Fine art photographer Drew Medlin on Photographing lightning

Drew Medlin is a self-taught B&W fine art photographer based in the Southwestern US. Working primarily in black and white, his photography spans several genres, including: landscape, still life, abstract, lightning, and astrophotography. Drew has been interested in photography for many years now, and it has become his primary method of expressing his creative vision. Lightning is one of the subjects that has held his interest the longest: it’s become an addiction.

When I first saw Drew Medlin’s photos of lightning I was amazed by the B&W fine art approach of lightning photography and wanted to know more about his techniques. Drew was kind enough to share his experience and knowledge of lightning photography with us. Besides that he has a wonderful portfolio of fine art Black and White photos. You can view and enjoy his work on http://drewmedlin.com/

Important note: Photographing lightning can be extremely dangerous. Don’t risk your life for just a photo.

Joel Tjintjelaar

Preface

I’ll preface this with stating that I’m certainly not the world’s foremost expert on any of this. Others may have different techniques and tolerances for risk to life and limb that work well for them: I don’t dispute this. This tutorial is from what I’ve learned from my experience. Once again, It’s dangerous . . . be safe, and aware, at all times.

A few thoughts on safety for yourself and your equipment.

If you plan to photograph lightning, YOU ARE PUTTING YOURSELF, THOSE WITH YOU, AND YOUR EQUIPMENT AT RISK!!! Lightning kills hundreds of people every year around the world and permanently injures even more. Lightning and the storms associated with them, are dangerous. I am not responsible for your personal safety, any actions you take, or for any of your belongings: proceed at your own risk!!! It is your responsibility to research lightning and storms in your area as well as to observe safety measures for yourself!

Safety for yourself is paramount; err to the side of caution. There could be a situation which requires you to abandon the camera for personal safety. You can buy a new camera, but not a new life! If possible, don’t wander too far from your car, or a fully closed building that you can get into (a covered awning is not safe). Whenever possible, don’t go out to photograph lightning (or storm chase in general) alone. More eyes watching the skies for new developments in the storms that could cause a threat to you are better. If the lightning gets too close for comfort, a metal bodied car should act as a faraday cage, routing the lighting through the car, and not into you in most cases (the rubber tires are not helping you here at all, actually). With some attention and planning, you should be able to often avoid this type of situation all together, but remember that storms can quickly develop right over your location with little warning. Planning alone doesn’t ensure your safety.

I never hear most of the thunder produced from the lightning I photograph: it’s that far away. I tend to not get rained on much when I shoot, either, due to the weather patterns where I live.

Lightning can travel a great number of kilometers, so even not hearing thunder doesn’t mean you’re safe. There is a good rule of thumb to quickly estimate of the distance of the lightning from you: each 3 seconds between the time when you see a lightning bolt to when you hear the thunder from it is 1 km of distance. So, if you see lightning, and it takes 9 seconds for you to hear the thunder, then the lightning is ~3km away (9s divided by 3 s/km = 3km). If you see many flashes close in time, and it’s hard to tell which thunder is from which lightning, I’d recommend defaulting to counting from the last flash and to the first thunder. This defaults to being safer by assuming the closest distance to you. However, different atmospheric and/or geographic conditions around you can cause thunder to be faint or inaudible from your location, even if the lightning isn’t very far away. If you feel your hairs start to stand up, you’re in IMMEDIATE danger! . . . get into a car or building asap. If that’s not possible, crouch down as low as you can without laying down! You want to have minimal surface area in contact with the ground and be as low as possible. Try to keep your feet together as you make a ball shape. Storms can travel very quickly, so don’t stop keeping track of how close the storm is to your location. New cells can develop right over you, too, and they can start producing lightning very quickly at times. Always keep an eye on the entire sky, not just where the lightning you’re photographing is.

Beyond your eyes and ears, the internet gives one access to lots of weather data, such as Doppler radar data, good forecasts, and information from other weather enthusiasts out and about. Accurate and up to date information can not only be beneficial to your planning, but it can make the difference between life and death from your actions. Smart phones now give us access to this type of data beyond the home environment. I use RadarScope on my iPhone (US only for now, at least), and I can’t recommend this particular app enough. I can see good Doppler radar data which helps me determine the path of a storm, its size, if it’s growing, and keep my eye on other developing systems nearby.

The first step to photographing lightning is aim your camera where the lightning is striking . . . but how does one do this when lightning isn’t something one can predict?

It’s a mixture of art and science with a bit random chance thrown in, too. In short, one must artistically compose the shot, then predict where the lightning will hit, and lastly there’s the random chance that the lightning in the frame is nice and doing something you like.

