Sunday, June 4th 2006

Taking Photos of Lightning

Yesterday we had a thunderstorm, so I decided to try and catch a flash of lightning with my new 30D. I had been thinking of this previously, so I already had a plan:

Having the low ISO and small aperture made each exposure ~0.8 seconds, which was almost enough for the CF card to keep up. (A Sandisk 2GB Ultra II, if you’re wondering.) I later adjusted the camera to over-expose by 2/3 of a stop to get even longer exposures, ~1.3 secs. At this rate the JPEGs were written to the card as fast as they were being shot.

Having the camera set in drive mode with long shutter speeds meant that the camera was taking in light perhaps 2/3 of the time, or more. That means that the chances of a lightning strike ending up in a picture were fairly large.

About 20 minutes later I had 1,000 pictures to sift through. I caught four flashes, but none of the pictures are very awe-invoking. In fact, the last one you can barely see at all…

Flash 1

Well, this one is very small, but still one of the clearer sparks.

Flash 2

A very weak one. Didn’t find it when looking through the photos the first time…

Flash 3

The best one. Click and zoom into this one, it’s quite nice up close.

Flash 4

This one is very weak, but if you look at the high-res version you can see that it extends quite far over to the left. Pretty cool.

Obviously, these shots are pretty lousy as lightning photos go… But I had a good time anyway, and I now know that the technique works fairly well. Although, having used up 1% of my shutter’s expected life-span I wish I’d got some better shots… 🙂

If you’ve got a digital SLR I suggest you try this sometime. (Perhaps when you’ve got a thunderstorm.) Do stand somewhere safe though.

An ND filter would allow you to get even longer exposures, so as to reduce the number of frames somewhat and increase the chances of catching a flash on film … um … CMOS. It might also allow you to use a slightly larger aperture, to reduce visible sensor dust.

It would probably have been easier to do this if it had been a little darker, too. A darker scene would also have made for more impressive-looking shots I guess.

I did notice, after 700 odd shots, that the shutter had slowed noticeably. The exposures were still 1.3 secs, so the write speed shouldn’t have been the problem. In fact, the buffer was empty, so write speed can’t have been the problem. So I’m not sure why the camera did this. It was perhaps getting over-heated or something. So if you do try this, keep an eye on your camera and abort the experiment if you see smoke coming out from between the seals or the lens mount… 🙂

No Responses to this post:

  1. Eric Bichara says:

    Shots are looking awesome, i think ill be getting a 30D + Sigma 17-70mm too at the end of the summer…you lucky bastard

  2. David Naylor says:

    😀 Sorry to hear you won’t be getting it before the end of the summer.I saw that “Expert” in “Gallerian” (are there several?) in Sthlm had a copy of the Sigma lens on display. Maybe you could get it sooner, if it’s not a money issue?

  3. Anonymous says:

    mmm… it’s a dificult story taking pictures of lightning the way you are. If you want high res pro shots there is no other easy to go about it as far as I know. BUT… if you are just into it for getting some cool pics THEN… use a camorder! 1. It is way easier. 2. It is way more safer, meaning you don’t have to be standing outside – leave the thing filming outside while you are inside. 3. You get good lighnting pics by scrolling though the film frame by frame. Way better I recon, but hey! That’s just me. Check out my lightning storm and severe weather blog. Be safe…

  4. David Naylor says:

    cool! that’s a good idea. you’ve got some awsome lightning shots at your blog, even if the picture quality isn’t the best 🙂

  5. DocDizzy says:

    I was searching for methods of taking photos of lightning or atleast good ideas. I would say your on the right track, but I feel I have already tried most of what you have done or that my photos tend to turn out looking like yours did. If you get a chance where the lightning is over a lake, or using a lake as a forground after it has gotten darker out you may yeild better results, atleast I did. I wonder, have any of you heard of people using new DVD-Video Recorders for capturing lightning photos? If you have up to 32 frames a second I would think you could go back with a video editer watch the video and slow it up frame per frame after you see a strike and pick the one that looks best. *just and idea* It might save time from sorting through 1k photos. 😛 Anyways sorry bout the long post nice photos tho!

  6. Big T 01010100 says:

    The lightning photos that I have taken have been done using a different method. I set the exposure for a very long time up to 30s with a very small f stop (f22). I then wait for a night time thunderstorm and then start clicking away. I used to do this technique with film but haven’t tried it yet with digital. I got a lot more lightning strikes and with the long exposure it turns the night into day. Good luck.