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November-December 2014

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Capturing the Elusive: Creating Stunning Lightning Images

Erupting brilliantly across the sky before vanishing within a second, lightning has long fascinated meteorologists and amateur skywatchers. Unpredictable and seemingly powerful beyond comprehension, lightning inspires both fear and wonder, and for many, the very thought of lightning splintering throughout a stormy sky brings a desire to capture the phenomenon to preserve it for future enjoyment. Photographing lightning is a time-honored tradition, and one that brings with it a host of rules and tricks that casual observers might not suspect. But if you can capture those elusive flashes with an artist's eye, it is well worth the time and effort to do so. What follows is a primer for those who wish to learn more about photographing one of nature's most brilliant light shows.

Attempting to photograph lightning can prove incredibly rewarding, but it can also be daunting and frustrating. Becoming proficient in this pursuit often requires attempts over the course of years, many of which end in failure. One of the most specialized types of photography, successfully capturing lightning requires a photographer to possess an amalgam of aesthetic perception and balance, “gut-level” comprehension of the physics and meteorology of lightning genesis, navigational acumen, well-honed photographic technical skills, patience, some fortitude, and at times, athleticism (when reasonable fear eclipses fortitude).

By far, however, safety ranks above all other considerations. Some lightning bolts extend many tortuous miles in length between cloud and ground, and others possess an electrical potential approaching one billion volts (according to the NOAA). Bolts heat the surrounding air to nearly 50,000°F. Because of these factors, lightning can—and does—kill, with no warning save for the implied risk of being somewhere within earshot of thunder. According to data compiled by the NOAA, lightning killed 23 people in the United States in 2013, including someone in a canoe, someone in a backyard, someone on a beach, and a number of people under or near trees.

Based on NOAA lightning safety guidelines, which includes the statement: “You are not safe anywhere outside” (when thunder can be heard), the safest rule for lightning photography might be “stay inside and use Photoshop to draw lightning on a picture you took on a calm day.” Despite the ever-present potential risks, however, photographers can create images of lightning with relative safety. Just stay at least a few miles away from a storm (although according to NOAA, deadly lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from a cell), stay out of the path of a storm, carefully research all telltale signs of an impending strike to know when to escape (like when your hair stands on end, or you hear crackling sounds), and always have an escape plan and an escape place just seconds from your shoot location, such as a car or a large house. Once keenly aware of the risks and how to avoid and mitigate them, those wishing to attempt to capture one of nature's most elusive and ephemeral phenomena have a number of considerations and variables to ponder, ranging from the artistic, to the logistical, to the technical.

Pre-Visualization

The first item to consider is “pre-visualization.” A photographer “pre-visualizes” simply by imagining an image he or she wishes to create—however fanciful or elaborate—so long as it's based in reality. You may muse about an image featuring lightning striking behind a silhouetted desert butte, or possibly a small storm racing over wheat fields unleashing powerful bolts along its path, or even a lone bolt striking the highest tower of a city's skyline at dusk. With an image in mind, a photographer can chart a course to create that imagined photograph by outlining a plan for the execution of all facets of the process (except abandoning a shoot due to safety concerns), instead of haphazardly wandering in the shadow of a storm.

A pre-visualized shot can evolve through viewing the works of others, from a recollection of a distant memory, out of a dream, or during a recent outing interrupted by a lightning storm. Or it might manifest on-the-fly during a storm as you eye a subject you feel could work to add intrigue or drama to a backdrop of lightning, such as a lone tree or an abandoned barn. With experience and a growing collection of successful photographs, you'll learn to pre-visualize new types of images as your creative and technical skills mature. Due to the fickle nature of lightning, you'll gain an innate understanding of the fluid nature of the entire lightning photography process; while you can find and compose what you feel to be an ideal backdrop, you can't direct nature where to unleash a strike. By adjusting for the situation, however, you can augment your original idea or create a captivating amalgam of that which you originally planned with what nature serves.

Learning the Meteorology

A successful lightning photographer must also understand the genesis of lightning and the storms that create lightning as they relate to the photographic process. You won't need to comprehend the dynamics of ionization, charge separation, and other aspects of thunderstorm formation (details that atmospheric scientists to this day still do not fully understand), but you'll need to know about different forms of lightning and their ramifications for the photographic process. The atmosphere creates a number of different flavors of lightning, but in general, only four will interest photographers: cloud-to-ground, cloud-to-air, cloud-to-cloud, and intra-cloud.

