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Experimenting with lightning photography

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Lightning is the occurrence of a natural electrical discharge between clouds or between a cloud and the ground. Generated in electrically-charged storm systems, temperatures of lightning bolts is hotter than the surface of the sun and can therefore be very dangerous. While lightning is a terrifying natural phenomena, it is also one of the most beautiful. Lightning storms are unpredictable and can strike anytime and anywhere so trying to get a photograph can be quite a challenge, but not impossible.

Nikon D800, f/8, 1.3 seconds, ISO 1600, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

Nikon D800, f/8, 1.3 seconds, ISO 1600, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

Safety First

While capturing lightning can be a very rewarding experience, it is also important to keep yourself safe from harm. To determine whether lightning is near you, try to listen for thunder. If you do hear the sounds of a thunder, it is advisable to go indoors. If your hair starts to stand on ends or if your skin starts to tingle, there is a high chance that lightning may be about to strike. Do not photograph lightning in open areas, especially where water, tall trees, or structures are nearby.

Preparation is key

Once you’ve found a lightning storm that is happening near you, try to look for a spot that will give you a good view of the sky. Think of your composition and how you want your shot to look. For a more interesting photograph, include foreground or background elements, but make sure that your frame covers more sky. As you will be using long shutter speeds, it is recommended that you mount your camera on a tripod for stability and blur free shots. If you are outdoors, remember to protect your equipment from the elements. Use an umbrella or a rain hood to keep your camera and lens dry.

Recommended Settings
  • Using a wide-angle lens such as the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED or the AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lets you cover a wider area of the frame, therefore increasing the chances of capturing a lightning strike in your field of view.
  • Set your lens to manual focus and then focus at the infinity position. Take a few test shots by focusing on a distant object.
  • Set your ISO to the lowest possible, such as ISO 100, and turn your camera onto manual mode. This allows you to control both the aperture and shutter speed.
  • Pick a long shutter speed such as 20 to 30 seconds and depending on the overall brightness of the scene, use a suitable aperture somewhere between f/8 to f/11. A wider aperture such as an f/5.6 would be suitable for a brighter shot. In comparison, a smaller aperture such as f/11 would capture a darker shot.

It is also recommended that you use a remote cable release, such as the MC-DC2 remote cord or the Wireless Remote Controller WR-R10 and WR-T10. This prevents unintentional camera shake and also lets you stay in a safe place until the storm passes.

Post-processing your images

If you are able to capture a number of lightning strikes from the same vantage point, you can highlight the intensity of the storm by stacking your images during post-processing. Lightning strikes are random and erratic, so you will need to be patient to get the shot you want. Familiarise yourself with your gear and settings, keep shooting, and be safe!

Nikon D90, f/8, 30 seconds, ISO 500, AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

Nikon D90, f/8, 30 seconds, ISO 500, AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

Original article here