distorted images.

The use of filters over a series of time during one exposure can result in a more colorful scene. Here a standard exposure was made with no filter followed by use of a red #25 towards the end of the exposure resulting in two different colored lightning strikes.

Regardless of what camera system you choose it must have a bulb setting and shutter release capability. Other necessities include a wooden tripod and a fairly long shutter release. Optional items you may want to consider bringing with you would be an assortment of filters, flashlight, umbrella, radio and even a chair if your vehicle isn’t around.

Why do I need a chair? Photographing lightning will probably be the easiest thing you’ve ever done. Here’s the secret. Set up your camera in the direction of the cell that is producing the most ruckus. You may have to wait for a couple of bolts to appear before you can determine this. For 100 ISO film, set your aperture to F/8, open the shutter on the ‘bulb’ or ‘B’ mode, lock the shutter release to keep the shutter open, then go inside and hunt for your favorite episode of ‘West Wing’. It’s that simple.

Unless you live near a city where the sky is illuminated by artificial light, you should be able to keep your shutter open for five minutes or more. But wouldn’t more than one bolt of lightning overexpose my picture? Imagine placing your camera in a pitch-black closet. No matter how long you keep the shutter open, the camera will only continue to record darkness which is, well, black. Now imagine you’ve just popped the flash. Besides being blind and doing something only I would do, you have also enabled the surrounding area to become bright enough to record an image on film.

Lightning is the same way, only more centralized. The bolts provide the fill in light necessary to recording the image, only the emanating light from the bolts are more controlled than a haphazard flash bulb. However, nature does provide her form of haphazard flashes. If the sky should light up repeatedly without bolts of lightning, you do run the risk of overexposing the image. After all, the bolts are what provide the impact for a successful photo. The more bolts that can be recorded on film, the more impact the photo will bring.

This is where the chair comes in. Have a seat. Enjoy.

What looks like Mars, is actually the use of multiple filters. When using filters during a single exposure, remember to carefully adjust your aperture to compensate for each filter's density factor.

Cool Tricks

Now that you’re a pro at shooting lightning, try throwing some curves into play. Remember those filters? Use ’em. Open your lens one half stop and stick that yellow in front. Wait a couple a bolts then open your lens an additional two and a half stops and put that #25 red in front. Next, try an #80A blue, then close it one stop and try a green. You could go on forever! All that work for one frame of film. When you get your photos back, they should resemble the surface of some unknown planet with multicolored streaks of lightning. Just remember to compensate your aperture for the varying densities of the filters.

Be creative

Set up your vehicle in front of the camera with you posing. The lightning in the background should make for some pretty killer business cards.

Yet another trick! Say you’ve just finished shooting a great lightning storm with a medium format or large format camera. Unfortunately, the cell causing most of the lightning moved way over to the right.Rather than chucking the image, cut it! Take out the scissors and cut it down to the next frame size. Large format becomes medium format and medium format becomes 35mm. No one can predict where the lightning is going to strike, but by using this method, you have a second chance to compose the image the way you want it to be.

While lightning deserves respect, it's important to remember there are no rules. Experiment and have fun!

Common sense

As statistics try to point out, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than you have of winning the lottery. Although I personally have nothing to back this up, I have heard rumors of people winning the lottery. This brings me to the conclusion that, for one, statistics suck, and two, those of us who ignore common sense are quickly reminded of who is in charge (pun intended).
Almost all of the images presented were photographed during the early morning hours of an ironic, 9/9/99, storm in Central California. The last storm of comparison, in that area, occurred over eighteen years prior.

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