It is summer. It is hot. It is thunderstorm season! Time to grab the camera and hunt some lightning! Here is an easy method, how to capture lightning during nighttime without using any fancy equipment. All you need is a camera with bulb exposure mode, some patience and of course your favourite thunderstorm.The problem with capturing lightning is, that you never know when and where it will appear. When you see the flash it is already too late to pull the trigger (That is, unless your name is Lucky Luke). The idea of the technique described here, is to capture a large area of the sky almost constantly, to not miss a single thunderbolt.
lens: the widest angle you can find (the settings I used with the Nikon D 90 in () | 18 mm lens)
ISO: lowest setting possible (~ ISO 100)
aperture: close your shutter depending on how much environmental light you want to capture (4.0 – 8.0)
focus: set to manual, infinite focus distance or focused on foreground object (almost infinite)
white balance: depending on your environmental light (auto WB)
quality: raw format is strongly recommended. The lightning will almost certainly produce clipped color values. The two or three stops of extra dynamic range might save your ass in a few shots. (fine jpg + raw)
shutter speed: bulb – expose as long as you pull the shutter (bulb)
getting the shot. First decide on what your foreground motive shall be. I took these pictures from the balcony on the first floor. Since the most exciting objects around are some rooftops and trees (boooring…), I chose to have as little sharp foreground elements as possible. Much rather I wanted to create some spooky effects.
Next get yourself a drink and turn up your music good! I recommend a melodramatic soundtrack, worthy of underlaying the raw powers of nature. In either case don’t forget to tell your neighbour to complain to their favourite god, for having the nerve of being thundering loud at night.
Allright. Camera is set. Mood is set. Time to get some shots! Point the camera towards the horizon. (A wild Mr. Obvious appears and mentions: “It is more likely for a lightning to appear in the distance than directly above you. And if it did, you would be toast anyway. Ha ha h…” nobody laughs as Mr. O. disappears in the dark corner of shame.) Start exposing and move the camera around freely, scanning the sky. If there are no light sources in your near environment, everything will become motion blurred. The foreground objects will only show through the light of the flash. Release the trigger shortly after you have seen a thunderbolt or if the exposure time gets too long.
exposure. In this shot (~ 10 sec exposure) you can see the lightning having a little fight with our neighbours garden lamp. Choose a darker location, if you don’t want the city lights to take over the show.
Test how long you can expose, without having the picture lit up too much by the ambient light. You can close the shutter even more or go for shorter exposure times to allow the pictures to be darker. I ended up using aperture 8.0 and about 10 seconds exposure time.
keep shooting. The movement of the camera and several lightnings in a row produce some creepy multiple exposure effects. You will notice that the longer you expose, the longer it will take your camera to process the picture. This means waiting time, before you can get the next shot. Most likely the coolest lightning will appear shortly after releasing the trigger. If you don’t belive in Murphy’s law, try this, and let natures striking random generator teach you a facepalming lesson.
However there is a trick to avoid long processing times. Directly after an uneventful exposure switch the camera off an on a again (sounds familiar?). You are back in the game in only half a second. This makes it possible to expose almost constantly and miss no nothing.
side effects. The long time exposure on an almost black photo, will as well reveal some unpleasant sides of your camera. Check out the constant noise the sensor produces. You might find some hot pixels as well. By turning the camera off, during image processing the hot pixels seem to show up even more. Here is my theory (prove my wrong!). The automatic hot pixel correction, seems to be one of the last steps of image processing. Shutting the camera down aborts the process. The correction is not run and the file gets written as seen by the sensor. The picture above is a 100 % crop showing the effect.
statistics. To conclude this, here is some data of my successful (? what do you think?) shoot.
shooting time: 1 h
pictures taken: 81
lightnings captured: 22
totally burned out shots: 5
times water on lense: 2
Let me know, if you give it a try. I would love to see some of your results!
…and what is your thunderstorm soundtrack?