lightning photograph "Desert Angel"
image © Robert Luis Chavez

Desert Angel...
Aspring storm about 40 miles
south of Santa Rosa New Mexico


Since I'm usually making very long exposures a good heavy tripod or platform is important if I want the foreground to be sharp. A tripod is not always the most practical thing for lightning photography, so for safety and flexibility I use a car window mount. The mounts are primarily made for spotting scopes, but work just as well with still or video cameras. Another technique I use is simply hand-holding the camera, even while driving. Hand holding is less predictable, but I've captured a few winning images this way, see "Electric Avenue" and "Dance Of The Sisters".

The shortest exposure I'll make is usually thirty seconds. Sure it's possible to wait and click your shutter right when you see a strike and capture it on film, but I've found that it's more predictable to wait till the light is low enough to make long exposures. Remember the longer the exposure the more strikes you can capture on a single frame of film. With a slow film you can start to get at least a thirty second exposure about ten minutes after sunset. When it's completely dark you can make exposures as long as you want, though with some limitations: very close strikes or long exposures require smaller apertures to prevent overexposure. Somewhere between f/8 and f/22 usually works for me, you'll just have to experiment.

Slower is better whatever brand you prefer, you'll get longer exposures (see above) and tighter grain. All films have some sort of color shift when used for long exposures, Velvia for example has a green shift after ten minutes or so, Kodachrome has a magenta shift with even shorter exposures. The most neutral film I've tried so far is Ektachrome EPN. I haven't figured out what kind of shift EPN has yet, even at exposures nearing one hour it remains very neutral.

So far most digital cameras, even the new and expensive ones, have some problem with a noisy signal when you start making exposures longer than a few minutes or even a few seconds, it looks a little like underexposed film. Battery power is another issue because digital cameras require more power, so be prepared to swap out battery packs if you want to shoot all night or make moonlight exposures. In short, there is nothing that matches the ease of shooting night pictures on film, on an all or mostly mechanical camera. All of that is changing as we speak, and if you are shooting digital, by all means shoot night and lightning pictures. Just be aware of the limitations of digital when your exposures are in the range of minutes or hours long.

Where to Point the Camera?
The saying goes "lightning never strikes the same place twice", that may be true, but for photogrphy it is still easy to predict the general area of the next strike by the last ones. The smaller the storm the easier it is to predict where the lightning will be. If there's a column of rain falling from the cloud that's usually the most active area of lightning, however when lightning strikes outside of the rain, that can be very photogenic. Enjoy the pictures and happy storm hunting to you. Robert Luis Chavez