Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How To Take Pictures of Lightning

Click on image for a larger view

Not a Winter scene for this cold first month of a new year, but a Summer scene I took back in 2007.  This was taken from the Astronomical Society of Kansas City's dark sky site south of K.C.  Instead of viewing stars on this particular night, we were viewing one of natures marvelous light shows instead.  The lightning was far away from us.  The smoke you see near the horizon is coming from a power plant about 12 miles away, so the lightning is striking some distance beyond that.

Taking pictures of lightning is fairly easy.  First and foremost, take them from a good distance away and not in the middle of the storm itself.  Needless to say, lightning strikes are extremely dangerous.  Instructions for Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras are shown here, but non-slrs can also be used, you'll just have to read your camera instruction book to learn how to set it in manual mode.  And of course learning how to use your camera's various modes is always a good thing.
  1. You'll need to have a camera that allows you to set it manually.  Most of the time auto exposures and auto focus do not work in this type of situation, so you'll need to set your camera to manual mode.  Once in manual mode set it to "Bulb".  This setting allows you to hold the shutter open and take long exposures.
  2. You will also need a shutter release cable to allow you to open the camera's shutter without physically touching the camera.  Touching the camera during a long exposure will of course jiggle it ruining the image.
  3. A tripod is a must, since hand holding the camera during a long exposure will also ruin the picture.
  4. Getting a good focus is a little bit tricky, but easy if you know how.  You first need to auto focus the camera on a distant object.  This could be a distant street light or something bright enough so that the camera can focus.  The camera will not focus on darkness or very dim light, so if you leave auto focus on while trying to image the lightning, the auto focus will not have time enough to lock on a brief lightning flash, so it's best to focus on something bright, then turn auto focus off.  The camera will now be in focus so long as you dont touch the camera's focus ring or zoom.
  5. Set the ISO speed to about 400 or so.
  6. Once the camera is set, put it to where the lightning is flashing the most, open the shutter with the cable release and wait for it to flash.  Once you see a flash or two, close the shutter.  Take a look at the camera's LCD screen to see how it turned out, then quickly open the shutter again.
You can get more than one lightning strike on the same image, like I did in the above image, but be aware that sometimes too many will wash out the image.  It's all trial and error, so just keep shooting.  It's just like fishing.  Once in a while you'll get a big one.

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