A guide on how to capture daytime lightning photography.
The sound of thunder is rolling in the distance. It’s 2 o’clock on a mid-summer afternoon and the monsoon storms are building. I look outside and the storm is alone in an otherwise clear sky about 10 miles distant with deep purplish clouds and a broad anvil flaring northward.
Ground strokes are pounding frequently with impressive forks arcing earthward.
Ordinarily, I would just watch the storm pass by, wait till dark, and hope another storm would develop. Then, I could gather my camera, watch, and go photograph the lightning flashes against the black night sky.
But, this time, I’m going to photograph lightning in the middle of the day. No, I don’t have a shutter finger faster than a western outlaw. And, no I’m not taking a backpack full of film to shoot.
I’m using a Lightning Trigger and the techniques for capturing lightning have changed. They are simple. First compose your shot, then set your exposure and let the Lightning Trigger trip the shutter! No more bulb settings and timing the exposure.
Why I Enjoy Daytime Lightning Photography
I’m a landscape photographer by passion. Consequently, I have never been strongly drawn to photographing lightning in the dark.
I require the inspiration and challenge of pursuing color filled scenics, and being able to combine them with nature’s fastest phenomena is an exciting plus. I’m almost jaded these days though, because it seems that the most spectacular landscapes have already been exquisitely captured.
How many versions of Delicate Arch or Havasu Falls or Half Dome do you see published each year? I’m not saying they’re not beautiful, just that I, like most people need to feel the spark of creativity from my photography.
I’m in search of the right composition as I drive along a gravel road paralleling the storm. There’s not a lot of time. Thunderstorms are dynamic. Their life cycle of cloud building, generating rain and lightning then dissipating can happen before you can find the right setting to take the photograph.
Not only to mention that, but also lightning never strikes where you might predict; this brings to mind the safety aspect.
Always photograph lightning from inside a vehicle or a house. You can shoot hand held or with a tripod from within a safe location. Never risk your safety for a photograph! There are several great sources for lightning safety tips that I always adhere to.
The image I’m searching for will provide a sense of place, non-intimidating, that will help complement the awesome spectacle of nature. Most often though, I’ll find myself the balancing the quality of storm with the setting. Great shots, with or without lightning are difficult to come by.
Lone, distant storms provide the best photo ops; embedded thunderstorms are very difficult to photograph. It may sound contrary, but if it’s raining around you, you’ll loose image quality. But, then again that’s part of the creative aspect one pursues. I’ve obtained some great shots of storms 20 miles distant. The Lightning Trigger is very sensitive!
Also, I’ve found that chasing storms is just a figure of speech. Travelling at 30 miles per hour or more, they often dissipate before they are caught up with. My best results have come from serendipitous situations, just being in the right place. One of my favorite images was obtained after having spent four hours following a storm only to come back and find another one pounding a mountain near my home.
As all the elements congeal, it’s time to set up and photograph. I’ve found some green pasture against the purplish sky that will provide good contrast for the lightning. I usually set my aperture at f/16 or higher to maximize the shutter time.
A 1/8 to ¼ second exposure time is desirable to capture the full duration of the lightning flash. Flashes can last from 20 milliseconds to longer than a ¼ second and be comprised of more than a dozen strokes. A polarizer or neutral density filter is often needed to achieve such a long exposure time.
Depending on the camera I’m using, I’ll usually set the exposure to manual mode to minimize the shutter lag time and ensure that I capture as much of the flash as possible.
After shooting several impressive flashes it’s time to move on and find more compositions.
It’s not unusual to shoot two rolls of film during a single storm.
If the storm has a good ratio of ground strokes to sheet lightning then you’ll obtain a lot of images with flashes. The Lightning Trigger doesn’t differentiate between the two types of flashes. Knowing whether there was an increasing or decreasing electric field will tell which form of lightning occurred.
Unfortunately, knowing that would be too late for taking a picture! My favorite films for shooting lightning are ISO 100 or slower. Transparency or print films work equally as well. I usually venture down to a discount store and buy the cheapest brand.
Light quality is always important to photography. One difference in daytime lightning photography is that you can find saturated colors at anytime.
Generally the cooler tones are found during the mid-day storms. Early morning and PM storms have mixed warm and cool tones. So, you’ve’ got to be ready to go at anytime!
If you like new challenges and want to expand your portfolio, then daytime lightning photography might be just the ticket you’ve been waiting for!
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the Lightning Trigger does nighttime lightning too. It automatically adjusts to the ambient light level. The camera settings are the similar, f/4 and ¼ second.
By R. Franklin Davis