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Waking up from a dream

Arizona Monsoon Lightning Sedona

 

(click to see larger with a nice, dark border. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 85mm 1.8, f/5.6, ISO 200, 30 sec)

I rarely post a blog without a picture and even though this one is meant to be a recap of sorts of the events of last week, I had to include an image of a lightning strike I captured Sunday night. Actually, as I’m writing this in the wee hours of Monday morning, the strike happened less than an hour ago.

We’re on vacation in Sedona, back on Tuesday early morning, late last night I saw a storm popping up on radar, I could see flashes from our condo, so I blasted west on 89A and had a field day.

Where to Begin?

Because of the events of last week, not only was my website slammed with traffic and unusable for me, I was also so busy that I had no time to even think about what was happening. I almost see the website being down as a blessing in disguise, because now I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it all meant to me.

But if you know me well enough, you’ll remember that I love to write, I love to blog, so not being able to do so has been killing me. So let’s get down to business.

For those that don’t know, my video of the Phoenix Haboob/Dust Storm from last Tuesday night went viral in a matter of hours (along with my cohort Scott Wood’s video). From that moment until the weekend, my life became some kind of weird surreal dream that almost feels like never happened to me.

I don’t want to write lengthy dissertation here, but I do want to kind of recount what happened, answer some questions and generally share my feelings on all of it.

The Storm

As with most things that go viral, it’s all about being in the right place, at the right time and getting lucky. I was already shooting a sunset timelapse downtown when someone sent me a Twitpic of the duststorm hitting the East Valley. I’ve been wanting to capture a dust storm or lightning over downtown Phoenix from my favorite spot on 7th ST. and I-10, so I packed everything up and drove down there.

It was after I setup that I realized this dust storm was something different. I didn’t have enough tools to capture it correctly. I wanted a wider lens. A second HD video camera. Another camera with a fisheye. I knew what I was seeing was absolutely amazing.

I even thought to myself…”This might even make it on The Weather Channel if I do it right.

I’d like to clear up one thing though, for those that care. I’ve gotten a teeny bit of slack out there from people in the comments on blogs, etc., about not capturing the dust actually HITTING me, but instead bailing a few seconds early. In reality, the dust cloud was a lot closer to me off camera to the left than it was in front. After I took the last shot, it was literally five seconds before I was enveloped in complete darkness.

Here is an Instagram shot I took from the inside of the car right after it hit:

If I had stayed in that cloud of dust, opening and closing my shutter, it might have wrecked my Canon 5D Mark II. That’s the reason I bailed early. I use the camera for weddings, portraits, events…and it’s not that cheap to replace it *grin*

The Aftermath

I went home afterwards and put together the timelapse. Scott had already posted his before mine and had already gone viral on his own. The @BreakingNews Twitter account that has 2.7 million followers and RT-ed his video. Wow. Then Gizmodo picked it up. Went nuts.

I got mine up a bit after he did. I posted on Vimeo and embedded it in a blog which turned out awesome (and bad). A SEO lesson to everyone out there…if a major event happens, the most obvious title in the world is going to work best. I called the post “Phoenix Haboob of July 5th, 2011.” Guess what everyone was searching for that night? I had Google search results in a matter of minutes. In fact, before midnight I had around 1,000 unique visitors looking for ANYTHING about the dust storm.

Then Gizmodo picked it up. I had posted the video on Vimeo and suddenly it was getting thousands of hits. A friend of mine in Seattle sent me a DM on Twitter saying he saw my name and video on his local news. Wow.

A good guy named Keith over at the Phoenix National Weather Service told me to get my video in the hands of the networks because I should be making money off of it. He helped search for things for me on where to post it. So as I watched Scott’s on TWC, gritting my teeth, I submitted the video to CNN, TWC and emailed some contacts at MSNBC. It was 3am when I finally laid down on the couch to catch some sleep.

I decided not to sleep in the bedroom because I thought if the phone rang, I didn’t want to wake up the wife.

Sure enough, CNN called at 5:15am.

July 6th

I honestly don’t know if I will ever have a moment quite like that again. Just over two hours of sleep. My phone never rings that early. I did the thing we all do when woken up with a phone and tried to pretend I was wide awake. I failed miserably.

But it was CNN. CN freaking N. Calling me. I honestly couldn’t believe it. All I did was submit it to their iReport website. I had been pretty doubtful they’d even notice it.

