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Friday, June 18, 2010

Lightning Strikes

This week's photo captures lightning bolts crackling over a summer sky. The biggest challenge when photographing lightning is to anticipate when and where it will occur -- the shooting is the easy part!

Large lightning bolt crackles around Lowell, Ma. Courthouse during summer thunderstorm (© Michael Maher, The Lowell (Ma.) Sun).

The Photo:
Thunder was booming and lightning crackled brightly across the Lowell, Ma. summer night horizon, but getting photos of these spectacular lightning bolts would not be easy. I had to guess where in the sky the next lightning bolt would occur, anticipate the moment when it would flash, determine the most appropriate camera settings, and take my photos quickly, before the storm passed. To more easily capture lightning bolts that appeared unpredictably in numerous spots of the sky, and keep almost everything in focus, I used a wide-angle lens (35MM set at f4.0 or higher). However, rather than take the easier wide photo of lightning over the city skyline, I attempted a more difficult close-up of bolts flashing over one building (see red box). To avoid getting my camera equipment wet from the heavy rain, I stood in an open doorway, and aimed over the building across the street where the last lightning bolts flashed.
I then set the shutter speed on “B” so I could hold the shutter open for the full duration of the lightning bolts. To avoid moving the camera and blurring my pictures, I mounted my camera on a tripod and connected a cable release so I wouldn’t have to touch the camera when I fired the shutter.
When it was time to take the photo, I closely watched the horizon where the camera was pointed, counting the seconds between the lightning flashes and thunder sounds to determine if the storm was getting closer. I anticipated the next lightning flash as best I could, and whenever I expected lightning, I pushed down on the cable release and kept the camera shutter open until the flash was over. Despite perfect planning, I still needed some luck -- I shot 72 photos and captured lightning in just a few pictures -- but this one great shot was all I needed.

3 Tips:
1) Lightning should be photographed in the upper portion of your image while including a ground, building or skyline element in the bottom of the picture.
2) Use a wide-angle lens pointed at a wide swath of the skyline because the bolts can appear in almost any part of the sky.
3) To capture the lightning bolt, put your camera on a tripod, set the shutter to “B”, use a cable release, and hold the shutter open for long durations.

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