Shooting for Success: Lightning

Calgary Lightning, June 2007

Lightning over northeast Calgary, June 2007. Copyright 2007: T. Reynolds

Although this image has never appeared anywhere but on my own websites, it is one of my all-time favourite shots simply because it required tremendous patience and then absolute luck, because lightning storms can be as wet as they are electrifying.On this particular evening, the rain had already passed us by and I was going to photograph the trailing-edge of the storm as it moved east.

To photograph lightning you need a couple of things:

  • a camera capable of shooting at shutter speeds in the 30-second neighbourhood (or longer)
  • a solid tripod
  • a relatively windless night
  • a vantage point which allows you to shoot as much of the horizon as possible without obstructions like buildings, telephone poles, street lamps, etc. The exception to this is when you actually want the “obstruction” in the photo in order to add scale or interest. An example would be lightning hitting the top of the CN Tower in Toronto — a very cool shot if you can get it.
  • a slow film, if you’re shooting with film. The slower the film, the longer your shutter speed can be an still not over-expose.

All I simply did here was start my video camera as soon as I was in place, to capture footage I may use later (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecCm-O_eIaQ), and then I set up the second tripod with the still camera, using ISO 200 print film, because that’s all I had in my bag. Lesson learned. I wish I’d had some 25 or 50 ISO slide film, simply for the richness of the final images with film with such nice saturation. This shot is a few years old and now I’m shooting digital, but haven’t had a chance to try the digital gear with unique situations like lightning or fireworks (next week’s image).

So, I set up with the shot framing only as much of the city on the horizon as I wanted and as much of the sky as I could get, then set my Canon EOS 10S for 30 seconds of exposure.

I also used a remote control so as not too shake the camera when I pressed down on the shutter release — a common problem with slow shutter speeds.

I set the self-timer on the camera for five seconds and then set it so that the mirror went up at the beginning of the five seconds, not the end. This also reduces camera shake, believe it or not.

The autofocus was turned off and the manual focus set for infinity, because the lightning was at least ten miles (16km) away. When all was set, I covered the back of the camera with my baseball cap to prevent the lights of the city from leaking in through the viewfinder.

That all done, I simply triggered the camera and let it do all of the work. I kept this up during the heat of the storm, just crossing my fingersĀ  that something would be captured on film.

The toughest part of photographing lightning is that it happens so fast (at the speed of light, pretty much) that you couldn’t possibly react fast enough to capture the strike. That’s why you need to do long time exposures and cross your fingers. A true, multi-strike storm is the best because then the odds of having one or more strikes in a given 30-second exposure is pretty good. Then again, a lot of film was wasted in order to get this shot and a few others.

I love the raw, unadulterated, power of lightning and to be able to capture an image or two gives me a thrill. Man-made events are exciting, but nothing matches the rush I get when something like lightning, an avalanche, an eclipse or even a comet can be captured for later enjoyment.

Ciao for now,

Tim Reynolds.

All words and images here are Copyright Tim Reynolds.

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