A broad line of storms may produce lightning in many places, and an isolated storm may be producing lightning in a relatively small area. These smaller storm cells make it easier for predicting where the lightning will be. Beyond the safety aspect: access to good and up to date weather data, as mentioned above, for your area can be very helpful when planning your lightning photography outing. This can help you predict where the lightning is most likely to occur (but don’t use that as a basis for choosing your location! Lightning can strike anywhere so this won’t guarantee your safety!). Doppler radar data helps me determine the overall size, path, and nature of a storm. It also tells me if it is building up and just getting started with activity or if it is winding down. Over time, you may observe that lightning happens in some areas more than others: around land features, or certain buildings, perhaps. I personally don’t use, nor have I used, the lightning sensing triggering devices. During the bright day, those may work to get lightning in place of just filling your memory card with shot after shot as long as you can (though at least you might have a nice time lapse movie of the cloud movement as a consolation prize!). The big downside here is the mechanical stress on your camera’s shutter.

Now that you have lightning, what settings work best?

Camera settings can vary widely based on several factors. How far away is the lightning? How bright are the individual strikes (which do vary)? How much ambient light is around? What style/look are you going for? But just saying that doesn’t help much for starting out!

Camera choice

I would recommend any camera that can do long exposures (over 1s long), especially models with bulb mode. A shutter release cable and a steady tripod are also important.

Lens choice

In many cases there will have been some lightning visible already. If so, you will likely know the rough Field of View (FoV) and focal length needed to make the lightning fill the frame as you desire. I typically use a 70-200mm lens. Weather sealed lenses are a plus, but you can use a shower cap, camera rain bag, or other things to help protect your expensive investments from rain. Whatever lens gets you the FoV you want without the need for you to be too close will do.

Focus

I would suggest focusing manually, but if you have sufficient light/contrast and you’re comfortable with your camera and lens’ autofocusing performance, it can work fine. I almost always use manual focus to ensure I have proper focus since lightning can quickly show focusing error. This focusing quite often results in an infinity focus, so if you find yourself without anything to use as a focus aid, that’s the setting to pick. However, as you may already know, the infinity mark on the lens usually isn’t good enough, so some knowledge of how your specific lens focuses will help. Live view has been a tremendous help for accurate focus for me. I look for a stationary light source that’s far enough away that I can focus accurately with live view for infinity. If using a zoom lens, I tend to re-focus anytime I change focal length since it often has some effect on the focus (even when manufacturers’ claim parfocal zoom lenses). I’m so critical of focus because lighting is a fairly harsh lens test. To the lens, lightning is very thin and very bright line, so it can show focusing errors as well as lens design flaws as point sources can.

Aperture

Since lightning can vary greatly in brightness, the aperture is where I usually control brightness, opening up for more distant or dimmer strikes. The main bolt, when it’s a cloud-ground or ground-cloud contact, will usually be brighter since it will contain the path of the greatest electrical current. This means that the smaller branches will be dimmer, and stopping down will obviously affect those, too. Sometimes there is so much ambient light that I can’t expose very long with the aperture that gives the result that I like

ISO

I’d recommend trying a low ISO, such as 100, to start with. Higher ISO can be useful to help capture more cloud illumination, but that can also lead to blowing the lightning out too much or more noise than idea when processing. Foreground details, or landscape forms, depending on the situation, can be brought out with higher ISO, but if it’s not an active storm you may have time for the longer exposure that you might normally use to get all the non-lightning details. Aperture clearly plays a big roll here, too. I personally don’t ever use Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) in camera, ever , so I’d also not recommend it here. Besides, it could mean you lose a shot waiting on a dark frame to complete.

Exposure and mode

The more time the sensor is exposed, the higher the chance you’ll get lightning. Unfortunately, this also means more noise, which you may have to deal with later. I usually photograph lightning in a rural area when it’s pretty dark out, so my exposures can often be arbitrarily long (noise being the primary reason for not exposing arbitrarily long). My chosen exposure time can vary a lot, so I use bulb mode to give me the most control. This lets me end an exposure exactly when I want to vs. having to wait for a preset exposure (when 30s or less on my camera). This way I can close the shutter right after a bolt if I’m wanting a simple shot, or leave it open longer to get more lightning if I want that. When I shoot at dusk, there is still too much ambient light for long exposures using bulb mode, so I will sometimes use continuous shooting mode with aperture priority to let the camera continually adjust the exposure as the light dims. It’s much harder to get lightning when the exposure is less than 1 second, though it can certainly be done. I don’t personally advise lightning trigger devices, either bought or made. They take some time to actually detect and trigger, resulting in most photos only having the return stroke: you’ll loose the nice branches. Though, sometimes a simple line of meandering lightning can look really nice!

As always, experimentation leads to good knowledge. This is your art you’re making, so in the end any settings that get you what you want would be the choice!

Drew Medlin, http://drewmedlin.com/

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