I find cloud-to-ground lightning the most captivating photographically, as it dramatically illustrates terrestrial interaction and connectivity with the atmosphere and instills a visceral sense of natural and atmospheric energy. Cloud-to-air, often forming a “spiderweb” of light in the sky, can pose compositional challenges to a photographer (without a compelling, visually magnetic subject occupying the bottom edge of the image, a large swath of the lower portion of the photograph may seem unnaturally empty), but it can also present unique opportunities to a photographer who is prepared for the creative challenge. Visually similar to cloud-to-air bolts, cloud-to-cloud lightning can provide possibilities for unique compositions, including those that include only sky with clouds and lightning, but no ground. Intra-cloud lightning, often called sheet lightning, doesn't prove particularly dramatic on its own (typically no bolt can be seen; this form of lightning simply illuminates a portion of the storm cloud), but if present with other types of lightning, particularly cloud-to-ground, intra-cloud lightning can accentuate and even balance an image, particularly those at night, by more completely lighting a storm. Prospective photographers should study how various types of lightning illuminate rain curtains and peripheral aspects of thunder clouds, as well as surrounding clouds, the knowledge and wisdom of which helps with exposure settings and even composition. Paying attention to how storms move across a landscape, grow, and dissipate is invaluable for composition (and safety).

One of the most important aspects of lightning photography is what I found myself calling the LSI, or lightning strike interval. Gauging how often a bolt will strike from a storm helps with both composition and exposure. A storm with a high frequency intra-cloud LSI and infrequent cloud-to-ground bursts may render an image with an overexposed cloud and a partially overexposed cloud-to-ground bolt, whereas a fast-moving yet low LSI storm (once every few minutes) may move out of your frame by the time a bolt strikes, rendering a lifeless image.

The Basics

When asked what makes a great image great, many seasoned photographers often glibly respond, “f/8 and be there.” Upon elaboration, those new to photography learn that adjusting the aperture of the lens to f/8 is of course easy. However, “being there”—that is, being at the right place at the right time to get an image—accounts for, arguably, up to 99% of an image, depending on the photographer and actual photograph (although this is clearly impossible to quantify, but it drives home an obvious point, dramatically). “Being there” for lightning photography can mean being ready at a moment's notice to track down a storm near your home during thunderstorm season, travelling to a place like the Sonoran Desert of Arizona during monsoon season, or just being ready with your cameras and thoughts about lightning photography while on a cross-country trip.

For safety and comfort reasons, I like to photograph lightning with my car always just a few steps away. I always have my car filled with enough food and water for a few days longer than I think I'll need if I'm in a remote area. To identify and then navigate into position in order to photograph a lightning-producing storm, I rely on a few smart phone apps, namely Google Maps, MotionX-GPS, and Google Earth, but most importantly for storm photography, I use a product called RadarScope. RadarScope provides near real-time updates (usually within five minutes) of NOAA NEXRAD level 3 data for the United States. It has an animation feature (which is great for gauging where a storm will travel and its speed, as well as its stage of development and increasing/decreasing strength), and it also provides limited road map overlays. I've found that while photographing lightning, I pay nearly as much attention to RadarScope as I do to my cameras and the storms at which they're pointed, as seeing new storms evolve on the app while photographing existing cells dramatically increases my situational awareness of area weather, which allows me to double or triple the number of scenes I can capture on a shoot. RadarScope also shows warnings, which I find invaluable for safety, especially at night, as avoiding the core of one of these storms—with hail, close-striking lightning, and possibly a tornado—ranks as my primary concern. I should note that I've also found myself blindsided (and very alone) by over-reliance on smart phone apps when I've travelled to an area and then I realize that I have no cellular data service.

Composition

Safely positioned a few miles from a lightning storm that is part of a scene closely approximating one of your pre-visualized images, you can now move on to the next step: composing your photograph. Many photographers find “composition” difficult to explain and virtually impossible to teach. A well-composed photograph captivates viewers such that they forget they are looking at a photograph and feel engaged in the scene it portrays. A good composition “feels visually balanced” and dramatically conveys the essence of the subject or subjects. My best “clinical” attempt at defining this aspect of photography reads something like this: “Composition is the graphical arrangement of visual components that, in aggregate, fill your camera's frame and form the image.” For example, I might say: “I'd like to position that lone tree on the other side of the frame from the storm cloud. How much land below the tree will I include in the image? I'd like the tree to be silhouetted by the most intense strip of orange sunset light with the storm cloud off to its side, conveying its motion toward the tree.” Effective composition requires you to carefully work with the geometry of aesthetics, focusing on individual objects on the ground as well as dark and light strips of clouds above, dark upper sky and even stars, and natural and artificial light and the colors they produce, among a possible infinite array of other visual components. Of course you'll visually study lightning in your scene, requiring you to use your knowledge of lightning and your ability to predict where it will next likely strike and in what form.

