Lightning Photography… Harder than I thought…

When a crazy electrical storm hits, I find out that it’s a lot harder than I thought to take a photo of lightning.

Lightning in a CloudI’ve been taking photos for as long as I can remember. I like to think I know my way around a camera enough to get good results and most of my work I’m pretty happy with. It’s even been good enough that companies have hired me from time to time for commercial shoots. All of this is well and good but when a spectacular electrical storm passed overhead this evening, I thought it was time to tackle the one subject that has eluded me all these years. Lightning.

I’ve seen so much lightning photography that I hardly think the world needs any more. However I’ve always wanted to capture that micro-second explosion of light for myself. I was out for dinner at the time and thankfully I had the camera in the car with me. I set out to find a spot with a clear view of the approaching lightning storm. Good luck for me, that was actually behind the restaurant.

I set up the camera on the tripod with an 18mm wide angle lens and pointed it in the direction the lightning was flashing. I plugged in my remote switch so that I could operate the camera without touching it and possibly jogging the shot. I figured the best way to capture something that flashes in a nano-second is to have the camera set to bulb so that the shutter stays open until I released the button, which would be as soon as I saw a bolt. I played around with aperture settings until I found one that I could get at least a fifteen second exposure before I’d need to close the shutter and start a new shot.

And so it began.

Click… count to fifteen… Release… Nothing!
Click… count to fifteen… Release… Nothing!
Click… count to fifteen… Release… Nothing!
Click… count to fifteen… Release… Holy shit did I just get that?

I waited in anticipation for the shot to load onto the tiny camera LCD screen. I could hardly make it out, but there was a tiny whisp of something that looked like lightning. But what I had seen with my eye was way more impressive. Clearly my exposure was too dark. I had thought for sure that the brightness of the lightning would burn through. I opened it up a bit more and shortened my count to around ten.

Click… count to ten… Release… Nothing!
Click… count to ten… Release… Nothing!
Click… count to ten… Release… Nothing!
Click… count to ten… Release… Oh my God that was insane…

Again the anticipation… Waiting… Waiting… Holy crap, God-damn-it! A massive bolt of lightning flashed in what would have been the center of frame, only I was standing here waiting for the last shot to load. I made a decision. No more checking til I got home. Just click after click. I didn’t want to miss another shot like that.

So off I went. Clicking shot after shot. I felt that I got a few good ones but refused to check. It was around this time a thought struck me. “I’m standing in a wide open space with very few trees or other tall structures in the middle of a particularly volatile lightning storm (it was pretty much constantly flashing all around) and I’m holding onto a metal tripod” Probably not the smartest thing I’ve done. But I knew it’d be worth it if I could just get that shot.

Lightning Whisp

Eventually the storm moved on and the lightning disappeared behind some factories. I packed up the camera and headed home to see what I had got.

As soon as I got home, I eagerly plugged in the flash card and began downloading the hundred or so photos I had taken. I opened up Adobe Bridge and began to look though them. My excitement was soon replaced with disappointment.

Nothing!
Nothing!
Too dark!
Nothing!
Nothing!
Just out of frame!
Nothing!
Out of focus!

OUT OF FOCUS!!! How the hell?

A Bolt of Lightning

I must have knocked it slightly without realising. Every shot from then on was out of focus too. So much for my not checking the shots idea. All up I got three shots with lightning that were sort of in focus. One of them was way in the distance and only just in frame. The other two were kind of small whispy bolts that stayed up in the clouds.

So there you go. A failed photo shoot. Adding Lightning photography to my portfolio will have to wait for another day, as this ever-elusive phenomena has evaded me once again. Maybe next time I’ll master the art. Although something tells me that luck has a lot to do with getting that amazing shot.

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James Cole is a Producer, Director, Editor and Visual Effects Artist for Hysteria Productions. He has worked on hundreds of projects from commercials and corporate videos to music videos, short films, feature films and documentaries. James is also an avid landscape photographer and digital artist with his work being shown at http://www.jcphotographicart.com