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Lesson 5C: Shooting at Night, Lightning

December 28th, 2010 · 1 Comment

***Be extremely careful when photographing lightning.  Even when the storm seems miles away, lightning can still strike around and on top of you.  Never take chances that put your life or other lives in danger.***

For Part C of this lesson, shooting lightning is the focus.  While this can be very dangerous, the technique I’d like to share involves a much safer way to shoot lightning.  I must warn, however, it involves an intervalometer which will set you back at least $65.

 

First let’s discuss some of the basics to shooting lightning.  Many people think photographs of lightning were lucky shots when the photographer happened to click the shutter at just the right time.  Unless using a trigger (which we won’t discuss in this lesson) that is NOT the way to photograph lightning.  The reason this lesson is the 3rd installment in a series on Night Photography is because it follows the same principle of leaving the shutter open for a given period of time to allow the camera to capture lightning strike(s) while the shutter is open.  To achieve this safely, I use a fantastic piece of gear called an intervalometer.

This great piece of gear is basically a remote with way more features.  It allows the photographer to set up all the exposure settings on the camera / intervalometer and then it can kick the camera off with those exposure settings over and over.  Once it’s set up, the photographer can retreat to safety while the intervalometer does it’s job over and over.  Let’s get into the weeds on how this device works and go through a real life example of some typical settings used for lightning (don’t think these are the settings you will always use for lightning, settings always change based on many variables).

To start, it’s important to realize that you first need to set the camera mode to Manual and use a shutter speed of BULB (most SLRs are capable of this).  While the shutter speed will always be set to BULB, you have some freedom on the aperture.  For our purpose, using a wide angle lens set the aperture around 2 stops down from wide open (for an f2.8 lens, this would be f5.6).  I prefer a low ISO Speed to keep as much noise out (ISO 100-200 should suffice).  Now let’s move on to the intervalometer which is where that actual shutter speed and repetitive settings will be set.

I’m using an aftermarket intervalometer to save some bucks (ProMaster SystemPRO Timer Remote) but both Canon and Nikon make their own versions.  The first number (DE) on the screen refers to the delay before the intervalometer starts doing it’s thing.  We will select “5”, which means it won’t start taking exposures until 5 seconds after you hit the start button.  This allows time for the intervalometer to hang and be still before the exposures begin.  The second number (BU) on the screen refers to the BULB exposure itself.  This is where we set how long the camera’s shutter will remain open for each exposure.  For lightning, I typically choose “30” (meaning 30 seconds).  This means the intervalometer will tell the camera to have the shutter open for 30 seconds every time it releases.  Many exposures will be wasted but any time lighting strikes in your frame during those 30 seconds, it will be recorded to the sensor or film plane.  The third number (INT) refers to the interval or time the intervalometer will wait in-between each 30 second exposure.  The minimum on this intervalometer is 1 second which is what we’ll choose.  The last number (N) is the number of exposures you want it to take.  It could be 5, 30, or even 500.  This basically tells the remote how many times you want it to take the 30 second exposure.  For the lightning images in this lesson, I used 50 because rain was coming and I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave the rig out for a huge amount of time.

Synopsis our settings:
   DE= Delay (5 seconds)
   BU= BULB / time the shutter is open (30 seconds)
   INT= Interval / time in-between exposures (1 second)
   N= Number of shots the remote will take (50)

The beauty of this rig for shooting lightning is it’s self-sustaining.  Once you hit start and kick it off, you can go inside where it’s safe and wait for it to complete the 50 exposures.  I always set a timer on my iPhone for roughly the amount of time it will take to run through the 50 exposures.  For our set-up, it’s just over 25 minutes (50 30-sec exposures).  If you forget to set a timer of sorts, the remote has a small orange light that remains lit until it’s complete.  As long as that light is off, you know either the rig is finished or something went wrong and it’s not working.  During the process, I like to keep an eye on this light to ensure everything is still running.

We aren’t going over camera placement or composition because this lesson is all about the technical’s on how this works.  It’s also assumed that you know how to focus the rig.  Please remember that as with shooting during the day, composition, framing, and setting the camera’s focus is imperative to good imagery.

Some non-technical tips on shooting lightning:
   *Don’t only shoot the sky, use foreground elements to add interest
   *Do a  small number of shots first to test aperture settings (adjust as you go)
         -If shots are too dark, use faster ISO or adjust aperture wider open
         -If shots are too bright, stop down aperture further than f5.6
   *Don’t waste time shooting in the rain (shoot ahead of storms)
   *Create something above rig to cover it from early rain

Let’s go over the “TOP 5″ summary points to take away from this lesson:
    
1) Safety is key; Don’t risk your life or the lives of others for a photograph
     2) Choose your Aperture wisely; Stop down 2-3 stops on a wide angle lens
     3) When rain hits, it’s time to quit and get your rig inside
     4) Trust your rig and let it do it’s job
     5) As always, have fun and share your work with others!

Stay close to the blog for more lessons and new winter images coming soon!

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Normand Fafard // Jan 3, 2012 at 1:33 am

    Hi Josh,
    I have been using with the SystemPro timer you refer to in your lesson 5c. I agree it works very well and is simple to operate. I read on a reseller website that the time can be used as simple release but I can make that work with my Nikon 300S. Would you have an idea how to set the camera or time or both to make that happen?
    Thanks

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