They did though. And that phone call was amazing. A guy interviewed me quickly about it and said it would be on in about an hour.

Then MSNBC.com called. An hour later my video was on their frontpage next to Casey Anthony.

From there things just got wild. A Skype interview with Today.com’s Dara Brown. Then The Weather Channel called to also setup two Skype interviews. Then Channel 3 had me and Scott come down to do an interview.  People were calling about getting permission to use it. NBC and the CBS nightly news.  John King, sitting in for Anderson Cooper, said my name on CNN.

At the same time, because the video being embedded everywhere had my contact information at the end, my email was out of control. New Twitter followers, Facebook friends, comments on my blog, on my fan page.

The website crashed multiple times. The traffic was overwhelming to my little host’s server. We created a single page and moved the website to another host as a temp fix.

I don’t even know how to describe that day. Barely any sleep and I forgot to eat until around 2pm. I was in a perpetual state of nervous energy/excitement all day. I’m a guy with a hefty fear of public speaking, and suddenly I had to do live interviews on TWC.

Every single moment of that day was a blessing to me and something I’ll never be able to forget. Although, in some ways, it was such a blur I’m surprised I remember anything at all.

What Stands Out?

As the week went on, the video spread everywhere, all over the world. People were telling me they saw it in Germany and all their friends over there were talking about. New Zealand. Australia. Japan. And as I said, it was on all these major networks, blogs and TV stations.

But to be completely honest, it was a lot of the little things that stood out to me as being the most impactful.

A teacher in the Philippines emailed me to let me know she had shown it to her class of children and they had watched it with mouths wide open. Wow. I got choked up reading that for some reason.

And my friend Josh said he out eating dinner at a sushi bar and some random girl sitting next to him was watching the video on her phone. That was the one story that made me understand just how many people were actually seeing this thing.

Of course, one little tidbit that wasn’t exactly small, was former Vice President Al Gore’s office emailing me with interest in the video for his presentations. He’d seen it and loved it. That’s insane.

There were a lot of cool opportunities presented last week and so the story isn’t over yet.

Final Thoughts

As I said in the beginning of this post, all of this feels like it happened to someone else. It already seems like it was just a weird blip that took place. News happens fast and within a few days, it’s not a story anymore. I was eager to get back to normal blogging and posting of photos.

But I am eternally thankful to everyone who supported me, who encouraged me to get the video out there, who called, emailed or showed up at my door with a napkin to jokingly ask for an autograph. There were so many of you who had such amazingly kind words to say to me about the video or about my work in general. A lot of new fans discovering stuff we have in common when it comes to photography. New followers on Twitter. New friends on Facebook.

I appreciate and am grateful to all the local networks, websites, blogs and news stations that showed the video and spread the word. A once in a lifetime opportunity. Thank you.

Thanks to Scott and also Blaine Coury (see his own timelapse here) for their support and friendship throughout this. And to Keith for giving me a kick-start.

But mainly to my wife Jina. I was essentially a non-participant in daily duties last week and into the weekend and she’s been amazing throughout the whole thing.  I know I gush about her a lot, but without her, this video would never have happened in the first place…and she knows it…and I know it.

And of all the places my video has appeared, nothing was better than Jina writing about me on the Hey Little Birdie blog she helps run.

If anyone has any questions about anything that happened, you can email me or ask in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer it!

Again, thank you all!

 

Saguaro Alley

Saguaro Alley Phoenix Arizona Desert

(click to view scaled down to your resolution with a nice black border, or if you have a huge monitor, see it a little bit bigger!)

Last week Wednesday  marked the first day out stormchasing the 2011 Arizona monsoon. In reality, nothing much happened other than few isolated, brief downpours over Phoenix. I met up with my buddy Chris Frailey who has joined the cause of tossing his gas money down into the gully where I dump mine…and we drove around Bush Highway a bit over by Saguaro Lake and got a few shots, but nothing “stormy” to speak of.

As usually happens, this picture was by accident. I was looking behind this scene as I was driving at some clouds and was trying to find some cactus to get in the shot since there was little else to use in the area. As I got out of the truck, I looked up and saw this lone cloud all lit up by the setting sun and it turned out to be a much better shot than I what I was going for.

