Thunderstruck: A Guide to Photographing Lightning Part I

Thunderstruck: A Guide to Photographing Lightning Part I

I love visiting the countryside. It's a great way to unwind, relax, and forget about the daily office hustle, the traffic, and whatever else is synonymous with a suburban lifestyle. As a photographer, the first thing I pack is my camera bag in the hopes that I'll get a chance to capture some landscape shots. What I did not expect is to get more than I bargained for. Especially this last weekend.

Friends from the U.K recently came to visit and I decided now was a good time to show them something a bit different to the usual tourist traps in and around Cape Town. So, early Saturday morning we left the busy cityscape for something a bit more serene. A little town on the coast called Betty's Bay. 

The town usually consists of a few inhabitants, mostly snakes, tortoises, and retired seniors enjoying the peace and quiet while they wait to shuffle off their mortal coil. The town also consists of beautiful fauna and flora, and incredible mountains, contrasted by white pearly beaches and majestic waves crashing along the rocks.

After we settled in our house at the foot of the mountain, overlooking the majestic seascape in front of us, we cracked open a few beers and lit the fire. A few hours later, after enjoying the good conversation with our British friends, I realized the clouds coming together beautifully, along with the impending sunset, this combination was bound to look good! After a quick huddle, I grabbed my camera bag and tripod and rushed down to the beach. 

I thought I'd be able to capture a decent looking sunset with some waves crashing in the foreground. What I did not expect was to see the clouds coming together in one spot, above the mountain and start a beautiful lightning storm. 

This sort of thing is unheard of in Cape Town and surrounding areas. If the combination of heat, drought, and humidity is just right, we'll maybe see one or two storms in a year. When it happens, it usually trends on Twitter, people get angry, and drivers forget how to use the road. But this was nothing like we were about to see. 

I realized the composition I decided on initially was completely useless if I wanted to capture a landscape with lightning strikes overhead. I needed to get a higher view of the Bay, and luckily the house we stayed at was high enough to provide a good view of mountains and ocean. So I grabbed my kit, jumped in the car and drove back. Once I arrived back at the house, I set up my tripod on a huge rock in front of the house and quickly fiddled with some functions to make sure I captured the lightning properly. 

With my Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 16-35mm f2.8 II L  connected firmly to the tripod, I set my camera to shoot on Bulb and connected my Canon remote to shoot two or three long exposures to capture foreground detail. Luckily the road below the house was illuminated by the passing cars, with the long exposure light streaks creating a nice lead in line from the left of the frame. Once I had that down, I started waiting for the strikes. This was a particularly fierce storm by Cape Town standards, with a lightning strike happening every 20-30 seconds. 

The lightning strikes were bright enough that I could comfortably set my camera to 100 ISO, f/5.6 on Bulb and all I had to then was sit back and wait. After each big strike, I closed the frame and started a new one. Between each frame, I walked back to the porch and joined our friends from England while waiting for the next big lightning strike. Landscape photography is best enjoyed with a beer in hand and some good conversation as entertainment is vital while waiting for the right light, or in this case, lightning strike.

Unfortunately, with this kind of photography, multiple exposures are better if the lightning is unpredictable. If your camera has a built-in multiple exposure function this could be beneficial, however, due to my camera being a dinosaur and requiring a crankshaft to operate the shutter, I was unable to test it out. Capturing just a single frame would not have been as dramatic as shooting multiple exposures and combining them later in Photoshop (that's a story for another day). Sure, I could've left the camera on Bulb mode, but then I risk overexposing the foreground or the sky. I could've used filters, but unfortunately, good filters are expensive and I don't have the budget for that, so I had to make a plan and use what I had in front of me.

I also could've easily shot just one frame and be happy with it, but the idea was to capture the dramatic atmosphere over a length of time and show nature at full force during that period.

Being a retoucher as well as photographer taught me a few things. The first thing is to keep your lens and camera at one setting. Once you change it, it will mess things up quite badly and cost you hours of post production, tearing your hair and eyeballs out due to frustration. That being said, I realized while capturing the storm that the lens was not fully zoomed out. Stupidly I corrected it and zoom from 18mm down to 16mm. I blame the beer. This caused a whole lot of issues for me in Photoshop, but we'll cover that later this week. 

So keep your tripod centered, your lens at your preferred focal length, and shoot away. The other thing to note is also to keep things like ISO and aperture the same. When changing ISO, the noise patterns start changing and when you combine that with a changed aperture, your depth of field will change which is a dire situation when combining multiple exposures in Photoshop. So the best to do is decide on what you want to capture, change your settings accordingly, and shoot away. 

When the storm eventually blew over, I managed to capture 30-40 images consisting only of lightning strikes and another 10 just capturing foreground detail. I couldn't wait to get home and process the images.

Starting off with a bland seascape, I never expected to be capturing one of the most incredible lightning storms over Betty's Bay. I've been visiting this town for 28 years, and never did I see anything quite like this. Stay tuned for my next article covering the post production process.

Happy shooting!

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Very nice photographs. I've been shooting lighting for years, and love it. A couple years ago I started using the Lightning Bug lightning trigger, and it made catching lightning much easier

Have Fun,

If I could give this two thumbs up, I would! Lightning photography is something that I'm interested in.

cheers :)

would the focus be set to infinity, when shooting lighting ?