Alright, so this is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time and I was finally able to pull it off. Like most of my storm-chasing fantasies, lightning photography is just difficult in all the places I’ve lived. The topography – ranging from hilly to mountainous – makes it a lot harder to see this stuff coming, and harder to get a good angle on it so that there’s some sort of intentional composition to the shots.
But as my 6th grade math teacher used to say, “sometimes even a blind squirrel finds an acorn.” This storm rolled in across the city Thursday night, just to the south of us. The first flashes looked like a speedlight going off outside; Mandy and I went to the back windows to watch if come over the hills. The lightning was intense, a strike occurring every few seconds, although we must have stood watching for a few minutes before I said, “Gee, I should go get the tripod and try photographing this.”
So I took a short jog out to the garage to retrieve the tripod from it’s home in my trunk (which somehow always seems to be inconvenient, despite the best intentions). Back inside, I setup in the window with as much of an angle towards the storm as possible and began shooting.
The summation of my first experience with lightning photography? It’s a complete crap shoot. You’re in the dark, can’t see anything through the viewfinder, and are guessing at the exposure. Short exposures require a great deal of luck, so I went for length, the idea being that in a 25 second period I was decently likely to capture something interesting.
Why 25 seconds? Again, crap shoot. Working around f/8 and between ISO 200 & ISO 320, that’s where the exposure fell. It was a comfortable length of time, long enough to give decent odds of a capture, but not so long that it was a hassle. Plus the extra depth of field was welcome, since this is manual focus territory, and manual focus in the dark tends to bring out some colorful language.
About halfway through my shoot I changed windows. The storm had moved, so I got a better angle on the action and also a new view, this time out over my street and more towards downtown. Whereas the first shots had more of an “off to the horizon” look, these have a more intimate city feel. I like both. Same settings here, except I switched to Tungsten white balance. Mostly because there were far more house and street lights visible in this direction, with their usual nasty yellow color cast. Tungsten cuts the yellows down to a manageable level and turns the clouds a nice, stormy blue. (I was using Daylight white balance before, to keep the more natural purple look the other direction had.)
I’ve read about lightning triggers, which use the lightning flash itself to trip the shutter. But honestly they don’t interest me much. Part of the fun is trying to outguess the storm and time your exposure window to catch a bolt. There are a lot of misses but the hits are more rewarding for it. In 30 minutes of shooting I got 59 frames, seven keepers, and three really good strikes. That said, however, there are a few things I’d like to do better next time.
Foremost is a better location. Shooting out my windows is easy, but it’s hardly ideal in terms of either flexibility or composition. It’s a case of making do with what I had. An elevated location, on the other hand, with more of a view out over the city, would be epic. Granted, safety is a primary concern – I’m not going to find a bald hilltop and stand out there with my metal tripod. But an upper floor of a building could work, or even shooting from within my car, from a good vantage point.
Second is timing. The weather service issued a warning and this thing was obviously inbound for at least twenty minutes before it got here. It would have been awesome to have been setup and ready, capturing those lightning-heavy first few minutes when the storm’s energy was at its peak. A little preparation would have gone a long way – not having to run out for the tripod, etc.
But what the hell, it was still a lot of fun. And it’s one more thing I can check off the bucket list. Well, sort of…like most such adventures, having done it once just makes me more excited for the next time.