I’m pretty beat. This holiday weekend actually seemed to last a looong time, mostly because I didn’t sleep a whole lot. Watched the entire Lord of The Rings: Extended Edition on Blu-Ray, and chased Saturday, Sunday and last night. I have a few lightning captures to post, one of them something I haven’t shot before and it will land on the blog tomorrow for Movie Title Wednesday.

Time for a break though. Tonight, I’m going to sit back and wait to see if any storms roll through downtown Phoenix, and if so, then I shoot, if not, I will be lazy on the couch.

(exif: canon 5d mark ii, canon tamron 17-35mm 2.8, 17mm, iso100, f/13)

Welcomed sight

Storm Clouds Over Phoenix

(click to see the image fit on your screen with a black border, or larger if you have an insanely huge monitor)

The clouds in this picture are child’s play compared to what is coming or what I’ve already seen this year. But it doesn’t matter…I am excited about them anyways. We haven’t had rain or a storm here in Arizona in probably a month and nothing like the towering monsoon storms that we get during the summers.

Yesterday officially launched my 2011 stormchasing campaign. I had daughter-duty, so we grabbed toys, snacks, juice, dvd player, movies and whatever else I could think of to keep this kid occupied all afternoon/evening. I grabbed the umbrella (which I knew would be pointless), tripod, camera bag and we ran out the door around 4:30pm. I would realize later that I remembered everything except to change out of my flip-flop sandals into sneakers. Dumb.

There are big ants and sharp pointy objects in the desert…just an fyi.

This is why I love my daughter (well one of the bazillion reasons): Before we left I said to Lyla…“Okay, you ready to chase some storms and see some cool clouds?”

And I swear she goes, without prompting:

“And lightning!”

Love.Her. And she’s just two and a half.

As soon as we left, she looks up…“Daddy, look at the clouds!”

What a trooper. We didn’t get home until 9pm and visited not only south of town but then all the way up to the Beeline Highway/Bush Highway intersection northeast of Phoenix. She was having a ball and it suddenly made this summer seem like it might be a bit more fun on days I take her with me.

We saw some things, ran into my buddy Chris Frailey and shot a bit together, but mostly it was just clouds like this. Rain fell, reports of hail in town…but tiny, brief, isolated incidents. This weekend, especially Monday, looks to be huge and I’m pumped.

Oh, btw, the lower left has some birds flying in the distance, those aren’t dust spots *grin*

(canon 5d mark ii, canon 50mm 1.4, f/16, iso 100, 1/125)

The Return of the King

Sunset on the Kansas Prairie

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to have to find some image to use for the finale of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in celebration of the release of the Extended Editions on Blu-Ray. Well, that release happened yesterday, I received my copy and it’s sitting there looking pretty, waiting to be watched.

The first two movies have been used already, so it was The Return of the King that needed an image. And this is what I came up with.

It may not look like anything from the movie. In fact, I don’t know how to even lie and make you believe it came from it. This is the Kansas prairie. Doesn’t remind me of Mordor, or Gondor, or Rohan…or even the Fangorn Forest (nerd alert!).

But if you are just going off the title, I kind of dig it. For me there is this majestic, powerful feel to the sun bursting through the clouds. It makes the surrounding landscape feel small and trivial compared to this explosion of light. As if something awesome were making an appearance after a long sleep.

If I failed to mention it before, these movies are near and dear to me. The books made a huge impact with me as a young kid. I can’t explain it, but they did. And years later they decide to make real movies about them, and somehow they create a world on-screen that almost completely matched what I had imagined as a I read the stories. It was amazing.

I loved the originals, but once the extended versions came out, there was no reason to watch the shorter one. They just weren’t the “real” story anymore. So to finally have these guys in beautiful Blu-Ray, 1080p high-definition is awesome. Cannot wait to find time to watch these guys from start to finish.

ONE LAST THING…

I’m wordy today, sorry. This image is a bit inspired by my buddy Jesse Pafundi whom I admire big time. His work has changed this year and it’s been awesome to see. At the same time we both had been moving away from HDR being so involved in our workflow…him more than me. I think he’s done away with it entirely. I still use it a lot but with a different approach. But we’ve had long chats about this subject and how we’re changing.

The photo above…I tried it as a tonemapped image and it failed. I couldn’t get it right. And then I realized I didn’t need to. Why was I forcing it? I liked the composition, the clouds, the sun…it just needed a little weathering to look how I wanted it to. Took 20 seconds.

