Hunting Lightning Storms
By Tobias Vogt
23 Oct 2008
(1) Know your region. Probably one of the most important points about Lightning Photography. Remember you might have to leave home late at night. So choose a few spots before. You want nice views as well as and interesting foreground and background. You want to see the impact point of the lightning stroke, so an elevated spot will be ideal. Avoid flat areas with trees covering the horizon or urban areas emitting a lot of light.
(2) Track the storm. Use your local online weather service to locate the frequency of lightning strokes. Most online services also provide movie sequences allowing you to estimate the direction of the storm and the time you have to reach your favorite location. Being there before the storm increases your changes to stay dry. You will get less speeding tickets as well.
3) Gear up. Before you leave home grab your camera, a 35 to 100 mm lens and - most important - your tripod. Tripod! Dealing with extremely long exposure times, you will be lost without one. For longer sessions you might want to have your IPod as well. Richard Strauss goes well with an approaching thunderstorm.
(4) Set your camera. Do it yourself. Set manual focus to infinity. Choose aperture between 8 and 11. Set ISO to the lowest setting and disable automatic ISO. Shooting in RAW will allow easy white balance control in your dry, warm home. Using a remote control avoids vibrations when pressing the shutter button.
(5) The longer, the better. At least true for your exposure time of choice. It increases your chance to actually catch a lightning stroke. Yes, it is all about chance. Do some test shots to find the perfect exposure time matching the light emitted in your surrounding. In a perfectly dark night, a will set your camera to bulb exposure.
(6) Observe your enemy. Try to find the region with highest lightning activity and point your lens towards it. This can be a bit frustrating in the beginning but you get better from time to time. Wide angles lenses will cover more area but the lightning strokes will be small as well and are of limited use.
(7) Stay dry. Now it's a good time to wrap your camera in transparent plastic foil. Use a UV filter and sunshade to protect the front end of your lens. Seal everything with duct tape. You might want a rain jacket, too.
(8) Lean back. Enjoy the show. And don't forget to press the shutter button on your remote from time to time.
(9) Stay safe. Lightning storms a dangerous. The chance to get hit by a lightning stroke is higher than winning your local lottery jackpot. So leave as soon as you feel uncomfortable. And although it might be far away, the cover of your car is always safer than the next tree.
(10) Fight frustration. No shots because of bad timing? Gear up using light-sensitive triggers (http://www.lightningtrigger.com). Geeks might want to construct their own (http://www.solorb.com/elect/lightning/index.html).