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Lightning photography, Part 2 (08/08/2004)
By Tom Hirsch


     
Attempting to point a camera in the direction of lightning can be tricky because you never know where it will strike. When you see lightning in the distance, you could aim the camera in that direction, although storms frequently change course.

Because lightning bolts extend from the sky to the ground (or from ground to sky in some cases), you'll want to include both sky and foreground in your pictures. Since the sky is the predominant area, a ratio of about four-fifths sky to one-fifth foreground seems about right, but the ratio can be adjusted for the conditions.

The duration of a flash of lightning is short, so the shutter must be left open in anticipation of an occurrence. This could possibly lead to the shutter remaining open for several minutes. During this time, there is the possibility that street lights, car lights or house lights might expose the film before the lightning arrives. If this happens, it could wash out the image, diminishing the strong effect of the lightning. To reduce the possibility, wait until lightning begins to strike, then hold the lens open with the shutter release until one or a few flashes of lightning have occurred.

On the other hand, city lights can provide a sense of reference and location. If the light source is low enough in the image frame that it doesn't infringe on the area of sky covered by the lightning, the shutter can be left open for up to three minutes. Any longer than that could possibly overexpose the film. To vary the effect, try a variety of times ranging from several seconds to up to the three-minute limit.

Rain has a tendency to soften the effect of lightning, so don't try to get good lightning shots when it's raining. Rain makes it necessary to close windows, and rain on a window can also diminish the effect.

A good film for lightning photography is an ISO 100 slide film. Any speed film will do, but a slow film will give better detail in case enlargements are wanted, and fast film is not necessary in this type of photography.

If print film were used for lightning photos, the printer would have no way of determining the appropriate settings for making prints. There is no negative with slide film, so the image automatically comes up with the proper exposure (if the film has been properly exposed). When prints are made from the slides, the printer can easily calculate the best settings. On the other hand, if print film is used, it's best to take the film to a photo shop that does printing right there. Tell the photo dealer that you have shots of lightning. The printer can then make the proper settings when making the prints.

Incidentally, there are basic settings for getting proper exposure when photographing lightning. Since the shutter is set on the "B" setting, there is no shutter speed adjustment, only aperture settings. With ISO 100 film, use f/8; for ISO 200 film, f/11; and if ISO 400 film is selected, use f/16. If extremely fine detail is wanted, select an ISO 25 film and use f/4. These exposures are good starting points, but because conditions can vary, it's a good idea to bracket around the suggested apertures.

Lightning is fascinating to watch, and it can be just as interesting to photograph. The technique is not difficult. All you need is a good camera, a tripod, and a few strokes of luck. 

 

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