Anyways…don’t be afraid to leave something behind that used to be so dear to you. It was just part of the journey to get you where you are today.

(canon 5d mark ii, tamron 17-35mm 2.8, 17mm, f/22, iso 100, 1/50)

My 2011 stormchasing trip in 7 minutes

(To view this video in HD, click right here to go to Vimeo…a lot better quality.

I had a different post set for today, but the clouds this morning and the humid-ish area has me excited for the monsoon season here in Arizona which could make an appearance as early as tomorrow!

I finally finished working on the video from my stormchasing trip back on May 9-11. Most of the video I shot was kind of boring since the a lot of the trip turned out to be a bust, but I put together the best clips I had. I think you’ll enjoy the lightning show the most…the second clip is pretty incredible in terms of the non-stop nature of the flashes. I apologize for my silly voiceovers!

All the video was shot with the 5D Mark II and I have to say, it was awesome. Next year when I do this though, I’ll bring along a 70-200mm. Being able to zoom around like that would have been nice, especially for some of the distant lightning.

Below are two images I captured along the way. The first one has a radio/cell/TV (whatever) antenna in it and I’ve always wanted to get a good lightning shot with one of these in the frame. Not the best lightning, but still fun!

The second one was shot after the final lightning clip in the video. As I’ve said before, I love up-close lightning that fills the frame, but there is something cool about seeing the entire cloud from far away.

Snow on the Four Peaks

Snow on the Four Peaks Arizona

Back on the very last day of December, I posted a picture of the Four Peaks mountain range fresh after a snow storm hit them. You can see that one below. I didn’t process the one above for awhile after that, but eventually got around to working on it. I’m glad I did because it ended up being kind of cool for me to really see how fast things can change when viewing a landscape.

The top photo occurred exactly 7 minutes and 42 seconds after the one below. I moved spots between the two captures…going lower I believe for the top one.

It’s kind of amazing to see this back on frames instead of what you saw with your eyes. While I  totally witnessed this and knew what was happening…it’s hard to top a before and after pair of images.

Oh, and if I haven’t said it before…man I love Arizona.

(top – exif: canon rebel xsi, canon 50mm 1.4, f/14, iso 100) (bottom – exif: canon rebel xsi, canon 50mm 1.4, f/16, iso 100)

Snow on the Four Peaks Arizona

 

This Old House

An old, scary house in Kansas

(looks scarier with a dark lightbox around it. Click image to scare yourself)

A little more “farmex” straight from my recent stormchasing trip to the midwest. This image was taken a bit south and west of Wichita, Kansas.

I dig creepy places and shooting them, but unless I got a buddy with me, I’m not sure I could go much closer than this. Wind was blowing, creaking sounds were coming from the house and the surrounding trees…it was definitely giving me goosebumps.

I passed so many places like this. Old, abandoned farms, silos, houses, sheds…it was amazing. Highly recommend Kansas if you are looking for this kind of subject.

(exif: canon 5d mark ii, canon 50mm 1.4, iso 100, f/16, 1/80)

 

The Fellowship of the Ring

It’s a stretchy-stretch Movie Title Wednesday…meaning the exact correlation between the image and the film may not be completely obvious. And perhaps, it’s totally misnamed. I debated this one, but I honestly couldn’t find too many films that dealt with trees or have trees featured prominently in them.

Either way, we’re stuck with Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. And in reality, I could think of a bazillion worse movies to be stuck with. In fact, this trilogy (or one giant movie as I like to think of them) is my favorite of all-time. As a kid I read the books for the first time and was blown away. I don’t think I understood a lot of it until I read it a second time years later. Then I got it. And since then I’ve read the books maybe 10 times. Not coincidentally, also my favorite books ever.

So when the movies were being made, I was so stoked and could only hope they’d be decent. And of course, they were awesome. Amazing films, they captured the essence of the books so well, I felt like what I had imagined in my head so many times was suddenly out there on the big screen.

Now that’s all interesting, but what does it have to do with a big tree on a hillside? Well, if you’ve seen the film or read the books, you know there is a giant…massive “Party Tree” where Bilbo celebrated his birthday and made his infamous farewell speech. For the movies, director Peter Jackson found the absolute perfect tree and setting to represent The Shire, Bilbo’s hobbit hole and the Party Tree. Photographer Trey Ratcliff traveled to New Zealand not too long ago and got a shot of this epic scene, which you can see right here.

