Last week a lightning storm passed through the islands. It started around 4am and lasted for about 3 hours. It trailed off to the northeast leaving behind the fresh smell of new rain. The storm lit up the island and rattled the windows. I imediately woke, looked outside and grabbed my camera. The rain hadn’t reached us yet.
Why am I so mesmerized by lightning? It probably started years ago when I worked on a firelookout. The building I lived in was hit by lightning twice. It had been an unseasonably dry summer. We were forewarned of the coming storm by management and told to “be prepared” which meant shutting off all two way radio communications and moving away from the metal chimney pipe. Across the horizon to the west I waited with somewhat anxious anticipation as the storm approached. As far south as I could see to as far north was a wall of sheet lightning. Hours later the air smelled of burnt ozone worse than rotten eggs. The copper ground wires designed to protect the aging two story structure began to snap and spark–a flash and the smashing sound of thunder exploded overhead. The light show lasted for three hours and left thirty wildfires behind.
Perhaps it goes back years earlier. One afternoon when hiking the mountains of Central Idaho I came across a blackened pine tree high atop a barren ridge. I remember it being the first days of spring. There were patches of snow still around. As I neared the tree I heard what I thought was the sound of twigs snapping under my step. Looking down I saw the ivory skeletal remains of a herd of deer. The deer I imagine nervous, gathered around the tree with their backs against the wind and rain. Grouped together, this was their last gesture of survival; the lightning traveled down the tree, the deer fell to the ground–all this becoming part of winter blanketed by incoming snows.
Getting the shot with a camera is all about timing, exposure—and safety. Position yourself away from the incoming storm if at all possible. Contrary to popular belief, lighting doesn’t always strike the highest point. When I worked on the firelookout a small unobtrusive looking cloud formed and slowly moved across the valley before me. I cautiously watched it for several hours as it moved by the lookout and followed a narrow draw to the south constantly heated and pushed around by rising afternoon thermals. To my astonishment, the cloud let out a bolt of lighting that hit an open slope below me a mile away. Easy for me to view, a small mushroom shaped cloud billowed from where the lightning hit the rocks then quickly disappeared.
Lightning is unpredictable. Protect yourself and your equipment. Use a tripod or place your camera on a counter or window sill instead of hand held. Keeping the camera steady will make for a sharper image. Take several practice shots adjusting composition and focus. Use a remote switch if possible.
Shoot manual. The ISO setting I used was between 100 and 200. Use your widest aperture setting. For the lens I was using, f/4. But I learned never to push the exposure scale so I used f/4.5. Shutter speed one fourth of a second. Color temp 5200K. Set your metering mode to Center Weighted Average. The rest is all about timing.
Take several images anticipating the movement of the storm. I’d be interested to hear what settings you have used and what your experience has been when shooting lightning—