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Inspiration / Interviews

Lightning Touches Missoula – By Steve

“How I got the shot” by Steve

The other day I saw this picture our friend Steve took…. I was blown away! I feel it should be on the cover of a magazine it’s amazing! The other part that is amazing is  we live in the same town so he literally took this picture in my backyard. I was so curious how he captured this picture. When I asked him if he would share his experience he said “yes”! Today we can all learn together how Steve took this brilliant picture!  Read on to find out what to expect when capturing lightning as well as the settings used to capture this picture…

Photo taken by Steve!

On Tuesday night, July 17th, I was sitting around the house playing on my computer. I noticed that the wind was starting to kick up pretty good, and the lights began flickering. During the summer months, that usually means only one thing: Thunderstorm!

I just started to get serious about photography about a year ago when I bought my first DSLR camera (a Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D) from a co-worker. I have always been a picture taker, but not owning a good SLR camera always kind of kept me from getting too serious about photography. So when I finally got my DSLR I took it upon myself to learn all that I could, watching videos, visiting websites, and chatting with people on forums. One of the things I had been really interested in capturing is lightning. I have seen so many cool lightning shots, and I really wanted to learn how they got them. I did some research, learned the basics of capturing a good thunderstorm and waited to try my hand at it… and waited, and waited…

I finally got my chance to snap a few shots about a month ago. I didn’t really plan on going anywhere special, so I just set up out of my back yard and tried to capture as many strikes as I could. I got a couple of decent shots, but nothing too impressive. So I waited for another good storm to come along.

On the night that this shot was taken, I hadn’t really planned on taking the camera out. I saw the trees bending and swaying in the wind and knew that there was a good storm moving through, but didn’t think too much of it. Then I looked out the window and saw a really eerie golden light shining on the neighbor’s garage door. I looked out to the west, and you could see a storm front moving towards the sunset, the rain and clouds barely obscuring the light from the sun. Once I saw this, I immediately grabbed the camera and tripod and headed out the door, hoping to find a good hilltop from which to shoot the sunset with the storm closing in on it. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a good spot and ended up driving up to the south hills to watch it from the distance.

As the storm was moving off to the northeast, out of the range where I could get any shots, I started to notice some lightning from the opposite direction. I really had nowhere to be, so I just hung out for a little while waiting for the storm to move in, taking some shots of Missoula. I hung out there for maybe 45 minutes, and just as I had hoped, the storm was starting to move closer and closer to town. I started pointing my camera in that direction, taking as many long exposure shots as I could. Every now and then I would be rewarded by a nice, unobscured lightning bolt. For a little while, Mother Nature decided it would be fun to toy with me and shoot a bolt down just as I was about to click the button. For about ten shots in a row, I ended up with nothing but a black screen while lightning flashed just as the shutter closed.

After a few more minutes the lightning started getting closer and a lot more intense. I adjusted my settings on the camera a little bit, testing some things out. I bounced around from 20 second exposures to 15 seconds, to 8 seconds just to see what affect they would have. I finally settled on a 15 second exposure with aperture f/6.7. I took a few shots with those settings and they seemed to work pretty well. So I decided I would leave my camera on those settings and keep the shutter open as much as I could.

Just after I opened the shutter, there was a huge, brilliant flash exactly in the direction I had my camera pointed. As the bolt struck the ground, I kind of knew that I had my shot! I was pretty excited to see if I could get some more. As the storm intensified, I started taking more and more and more shots! Then suddenly, the much dreaded, red-lettered message appeared in the center of my screen: Battery Exhausted. Since I wasn’t planning on being out very long, I didn’t bring my camera bag or a spare battery. My night was over.

I got home and uploaded all of the pictures to my computer. I counted 128 shots and most of them were completely black with the exception of a few streetlights scattered here and there. As I moved through the filmstrip view at the bottom of LightRoom, I noticed one really brilliant, beautiful shot sticking out. I immediately opened it on my computer, and it ended up being even better than I imagined it would. With a little bit of touch up in LightRoom, it was ready to share.

So now that I have my story out of the way, you are probably wondering how you can capture a good lightning shot yourself. Here are some tips that I learned from experience and research:

  • Make sure you have a good DSLR camera with a fairly wide angle lens. I used a 28-70mm zoom lens set at 28mm.
  • Bring a remote trigger. I actually forgot mine this particular evening, but when taking any kind of long exposure shots, you really should have one. If you don’t, you can use the timer on your camera. Simply click the button, and by the time the shutter clicks your camera should be stable.
  • Make sure you have a good tripod or some other steady surface to place your camera. You will have to take long exposures, so you want to make sure the camera doesn’t move.
  • Bring an extra battery. Long exposure shots drain your battery more quickly, and you will probably need to take a lot of shots before Mother Nature decides to cooperate with you.
  • Bring lots and lots of patience. While timing and luck will make the shot, you will have to take a lot of less than perfect exposures before you get the shot you want. I took about 130 shots before I got one really good picture. You may not be so lucky!
  • The key to capturing a good lightning shot is patience and luck.

While it’s easy to just point your camera in a direction and hope something flashes in front of it, you still want to keep the basic rules of photography in mind. So when you are aiming your camera, be sure to keep composition in mind. Frame the shot like you would if you were not expecting the additional feature. That way, when you are graced by nature, you will have a good shot for her to highlight. Obviously you will want to make sure you have as much of the sky in your shot as you can get, but don’t neglect the other features of the landscape.

When you take lightning shots, the easiest way is to compose your shot and then adjust your camera so that you can get the longest exposure possible. I played around with shutter and aperture settings quite a bit while I was shooting. I finally settled on an aperture somewhere in the middle (6.7, but I hear between 8 and 11 are the real sweet spots) which gave me an exposure time of around 15 seconds. Having the shutter open for longer increases your chance that lightning will flash in front of it. Be patient as it may take a lot of shots before you get the one you hoped for.

One trick that I tried the first time I shot lightning was to put the camera on continuous exposure mode and then lock the remote trigger (if you have one). This way, the camera immediately takes another shot after the first long exposure completes. The night that I forgot my remote, I missed so many shots while I was reaching up to press the shutter button!

The most important thing to keep in mind while photographing lightning is safety. If you can, try to shoot the storm from a distance. No picture is worth putting your life at risk, so take some precautions to make sure the lightning bolt you capture isn’t striking you! Do not stand on a hill or other high point if the lightning is getting close. Keep away from trees or wide open fields. If you think the storm is getting too close, either shoot from inside your car (or house) or just wait until the next storm blows through.

Photographing nature’s light show is both fun and rewarding. Just remember to bring the right gear and a lot of patience and you will get some spectacular photos to add to your collection.

All photographs appearing on this site are the property of their respective owner. They are protected by Copyright Laws, and are not to be downloaded or reproduced in any way without the written permission of their respective owners.

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