How I shot Lightning!

Today the post is going to revolve more around a set of photos I took the other day – you see while en route back to the house, I noticed that the clouds were passing over the mountains and the sun was starting to set.  It had the makings for a really nice sunset.  Never one to turn away the opportunity to capture a sunset, I hurried home and gathered my gear, and took off to my favorite spot near the house for landscape work.

Well, the clouds and the sun didn’t really cooperate so I gave up on that and starting fiddling around with some HDR kinds of things.  I saw a traffic light nearby and there wasn’t much traffic so tried to time some bracketed exposures (my shutter speed was getting near 30 seconds on the top end of the bracket).  Some possibilities developed, but nothing too earth shattering, and I was starting to feel a few drops of rain, so I packed up to head back over to the house – about 2 miles away.

As I was coming back to the house, the clouds that evaded me on the mountainous horizon were ominously hanging over the cityline of Denver (another scene I’d been meaning to shoot) and flashes of lightning were coursing through the clouds, with some pretty regular spikes coming down.  All of this was about 30 miles away, and heading away from me so i was feeling pretty safe except for the possibility of some raindrops now and then.

So, I found a nook by the open range, set up the camera on my trusty tripod, and tried to recall things I’d read about how to shoot lightning.  Apparently some of it stuck, because I came away with this:


Lightning over Denver

So, how did I do this?  I kept four key things in mind:

  1. I used my tripod!  Stability was key because every single exposure was no less than 15 seconds!  When shooting lightning, you want to open the shutter for a longer time to increase your odds of catching it.  Because it was flashing so regularly I eventually dropped my shutter to 15 seconds and still managed 6 or 7 really good captures.
  2. Keep the noise Down – I dropped my ISO to 100 for all shots and made sure long exposure noise reduction was turned on in camera.  Sure it took twice as long to capture each image, but in the long run it was worth it because there was much less noise to process on the back end.
  3. Don’t touch the camera!  I set the camera to bracket exposures and put it on a two-second delay.  So, by the time the camera shutter opened I was no longer touching it, and then the second and third shots fired automatically.
  4. I made sure I was in a sweet spot of my lens.  Part of this is knowing your gear – I was shooting the 10-22mm (wide angle) from Canon, and know that when it goes below f4 it can get fuzzy.  So, I was at f11 for most of my shots.  Great depth of field and everything is sharp!

Well, a fifth one was post-processing.  After a few rather unpleasant attempts to process as HDR images, I enlisted the aide of friend-of-the-blog Terry Reinert, who you know from our podcast talk a short time ago.  Terry is wicked smart (he’s an engineer) and knows the heck out of HDR.  I asked him what I was doing wrong (because the clouds were getting blotches scattered through them and generally looking poorly).  He gave some insights, what he was finding yielded better results and sent me a low res sample via email.  I liked the path he took, but the colors were not quite where I remembered them from Sunday, so dove in again with the new-found knowledge.  I tried a few quick variations on his technique, but in the interests of time, just did a short version to post here.  Once I get my final edit done (probably this weekend, I will likely be adding the image to my portfolio, so will also post that here as well.  For now though, I wanted to share the back story and a quick version of one processed version that I found appealing.  I am not crazy about the black across the bottom, but since my time was limited here, I’ll likely be addressing that this weekend when I have more time.  For now though, the quick version and a panorama crop looked kinda cool!

Thanks go out to Terry for giving a hand.   In our discussion he also mentioned possibly doing a tutorial on blending using the images, so keep your eyes on Terry’s blog (Where Art and Engineering Collide) as I may be a featured artist!  (How cool would that be?) ETA:  On posting the link to his blog, I see he’s already put his tutorial together – thanks Terry! 🙂

In other blog/photo news, as you all know from yesterday, the OnOne Giveaway concluded with Pete Petersheim being the big winner.  The new contest is underway though, with a new thread up at the Learning Digital Photography group on Flickr, so be sure to stop in there and share your images in the new thread (the theme this go around is “Fun” since the price is a Wacom Bamboo Fun!)  Good luck to everyone and don’t forget to have some fun!

Happy shooting and we’ll see you back here again tomorrow!

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6 comments for “How I shot Lightning!

  1. August 12, 2009 at 8:12 am

    I am still loving the lightning images you took. Its funny that you cropped your image the way you did because I was thinking to myself the whole time I was working on the tutorial that it would make a killer pano. 🙂

    I am also very glad to hear that you used a variation of the technique that I showed instead of following it step by step. One of the things I stress is to always try new things and never to do something just because so-and-so told you to do it that way. Ground breaking events happen because of people exploring and playing around with stuff… not from following the rules!!
    .-= Terry Reinert´s last blog ..Merging Images Video Tutorial: Part 1 =-.

  2. August 12, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Good stuff Jason. I’ve been dying to get some more lightening shots, but monsoons have disappointed this year. Maybe a storm will pop up when I’m ready with the camera!

    On other fronts, while you were playing with lightening, I was playing with fire! Figured out how to get a lot of detail out of the fire that fire breathers create. Lots of fun last night, and I’m still sorting photos, as usual! 🙂
    .-= Rich C´s last blog ..A teaser or two from last night’s fire show in Prescott =-.

  3. August 12, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Jason this is a great great image. Very well done indeed, and thanks, as ever, for sharing your technique.
    .-= Kevin Mullins´s last blog ..Big Pit: National Coal Museum =-.

  4. August 12, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Lightning is hard, you did it very nicely =) Simple enough!
    .-= Erik Bernskiold´s last blog ..No-Blog Week =-.

  5. August 12, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    This is a great shot! Most of our lightning storms this year have been after I’ve gone to bed so I haven’t made the trek outside to try to capture them. This gives some good things to keep in mind though when I finally get around to it 🙂

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