I took this picture while on my “stormchasing” trip in Kansas, and as you can see, there are no storms in sight. I did crawl under and over two sets of barbed wire to get this shot though, so there was some “excitement” and “danger” involved…haha.

(exif: canon eos 5d mark ii, tamron 17-35mm 2.8, 19mm, f/22, iso 100, 1/20th)

A tree in the wind

(click to see a bigger tree with a nice black border)

Time for a nice little break from all the storm photos! So sometimes you get shots on purpose and most of the time it seems they come from unplanned moments or complete accidents.

While I was in Kansas awaiting a line of storms to move into my vicinity, I sat at a pull-out and took a nap. I hadn’t slept but two hours in the last 30, so I was beat. I woke up about 30 minutes later and of course had to use the restroom. There was a lot of traffic on the road, so I wandered away from my car around some haystacks to find a little privacy. Yeah, I took my camera. I dunno why, I think I wanted to make people driving by think I was actually out taking pictures, not trying to relieve myself.  Maybe because there was a gas station across the street, but I was just too lazy to drive over there. Who knows. I had just woken up!

Either way, I wandered around a bit and saw this tree moving with the wind. It was just a tree along this recently cut wheat field, but I think it was the way it looked swooshing around in this strong breeze that caught my attention. I also had my 50mm on the camera and opened it up to f/1.8 and focused on the nearest leaf to me, leaving the rest of the tree falling off into bokeh-ville. I saw it on my screen after shooting it and fell in love with it.

There is something beautiful to me about the sound of a tree blowing in the wind. I think I sometimes link it to the approach of a coming storm…where it’s been quiet, but the wind picks up, the leaves start rustling around and you know something is on the horizon. I watched the tree for a few minutes before moving on.

(exif: canon eos 5d mark ii, canon 50mm 1.4, f/1.8, iso 100, 1/1250th)

A lightning photography tutorial

(exif: canon eos 5d mark ii, canon 85mm 1.8, iso 100, f/7.1, 30 sec – Click for a larger view – Taken this summer in Arizona)

Whenever I post lightning photos, I usually get a few questions about HOW I shoot them. What’s most surprising though are the ones I get from fellow photographers. In the last few days I’ve received a few questions that can basically be summed up like this:

“How do you get the timing right?”

The other one I get is whether or not I used a lightning trigger. I’ll address that later in this post.

I’m not mentioning this as a way to belittle those photogs with that question. I guess I just assumed that everyone that has a DSLR would know how to shoot lightning. I mean, the reason I bought my first one was BECAUSE of what it could do for me when it came to photographing lightning. Obviously I’m realizing now that it’s not something that everyone readily knows and so I figured I’d write up a little lightning photography tutorial on how I get my shots.

Let’s get started.

Opening Statement

I figured I would just start with this: The hardest part isn’t the timing. Timing doesn’t matter (mostly).

The hardest part is finding the lightning.

What You Need

My first lightning photos were captured using a Point & Shoot that could take 3 shots a second. I put it on a tripod and held the shutter button down. It would take about 100 photos before it quit and I had to re-press the shutter. The timing was everything on this because lightning can take place faster than quarter second and you can miss it easily.

Or you can miss the beginning of the strike. Or the end. You want all of it. I want all of it. Look at the photo at the top of this post.

You can shoot that way if you want, but if you are serious about lightning photography, you have to lose that crutch of “timing.”

Equipment list:

  • A DSLR camera
  • Tripod
  • External shutter release
  • Extra batteries
  • Ability to shoot wide or zoomed
  • Umbrella (or something to keep your camera dry if you can)
  • A healthy fear of lightning
  • Luck

Your camera should have a Bulb mode or at least the ability to shoot up to 30-second exposures. Most do, but just make sure  your camera’s shutter can be triggered using a remote shutter release.

Shutter releases can come in a few styles. There are simple manual releases, like this one from Canon. Or ones that allow you to sit back and relax while your camera does the work, like this one.

Lenses are important. Sometimes a wide angle is great, but it also means you are practically right under the lightning which isn’t always a good idea. With my full-frame Mark II, I’d rather use either my 50mm 1.4 or 85mm 1.8. The photo at the top of this tutorial was with the 85mm. It allow you to to zoom into a storm that isn’t right on top of you. Prime lenses are also super-sharp and seem to give the best results.

