Note: If you are new to photography, Some of what you read in this post may sound confusing. If it is, come back up here and read the below paragraph. For now, skip to below the first photo.
Just what is a long exposure and how does it help us capture lightning? Every time you click the button on your camera, it takes what we call a “picture” or a “frame”. What it is actually doing is opening up the shutter to let light come through the lens and hit the sensor of the camera. How fast or how slow your camera takes a photo is what we refer to as:shutter speed. Think of the photos you take on your iPhone: they are very quick, almost instant shots, i.e.: very fast shutter speeds, fast enough to freeze everything in the photo. You may notice that when its dark or your trying to take a photo inside where there isn’t a lot of light, the photo is blurry. That is because your camera has to keep the shutter open longer to get enough light to make an ok lit photo. The longer the shutter speed is open, the more potential there is for your photo to be blurry because of your own shaky hands or the things in your photos are not standing still. Think of a long shutter speed, like 10 seconds. So why would we ever want to ever shoot with a slow shutter speed? Because it allows us to shoot and see things that otherwise would be impossible, like lightning. Think of a slow/long shutter speed, like 10 seconds. Taking a ten second long photo on your camera is basically like taking a 10 second long video and pushing everything you saw in that ten second video into one frame.
Do you get that? So if I take a ten second long photo, keep my camera still, and somewhere in those ten seconds a lightning bolt goes off, I’m going to get that lightning bolt in my photo. If I take a 30 second long photo, every lightning bolt I see in those 30 seconds will be seen in that photo.
PHOTOGRAPHING LIGHTNING-Whenever I post up some new lightning photos on my Facebook page or Twitter, I get a few people asking how I was able to do it. To a lot of people, its nothing short of miraculous because you have the luck of pushing the shutter just as a bolt appears (or was that just me thinking that for a long time?) Anyway, fortunately that’s not at all how it works and in fact it’s quite easy to take some great shots of lighting.
What you will need:
1. A camera that is capable of changing shutter speeds i.e.:one that allows you to change the shutter speeds to something longer than 1 second.
2. Good Lightning (good strong bolts, not just flashes you see up in the clouds)
Recommended: A tripod to stabilize your camera to make sure it wont shake while you are taking these long exposures, because anything longer than 1/30 of a second handheld is going to be blurry. Note: If you don’t have a tripod, try setting up your camera on a pedestal or something around you that is stable that you can set the camera on. Even putting your camera up against a fence will do the job.
Camera Settings: Generally, I keep the settings on my camera for lightning photos pretty much the same. I keep the ISO at its lowest (100, 200 etc) The aperture pretty wide (anywhere above F/2.8 and below F/5.6) and judge the shutter speed from there. If I’m in a brightly lit setting like a downtown area in the shot below, I’m going to keep the shutter speed at around 2 to 4 seconds so I don’t blow out the lights that are all around me.
However, I’f im in a dark setting like this residential neighborhood below when a violent storm happens to be coming through, I’ll extend the shutter speed any where between 10 seconds and 30 seconds, whatever the situation warrants to get enough light to capture the rest of the foreground. Note: If a storm comes through your area that is strong enough to bring down trees, please don’t be stupid like me and stand around taking photos of it. Its not worth dying or becoming paralyzed for the rest of your life. If you have too, stand in the middle of the street or as far away from trees as you can.
For other photographers who are reading this, you may be wondering: “Craig, Why do you keep your shutter speeds around 2 or 4 seconds with your aperture wide open when you can take 30 second long photos and get possibly more lightning bolts in your photo? All you have to do is close down your aperture to balance out the long shutter speed!”
Well, to each his own. But for me personally, I find that with those settings, the lightning bolts come out looking weak, skinny and unimpressive. Thats because when you close your aperture your mitigating the intensity of the lightning flash. If you want to capture lightning bolts as they are to your naked eye, I suggest keeping the aperture open as wide as you can at all times (F/4 or F/5.6 is the sweet spot) and keep the shutter speed down to a few seconds. Yeah, this means you’ll be keeping your finger on the shutter and taking a lot of waste photos, but its worth it to get that one awesome shot.
Wait until you are out of the worst part of the storm before taking photos. This isn’t just for safety, the bulk of the lightning photos that you see are taken just as the storm is coming in or moving away. Your not going to see much when the storm is right on top of you excepts a whole lot of flashes in the clouds above. So make sure you have your gear ready and a few spots in mind while the storm is passing over, and as soon as the worst is done, get out there and start shooting.
Look for a good foreground or subject matter to capture along with the lighting. lightning by itself is ok, but if you want to take it to the next level, pair it up with a great building or natural landscape. Think of the lightning as a bonus that will add more to your photo: A photo of the Washington Monument by itself is alright. A photo of Lightning by itself is cool. A photo of the Washington Monument with lightning is really cool.
I hope you guys have enjoyed and learned a little more about photographing lightning from this post. If you have any further questions or comments please feel free to message me in my contact section on the site. I appreciate the feed back and want to do what I can to help you guys who want to learn more about this very fun and fascinating subject.
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COMING UP-A lesson on photographing with longer exposures and its awesome benefits.