Tripping the light(ning) fantastic

“Thunder and Lightning
I tell you it’s frightening
It’s thunder and lightning”
Thunder and Lightning by Chi Coltrane

I remember a family vacation at Lake Tahoe one Summer when I was about 7 or 8 years old. There was a thunderstorm and we were confined to our motel room. I recall sitting at the edge of a queen-sized bed, looking out the room’s picture window to see the lightning and hear the rumble of thunder. It was the first time I had ever seen such a storm. A intense flash lit up the window and a tremendous thunderclap exploded simultaneously. It seemed like it was right outside the window. I was so startled that I leapt backwards, did a reverse summersault over the bed and landed on the floor, my heart beating a mile a minute.

I know the theory on shooting lightning and I’ve always wanted to shoot it, but the idea of going out in a thunderstorm with what amounts to carrying a lighting rod (a metal camera mounted on a metal tripod) has never appealed to me.

(Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 70mm. 10 sec @ f/11. ISO: 400)

Last week, I was driving home one night when I saw an incredible light show. I could see lightning flashes about once every few seconds on the northern horizon.  Fortunately the the storm was in the distance and the sky overhead was clear, so I decided to stop and get a shot.

The lightning was low on the horizon, so I needed some altitude.  To avoid light pollution from the city, I looked for a rural area with few street lights. Stopping on the freeway wasn’t a safe option, so I drove to Twin Cities Road overpass at at I-5 near Walnut Grove. It gave me enough height, it was dark enough and traffic on the road was light.

The storm looked as though as if it were hovering above Sacramento (about 20 miles north of my current spot), but it must have been farther away than it appeared to me. Although I could see the lightning, I couldn’t hear any thunder (later I Googled a doppler radar site and it indicated that the storm was actually more than 40 miles farther north over Marysville).

Capturing an image of lightning by a see-then-shoot method is nigh impossible. The flashes are brief and If you see it happen, you’ve missed it. If one gets a shot this way it’s more of a fluke than a matter of skill or timing. Like shooting fireworks, mounting the camera on a stable surface and opening the shutter for a long exposure is the conventional technique. Unlike fireworks, it’s difficult to tell where the next lightning strike will be.

(Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 70mm. 10 sec @ f/11. ISO: 400)

I didn’t have a tripod with me, so I improvised, pressing the camera down on the roof of my car and used exposures of about 5 to 10 seconds. Timing and aiming were difficult. I would shoot in one direction, yielding very little lightning, when a strike would happen in another spot. I would reorient the camera only to have more strikes out of its field of view.

Most of the flashes were within the clouds, with only an occasional glimpse of a ground strike. It was fun to watch, but didn’t yield much in the way of pictures. I just had to press the shutter and hope that some lightning would strike within view of the camera.  To add to my frustration, the camera’s noise reduction feature for long exposures made things more difficult. The camera can’t be used while it processes the image through the system, effectively doubling the time for each shot. There were several instances where I saw some great flashes while I was waiting for the camera to clear itself.

It was windy that night and after about 20 minutes of shooting I was starting to shiver (not a good thing when trying to hand-hold a night shot), so I decided to pack it in. Of the 70 shots I took, only two of them had any visible lightning at all. Maybe next time I’ll try to get a closer shot. I wonder it they make rubber tripods and cameras?

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