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Lightning photography, Part 1 (08/01/2004)
By Tom Hirsch

Some of the most fascinating photographs are those made under adverse weather conditions. You've seen the pictures; they are phenomenal shots, ones that you're sure you could take under the same circumstances, but they were shot when the climate was such that you would rather be inside, enjoying the warmth and comfort of your own home. Well, when photographing lightning, you can have it both ways.

Lightning is very dangerous, and where it will strike next is completely unpredictable. It must be treated with utmost respect, and should only be watched from a safe distance, and from inside a building that is adequately grounded. That's where you should be when photographing lightning. This is fortunate for those of us who enjoy a photographic challenge, but also want some comfort along with it.

Lightning can occur at any time of the day or night, but it can only be photographed after dark. The reason is that the duration of a flash of lightning is so short that you would not be able to press the shutter release fast enough to capture it on film. To photograph lightning, the camera's shutter must remain open. When the lightning strikes, it will expose the film. Leaving the shutter open during the day would drastically overexpose the film, and if you got any image at all, you would not see the lightning.

To photograph lightning, you'll need a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. In order to hold the shutter open for an extended length of time, the camera must have a "B" setting on the shutter speed dial; this is standard on most SLRs. The camera must have manual exposure capabilities. It should also be a camera that can be focused manually. You will want to focus on infinity because, hopefully, the lightning will strike at least a half mile from you.

You will also need a tripod and cable release, or some other means of keeping the camera steady so the shutter can remain open for a considerable length of time.

The basic technique for photographing lightning is really quite simple. When a thunderstorm is predicted, set the camera up in a window facing the direction in which you anticipate the lightning to be the most prominent, and wait.

But don't wait until a lightning storm is upon you before setting up. Be prepared, and let the storm come to you. Most storms originate in the west, so this is probably the direction in which you will want to face, although lightning can strike from any direction.

If possible, photograph lightning through an open window. If this can't be done because of the weather or other reasons, at least remove or avoid shooting through a window screen. A screen will soften the image and give it an out of focus effect.

Important: All lights in the room from which you are shooting must be turned off so there is no other illumination that could expose the film. Lock the door if there is any possibility that it could be opened inadvertently by an intruder.

It is also important that there are no bright outside light sources, such as streetlights, in line with the lens. These would also expose the film. You might want to avoid pointing the camera toward a street where car headlights could shine into the lens. On the other hand, if the street is some distance from the camera and is placed very low in the image frame, headlights from one or two cars should cause no great problem, and, along with lightning, the overall effect could be quite interesting.

Next time we'll cover lightning from the standpoint of film, exposure, and more on composition. 


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