Dancing naked to the rhythm of Thor’s hammer with your 35 mm point-and-shoot in hand is not a prudent approach to lightning photography. However, safety and lightning photography don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, when I’m out photographing a storm, my primary consideration is taking care of me! Secondary to safety, my concern is how to position my camera to enhance the composition. These two objectives can work together. All you need to do is to remember one simple principle: let your lens do the work for you. The following are some interwoven photo and safety tips that will help you to enjoy lightning photography without getting zapped:
Use the thirty-second rule to estimate lightning distance. Never be outside when lightning is striking closer than six miles from the place where you’re standing (thirty seconds between the flash and the crash of thunder). Be especially observant of storm development around you. If you’re photographing a supercell, extend your safety distance to ten miles or more.
The best location from which to photograph a storm is at a distance greater than six miles. Positioning yourself where the storm is passing transverse to your field of view provides a safe location to photograph and to isolate the region of the storm where the ground stroke activity is most concentrated. It also allows you to track the active area as the storm changes. The use of a medium telephoto lens will allow you to compose the Lightning Landscape and determine the degree to which the lightning flash plays a role in the image. Wide-angle zooms in the 28-200 mm range provide excellent flexibility for lightning photography.
Isolated cells are the easiest and safest to photograph, and they also provide the best photo opportunities. Embedded systems usually have multiple cells producing lightning and are more difficult to capture. They also tend to be less photogenic, since they’re mostly gray with flat contrast.
Lightning strikes will occur in any region in and around a storm. Typically, you’ll observe not only the strikes preceding, trailing, and within the rain shaft, but also often in places where there is no rain. Strikes may occur from the upper regions of the storm and travel outside of the cell to the ground. Although you observe that the lightning activity is happening only around the rain shaft some six miles away, you shouldn’t position yourself under the cloud. Relocate to a safe distance.
Always be aware of objects around you that may attract or conduct lightning. Fences and overhead lines dominate the landscape. Don’t set your camera closer than fifty feet from a pole or a fence line–even if the storm appears to be more than six miles away.
Photographing advancing storms is not only dangerous, but also difficult to do since the area of lightning activity broadens as the storm approaches. The area of the storm where the lightning activity is striking changes constantly as the storm develops or dissipates. You should keep a close eye on the storm development to maximize both your photographic opportunities and your safety.
At distances closer than six miles from the storm, you should limit your photographic activities to shots taken from indoors or from within a metal-bodied automobile. The use of a windowpod is recommended when you’re photographing from within a vehicle. Avoid photographing storms that are close. Again, the closer you are, the more difficult it will be for you to predict where the lightning wll strike. It’s best for you to relocate to a safe area. Remember, distance equals safety, and distance equals the best photo opportunity. Let your lens do the work!
by R Franklin Davis