What I’d really love of course would be a 70-200 for lightning because you can cover a ton of ground with that thing. I still love my primes though.

One of the reasons I like to use a wide angle from time to time is when I want to get the scope of a thunderstorm along with some lightning, instead of the lightning being the main focal point.

Settings and Whatnot

You see lightning a few miles away, it’s dark out, so you pull off into a nice, open area…take out the camera, mount it on your tripod and now want to shoot some lightning. What do you do?

Here are the steps I tend to go through:

  1. Plug in my shutter release
  2. Put the camera in Manual or Bulb
  3. ISO to 100
  4. Aperture to f/5.0 or greater
  5. Shutter speed to 15 seconds (or skip this in bulb mode)
  6. Aim towards the lightning
  7. Fire off a practice shot

This stuff can vary of course. If it’s still dusk out, I’ll put my aperture to the smallest it can go (like f/22 or something) and perhaps even put a CPL filter or an ND filter to help stop down the light a bit.  It just depends on what you are doing or the situation you are in.

But if it’s dark out, the above settings are a good starting point. If your practice shot is too bright, increase your F-stop or shorten your exposure.

Aperture and ISO

Two very important aspects of your shot are the settings of the aperture and ISO. I’ll just talk briefly about what they do for you and why you want them where they are.

ISO is always, ideally, at 100. Especially at night when you have a dark sky and bright lightning. Bumping it to ISO 800 would only end up causing overexposure. During the daytimes (as you can see from some shots at the bottom of this tutorial), sometimes you may up the ISO because you want to be a bit more sensitive to that light.

Aperture. The wider your aperture, the more overexposed your shot will end up being. Hence you really never want to get much wider than F/5. The closer the lightning gets to you, the higher your F-stop should go. It doesn’t ALWAYS have to change, but it’s just a guide more than a rule.

The Long Exposure

So the way to counteract the “timing” issue it to negate it entirely by using long exposures. Yes, there are lightning triggers out there, but I really don’t see why you’d use them at night (which I hear some people actually do). During the day, yes, that makes total and complete sense. But I still don’t think a lightning trigger is fast enough to capture the entire strike.

I’d never use a lightning trigger at night. Baffles me.

The long exposure is the way to go. Depending on your camera, there are a few ways you can go about doing this.

My old Rebel XSi could do Bulb mode (of course) so I used my manual cable release to hold open my shutter until I saw a lightning strike. This is a good way to start. You hold it open…wait for the strike and then choose to release the shutter or hope for another strike.  I’d normally not go more than 30 seconds without a strike before releasing and then shooting another shot. The longer it’s open, the more noise, the more cloud movement, etc.

The problem of course is if you miss a strike during that brief 1-2 seconds between close and open again. It’s a killer when you miss a strike because of that and I’ve let out a few curses when it’s happened.

Now, my 5D Mark II has a cool feature. I can set the camera up in Manual mode for a 10-second exposure and then on my cable shutter release, put it in locked mode so it’s continually pushed down and then just let it go. The camera will just keep firing 10 second exposures as long as that shutter release is held down. Sit back, relax. My Rebel wouldn’t do this. So Bulb mode was the only way to go.

If you have a fancier shutter release that has the timer built in, you can program it to shoot say a 10-second exposure every 10 seconds and that should work even on the Rebel. However, programming one of those things out in the darkness, during a storm, when you are in a big hurry is a royal PAIN. It’s so much easier to change the shutter speed or to just do Bulb mode.

Bulb Mode or Manual

So what’s the better mode to shoot in? And why?

It basically depends on what you are going for.

Manual mode allows you full control. If you want, you can do as short as two seconds or five minutes. It’s up to you. If you are shooting in manual and set for say, 10 seconds, you are stuck with that until you change it. You have no control mid-shot.

Why does full control matter? Well, let’s say you have an awesome storm going on. Strikes are going nuts. With Bulb mode you can leave the shutter open as long as you feel necessary to capture as many strikes as you can in one shot. Sometimes you are just going for one. Other times you can get 2, 3 or more in a short timespan. Bulb mode let’s you control that better.

(There are people that like to combine multiple lightning strike shots into a single image…I don’t like to do that. I’d rather capture it in a longer exposure.)

Manual mode is nice if you don’t care that much. You can aim the camera at a spot, set it for 30 seconds, lock the shutter release down and sit back. I like this mode for safety purposes because I can setup the camera outside my car and then hide inside to avoid getting struck by a bolt.

