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5 Tips To Capture Lightning

Every year Gary Hart and I travel to Arizona for monsoon workshops. In August of 2016 it will be our 4th time teaching one of our most adrenaline-filled workshops of the year!

First off, safety is our number one concern – lightning kills and injures close to 1,000 people per year in the United States alone (with injuries far outpacing deaths). It is not something to be taken lightly. According the NOAA, there have been 15 confirmed lightning deaths in 2015 in the United States alone.

So why do otherwise intelligent people want to put themselves in danger in the hopes of capturing a lightning image? Well, I can only speak for myself, but is has to do with capturing something different and unique.

With the grandeur and breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon, the excitement of chasing lightning images becomes an addiction.

Moreover, the opportunity to capture daytime lighting becomes even more addicting. Nighttime lighting is rather easy to capture – simply find a location where lightning is firing away from any ambient light, set the camera in Bulb mode (use a locking cable release) and just let the lightning do its thing.

Capturing daytime lighting is quite a different task. Lightning strikes can be timed in mere milliseconds making it almost impossible to capture manually. So without further adieu, here are my 5 tips for capturing daytime lightning.

1.) Purchase a Lightning Trigger

Lightning Triggers are devices that connect to your camera’s hot shoe, then plug into your remote port on the side of your camera. They are fantastic at capturing cloud-to-ground strikes and do a really good job also of capturing cloud-to-cloud lightning. There is only one Trigger I recommend: The Lightning Trigger IV. There are other cheaper brands on the market, but after having taught (4) lightning workshops, I can tell you nothing can beat it.

2.) Check Your Camera’s Shutter Lag Time

So here is where we get into a bit of the technical – you must pay attention to this step if you wish to have success. The cloud-to-ground bolts that the Lightning Trigger captures is usually the return bolt. There are two parts to a lightning strike, a down shaft and an up shaft. The down shaft is what the sensor in the lightning trigger detects and the trips the camera’s shutter. The up shaft (or return shaft) is what our eyes see and what our camera records.

It’s important to note that camera shutters (all cameras) have a lag time from the time we trip the shutter until the shutter actually opens. According to Rich Davis, who designed and builds the Lightning Trigger IV, a lag time of 60 milliseconds or less will guarantee the best chance for capturing lightning. Your lag time can be higher, but your misses may increase.

Camera manufacturers do not release shutter lag times, but Imaging Resource does. To find your camera’s lag time, simply go to Imaging Resource, search your camera, and then click on the Performance tab.

3.) Lag Times for Sony Mirrorless Cameras

I can save you time if your own any of the following Sony mirrorless cameras: Sony α7R II (0.212-sec.), Sony α6000 (0.15-sec.), a6300 (0.16-sec.) and Sony α7S II (0.19-sec). Because of the electronic first curtain, these cameras have incredible lag times, making these models the best cameras for lighting photography!

4.) Camera Settings

So you are now ready to go. You have your trigger, you grab your tripod, and you have checked your lag times.

Because we are trying to capture lighting during the day, it is important to control your ambient light. I begin with the lowest ISO (currently 50- ISO). Next, I make sure I have a polarizer attached to my lens, and I dial down the aperture to between f/16 – f/22. Yes you do introduce the potential for diffraction, but it is imperative to get the exposure correct. I also shoot in RAW mode as I can easily overexpose by as much as 1 stop and correct in Lightroom. Best shutter speeds are between 1/4- to 1/15-sec.

You can use ND filters but I find them a bit cumbersome when trying to get focus – a Variable ND may be your best option.

5.) Using Apps and Your Safety

There are two apps I use regularly when chasing and photographing lighting. The first is called Lightning Finder. This app shows within a minute where cloud-to-ground strikes are occurring within a 50-mile radius of where you are. From your center point, you are never more than 25 miles from where a strike is hitting. It allows me to track the direction of the cell.

My next app (and there are many of them) is called Weather Tap. It is a real-time Doppler radar and I can track cell movement and rain.

The bottom-line is this: If you hear thunder, you are not safe. Lightning can and will jump – sometimes as much as 5-10 miles. To determine how far away lightning is from you, you can utilize the “Flash to Bang” method. As soon as the flash strikes, start counting, “one-one-hundred, and two-one-hundred…” Now divide that number by 5.

Here are some recommendations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

  • Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks
  • Never lie flat on the ground
  • Never shelter under an isolated tree
  • Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter
  • Immediately get out and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water
  • Stay away from objects that conduct electricity (barbed wire fences, power lines, windmills, etc.)

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