The process of composition begins at the pre-visualization stage, and then once on site, you'll study a scene with the naked eye, and then at last through the viewfinder (or camera LCD screen). There are no rules for composition, but in general, you'll want to reduce clutter (no peripheral branches from trees or attention-snatching power and telephone poles and lines), and construct a scene that naturally guides a viewer's eyes to your subject or subjects. Your composition should captivate and immerse a viewer's attention in the scene, while avoiding visual distractions, such as an unnaturally “split” image (horizon placed along the center of the image), a slanted horizon (an extremely common problem with all types of photography), or a singular subject dead in the center of the image. In general, I've found that compelling lightning images often include a slice of earth—not too thin—dominated by sky. Because you can never predict exactly where the next bolt of lightning will strike, regardless of your prediction skills and regularity of a storm, I typically suggest that people shoot lightning scenes “loose” and in a horizontal or “landscape” orientation. Shooting loose simply means including a broader amount of a scene than your idealized composition requires by using a wider angle lens; you can crop the image in a photo editing program later. Composing a horizontal image, similarly, allows for more room to capture a far-reaching bolt, particularly the somewhat rare “positive giant” form of cloud-to-ground lightning that extends upward of 10 miles or more.

If shooting with more than one camera, I'll often shoot the scene loose and horizontal with one camera, and vertical and more “zoomed in” with another, allowing a photographer to create multiple compositional iterations from a single scene.

Technical Considerations

Photographers shooting lightning must possess a unique set of technical skills to consistently create properly exposed, sharply focused images that accurately depict all aspects of a composition. I strongly suggest that anyone trying to capture lightning with a camera ground themselves in the rudiments of photography first, including understanding the relationships of image sensor sensitivity, shutter speed, aperture setting, and light, as well as understanding benefits and potential pitfalls with lenses they intend to use. Truly engaging, “dynamic” lightning images almost always feature more than a bolt set against an ink-black night sky. The most memorable images typically incorporate a variety of visual components including dusk light, sunset light on storm clouds, city lights, and even stars, in addition to bursts of lightning—a medley that poses substantial exposure challenges.

The technical process begins with a camera mounted to a solid tripod with a scene composed, lens focus manually set to infinity, with mirror lockup function activated (if available, to minimize camera shake), and with a remote shutter release attached to the camera, again to minimize camera shake. With the camera's ISO (image sensor's light sensitivity) set at a low number (I always keep mine set at 100) for quality reasons, and to allow for longer exposures (to increase the chances of capturing lightning), I use aperture priority metering and adjust the lens's aperture according to how bright I believe lightning will flash. I prioritize adjusting the aperture for the lightning over the background scene because lightning itself dictates its duration of exposure time on the image sensor, whereas the camera's internal meter (or my own, if shooting using manually computed exposure times) decides the exposure time for the background scene and thunderstorm cloud itself. While a small aperture will grant a longer exposure time and increase the chances of capturing lightning (less light flows through the lens and onto the image sensor for any given length of time with smaller apertures), a small aperture setting (such as f/11 or f/16) may render a bolt somewhat dim, especially if shooting from a location more than five miles from a storm, because lightning flashes so briefly. Conversely, an aperture too “opened up” (such as f/2) may render a strong bolt and surrounding cloud overexposed and “blown out,” particularly if shooting within only a few miles of a storm. In general, I usually set my aperture around f/4 to f/5.6, which works well during the very best times for lightning photography—dusk, and occasionally dawn, when lightning-generating storms survive through the night, and also occasionally during the day, with very dark clouds. Depending on the brightness of my scene (without lightning), at dawn or dusk I'll usually get exposure times from a few seconds up to 30 seconds, allowing me to use the aperture priority metering setting (most cameras will meter a shot up to 30 seconds). After dusk or before dawn, I'll simply shoot using the “Bulb” or “B” setting, where the shutter stays open as long as the photographer wishes. To increase my chances of capturing lightning, I like to keep “exposure downtime” to a minimum during a shoot (which can last only a few minutes), by locking the camera's mirror up and then opening the shutter as quickly as possible after the last exposure comes to a close.

While some photographers continue to shoot with film, I much prefer digital. I can immediately see if I've captured a bolt of lightning on the camera's LCD screen, and by seeing where exactly bolts have struck and their brightness, I can augment my composition and aperture setting for ever better images. I always shoot in RAW format and then convert to JPEG or TIFF in what I've found to be the best RAW processing software for lightning, Phase One's Capture One Pro. I make final brightness, contrast, and saturation adjustments and occasionally combine two or more frames of the exact scene (each with unique lightning bolts) in Photoshop. A few times I've been able to shoot a series of exposures, from underexposed to overexposed, of a scene that includes lightning and process these in Photomatix Pro, a high dynamic range image processing program, with some incredible results.

A Dynamic Process

With lightning photography, you really can't ponder any consideration or make any decision insularly, as the artistic can affect the technical, and the flow of your subject can dictate your compositional decisions. And of course safety trumps all, including bailing out instead of sticking around for just one more 30-second exposure of that fast moving cell which is headed straight toward you. With thoughts cycling through every step of the image-creation process during your shoot, from pre-visualization, to storm tracking, to composition and technical considerations, to final image processing once safely back at your home, you'll learn to create images that will inspire and excite for a lifetime. It never grows old!

ED DARACK is an independent author and photographer. Learn more at darack.com.


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