This past week while in Memphis I put it outside under a patio umbrella and let it fire off into the night sky while I sat inside watching TV.

Focusing and Live Mode

You’d never think about it, but focusing is one of those things that can bite you in the ass when you are shooting lightning. It’s of the upmost importance to get a clear, crisp strike. Focus can also be difficult when you are in the middle of nowhere in the darkness. What do you focus on?

Your best bet is distant city lights. What you can do if you want is to shoot in Live Mode, find some lights, zoom into them and manually focus until they are sharp. I’ve also used stars or the moon. If all else fails, you can also just set your lens to the infinity focus line and hope for the best!

Live Mode is also a good idea on some cameras because it keeps your mirror locked up and quickens the speed of your next exposure. I pretty much use it 100% of the time.

A note about Infinity on your focus ring: If your aperture is set at 5.6 and you use the Infinity line to focus, instead of doing an auto focus on something on the horizon, like city lights, etc, you could end up with blurring lightning. Because the aperture is so wide open, being off even by just a hair on the Infinity line can screw you.

Hence the need to have extra batteries!

(UPDATE: Forgot to include this: Once you get your lens focused,  switch it on MANUAL FOCUS. If you have it on Auto, it may try to focus on the dark for the next shot and mess up all your images! Manual focus! A better method for this is to get your camera setup for “Back Button Focus”, which you can Google. I highly recommend this as something you should just do anyways)

The Chase and Luck

Back to my original statement up top: The toughest part of shooting lightning is actually finding lightning.

It has to be one of the most frustrating things to photograph. Sometimes it can be like shooting fish in a barrel and sometimes you drive hundreds of miles in a day to chase it down only to miss it and see it’s behind you now and you gotta drive THAT way, and you are getting tired, it’s late (or early, who knows) and you are mad, annoyed and running out of gas and patience. You gotta get lucky sometimes.

But it’s like anything that’s elusive and hard to find: Once you have it in your hands, it’s exhilarating.

The key is to put yourself in a good spot to shoot it. If it’s your home area, know the high points, where cool things are, how the storms usually operate and move and slowly understand/predict where they will end up. Watch the radar, pay attention to where the storms are and where they are likely to be later that day. Learn how they develop.

A big thing I do is to bring along my laptop, an internet connection and watch the radar. It’s a HUGE help if you are suddenly unsure where to go next.

The shooting part isn’t that tough really.

Wherever you pull over, just judge how far away the strikes are and choose a good lens. Normally you want that strike to fill the frame. Take a practice shot or two and see how your sky and clouds look. If they are acceptable, then go ahead with your Manual or Bulb method and shoot until you capture a strike.

Try to avoid the desire to stop shooting and hit the “Play” button to look back at a strike. I do this all the time, but it can cause you to miss another one. Just know it’s going to be on that card the rest of the night and you can look later! The only reason to look would be to make sure your exposure looks okay.

Composition

I know it may seem funny, but composition is still key to a good lightning photo. It’s not completely about just aiming and capturing a strike.

Most of the time at night you’ll be ending up with foreground silhouettes. so try to frame them according to your good senses. I like to have these elements in my shots because without them, a lightning strike has no scale or scope. Sometimes a strike disappearing behind a tree is awesome. A lone silhouette of a cactus can be sweet with a giant strike behind it. Usually you are in such a hurry it’s tough, but do your best to find cool things to frame in your shot. Powerlines or a towering radio antenna can be fun. Lightning reflections in puddles of water are awesome if you can find them.

Another discipline to have is the ability to toss out subpar strikes. Just because you got a shot with lightning in it doesn’t mean it’s good. Some strikes are just boring and weak. The best ones have interesting curves, twists, or are giant explosions of trails going everywhere. Use your own judgment, but try to be okay with some shots not making the cut.

Dust, Wind and Rain

Three natural elements that make things tough are dust, wind and rain. Nothing can frustrate you more than knowing you have some awesome lightning going on and there is too much rain, wind or dust blowing around.

To combat the wind, I usually take off the camera strap before leaving the house. When you are out in the field trying to shoot and there is so much wind you are worried about camera shake during your 30-second exposure, look for ways to shield the camera. Drop the tripod closer to the ground, use your car as a buffer, whatever.

