The weather isn’t always pleasant for landscape photographers. Have you ever tried to take advantage of extreme weather conditions?
It’s safe to say that almost any landscape image with lightning is always striking. However, capturing such images is often harder than it seems. While unpleasant weather is pretty common for landscape photographers, depending on where you are and quite frankly, how unlucky you are, it’s quite uncommon to find yourself in a situation when you can photograph extreme lightning storms and be able to properly execute it amidst the many factors that can hinder you.
Challenges To Photographing Lightning
Photographing lightning storms can be hindered by so many factors. In the same way that heavy cloud cover can prevent you from photographing a nice sunset or the night sky, clouds are the most common hindrances to shooting lightning. Lightning happens due to electrical charge imbalances between a storm cloud and the ground (or commonly also other clouds.) Given that these marvelous natural occurrences happen because of clouds, it is far too common for other clouds to be around and get in the way of your shot either partially softening the lightning flash or covering it entirely.
Another obvious challenge to this task is of course the rain that often comes with the storm. Rain can be pouring around the area where the lightning strikes are happening and can therefore introduce haze if being photographed from a distance. On the other hand, if you are shooting from a vantage point relatively close to the storm then there is higher likelihood that the rain will prevent you from shooting either because of the optical effect it makes or the fact that your camera and you might be at risk of getting wet, or worse getting struck by lightning.
Technicalities of Photographing Lightning
Any camera with manual functions can photograph lightning. However there are certain features that can make the workflow much easier. For instance, it is a plus if the camera has a built-in interval shooting mode. If not, then an external intervalometer remote can suffice. Higher resolution cameras are obviously more advantageous to yield more flexible images. Cameras with faster and more accurate low-light focusing would be beneficial as well if you intend to shoot with focus considering that the process will involve capturing hundreds of images in a matter of a few minutes.Generally, the most important camera setting would be shutter speed. The process of shooting lightning is pretty much like net-fishing with relatively long exposures. Shutter speeds of about 4 to 8 seconds are generally suitable. Faster exposure times would lead to more shots (when in interval shooting) and generally more rejects as well. Exposure times that take too long would most likely overwrite the lightning strike especially if it struck in the earlier part of the exposure. Aperture is flexible provided that focusing is accurate and that your foreground (if any) is within your resulting depth, and ISO can be kept to a minimum (100-400) since the exposures are lengthy and the lightning strikes increase the overall luminosity of the frame.
In the same way, any lens can be used to photograph lightning. However if choices are available, it is your distance from the storm and the overall scatter of lightning strikes that would dictate how zoomed-in you should be. A standard zoom is often enough to capture storms that are relatively close by or relatively scattered around from a distance, while a telephoto zoom can help you get more detailed shots of distant lightning strikes. During a lightning storm there are generally spots where most lightning strikes hit repetitively and this shifts along with the wind. It is best to observe for these spots as you compose your shot.
A sturdy tripod is obviously a requirement. The process involves long exposures and hundreds of consecutive images. The tripod has to securely hold your camera and withstand a bit of wind that may come with the storm.
4. Intervalometer Remote or Lightning Trigger
As discussed above, an intervalometer would be needed if your camera doesn’t have a built-in interval shooting mode. Since lightning strikes don’t come in predictable patterns, the goal is to make sure that your camera is exposing right when the lighting strike hits. This is why interval shooting settings should be set to the shortest interval, and set to the maximum number of exposures in sequence. It’s almost certain that the storm would end before the maximum number runs out since most intervalometers can do at least 999 shots without having to reset.
A lightning trigger can give you a more precise shooting workflow. Lightning triggers use a light sensor. I use the MIOPS Smart+ trigger but most brands have sensors commonly found on the front most part that detects drastic changes in the lighting condition. The flash of light from the lightning would trigger the camera to start the exposure. Using lightning triggers would drastically decrease the number of shots taken overall and more or less give you mostly only frames with lightning in them. Other light sources such as a bright city in the same direction make the sky relatively bright might confuse the sensor since the overall change in luminosity would be reduced and for such a situation, it might be more beneficial to shoot in time-lapse/interval mode instead.
3 Approaches To Creating Lightning Images
The seemingly simplest way is to capture a single exposure image. This can be done if there is a significant foreground element that can give the image context. Given the challenges mentioned above, it may be more challenging to be able to shoot from a vantage point with a good foreground against all the environmental factors in play. Otherwise, if you aim to only capture the lightning bolts or illuminated clouds then that would be fairly simple. The post processing involved would be to simply tame down clipping highlights and recover foreground details if any.
Two-image composites are made up of a foreground shot which may or may not be from the same location, and the image of the lightning strike itself. This process can be done with very little post-processing experience since most editing software now lets you do sky replacements in a few, uncomplicated steps. Especially if the foreground image has a relatively clear or simple horizon, Adobe Photoshop or Skylum Luminar can automate this process for you. Of course knowing how to do it manually might allow you to execute this more precisely.
Time-lapse composites require significant experience with post-processing, clear artistic intent, and, to put it bluntly, a non-purist approach. The goal of this process is to put together numerous patches of different images to create a dramatic scene. It can be done with a foreground image from the same location or an entirely different shot. The process of shooting a lightning storm often yields at least a handful of different looking lightning strikes and charged clouds. By seamlessly putting them together on Photoshop through various possible methods, it can give you a highly impactful and dynamic result.
The process of photographing lightning is fairly similar for all three methods. It totally depends on the photographer if they aim to create a realistic documentation of the storm or put together a fictional but striking interpretation of the scene altogether.