Rain is tough. A few sprinkles can be dealt with, but if it gets heavier, you gotta bail. Rain spot on a lens can totally ruin a lightning strike. If you aren’t super-close to the lightning, you can use an umbrella a little bit to shield the camera. I’ve also used my body or just a hand above the lens. If you use a 50mm or 85mm that have nice, deep lens hoods, that helps too!

My buddy Shane Kirk taught me a sweet method for shooting in pouring rain that worked for me last year: Put your camera on a tripod or on the dashboard of your car and put the wipers on. You’ll never see the wipers and you’ll still get some good shots. It’s key though to find a spot without lights anywhere, because they’ll reflect off the brief water spots and could cause some issues. The closer your camera is to the windshield, the better.

Also, now that I have the 4Runner this year, I plan on shooting out the back whilst sitting inside to avoid the rain. We’ll see how that works.

Dust is dust…but I figure I can always get my camera cleaned right? I’m brutal on my equipment during a stormchase.

Safety and Stuff

This may not be evident, but I’m sort of terrified of lightning. If it’s super-close to where I am, I’ll stop watching the storm from the patio and hang inside. I have no desire to get struck.

So being out there shooting the stuff in the middle of storms is kind of crazy for me. I’m super-excited to be doing it, but I’ll also cower in the car while holding my shutter release.

This is a good thing though. You should be afraid of lightning. It can kill you. This fear will keep you safe while you are out there. It will stop you from running to the top of a hill in the middle of a storm, becoming the tallest object around. And while you are standing there, it starts to rain so you pull out your handy-dandy metal umbrella and now you are a sitting duck.

If I see a lightning strike suddenly appear over my head, it’s time to get in the car.

While you are in the act of shooting, watch the sky. Don’t completely focus just on where your camera is pointed, because it is ALREADY looking that way and will capture the lightning for you. Keep a look-out for stuff developing around you and behind you and above you. Not only will this keep you safe but it will also alert you to a better shooting option.

Also, pull off the side of roads as far as you can. You don’t want a semi crushing you into oblivion. It’s always best to find a safe pull-out, dirt road, parking lot, etc.

Post-Processing

Tweaking your lightning strike images can turn them from being just okay to being awesome.  Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw has some great ways to play with your exposure to get it perfect. Lowering the exposure, upping contrast, fill light, blacks, saturation, etc…all of it can greatly enhance your final product. I also play with filters in Photoshop, like Phototools or Nik.

Depending on the ISO you used or how good your camera is, you may need to do some noise reduction, or clean up dust spots.

Cropping is a huge thing. You may have framed it well, but suddenly the strike is in the lower right corner. Try to crop the image to get the strike to fill more of the frame if the rest of the shot is boring.

Conclusion

Lightning photography is amazingly fun and can also be amazingly frustrating. It’s a euphoric feeling to look back at your shots and see a huge strike captured. You’ll also want to cry when you wasted a tank of gas, got home at 3am only to work the next day and didn’t capture a single strike.

I’m still learning. Heck, a few days ago I discovered how great the 85mm 1.8 is for doing this. There are always better ways to do things. The key is to practice. You can read my tutorial, or someone else’s, but until you get out there and do it, you aren’t really gonna know what’s going to work and what wont.

Have fun with it, be safe and please ask me any questions you want about what I do. I’ll gladly answer and do whatever I can to help you out.

For those in Arizona, I’m planning on doing some On-Call Stormchasing Trips this summer where you can ride along with me and hopefully we’ll shoot together and learn together. More to come on that.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite shots from last year and some of the EXIF info on them.

Lighting Photo Arizona

(exif: 55mm, iso 400, f/29, 9.0 sec – dusk settings. Not sure if I put an ND or CPL on for this or not…probably)


(exif: 17mm, iso 250, f/10, 6 sec)

Lightning Sunset in Tucson

(exif: 18mm, iso 250, f/22, 6.0 seconds – Narrow aperture, but higher ISO to be more sensitive to the light)

Lighting Photo Arizona

(This was the dashboard shot from last year – 28mm, iso 100, f/5.6, 9.0 sec – probably should have upped the F-stop on this, it’s pretty over-exposed. But it was less than 1/4 mile away anyways!)

Symmetry - Arizona Monsoon Lightning

(exif: 70-210mm f/4, 205mm, f/5.6, iso 400, 30 sec)