When I first captured lightning striking the antennae of Chicago’s Willis (Sears) Tower late in the season last September, I immediately made it a goal to capture that image again, but from a cleaner angle and with a cleaner lens!
That first shoot was the result of me being caught downtown in a downpour while visiting a gallery opening. I had no tripod, no cable release, and had to brace my Canon 6D against a tent pole to stabilize it. When I finally hand-timed the image of the lightning strike, water drops had covered my lens and, in my opinion, marred my image.
Fast forward to this lightning season. Each time conditions have been favorable, I’ve geared up and journeyed downtown with the hopes of redeeming myself, and yesterday did not disappoint. I captured lightning hitting the Willis Tower not once, not twice, but three times – and on two different cameras simultaneously.
I’ve had a lot of questions about how these images were captured. I wanted to share some pointers that will help you get up and running with lighting photography on your own. These general tips will assume that you’re already familiar with running your camera in full manual mode, along with owning a tripod.
The first (and probably most obvious) part of all of this is putting yourself in a position to get aesthetically pleasing lightning photos in the first place. As with most photos of natural phenomenon, a foreground element is absolutely paramount. It helps connect what the viewer is seeing with the everyday world they’re familiar with.
My lightning setup along the Chicago lakefront using two Canon 1d Mark IV cameras, allowing me to capture two simultaneous angles of the lightning. Here, the body on the left (17-40mm ƒ4 lens) was set to a very wide view of the buildings and the sky, while the other body (70-200 ƒ2.8 IS lens) was set for a tight shot of the Willis Tower. The PocketWizard on the right body is simply acting as a second cable release (via a motor drive cable).
When I first started shooting lightning back in high school, I’d just point the camera in the air and get the lightning bolts going through the frame, which is all well and good if you just want to practice. As far as photos go, however, these are quite boring. Make it a point to scout locations ahead of time that would make interesting foregrounds. Really try to come up with some interesting stuff here, guys. Your back yard patio is definitely unacceptable.
In Chicago, the skyline with all its tall targets is an obvious choice, however cliché it may be at times. Consider which angles will give you the most pleasing and unique composition(s) of that location. Some locations will work better than others given the direction that a storm is traveling. Keep an actual list of these spots that you can head off to in a pinch without having to worry about finding one when things are “going off.”
Arriving at your spot well ahead of the storm affords you the opportunity to shoot any cool cloud formations or interesting light that precedes it.
This leads me to my next tip, which is arriving at your location before the storm starts. If the storm is already over your home, it’s probably too late to capture good lightning 30 minutes in the opposite direction. Being set up and in place early gives your the opportunity to capture interesting shelf clouds or beautiful light as the storm rolls in.
Before I leave for a shoot, and while I’m in the field, I use an app called RadarScope, both on my iPhone and on my desktop and laptop computers, that allows me to track in real time where the weather is headed, as well as keeping me informed on any warnings that might pop up. I look at RadarScope several times a day, and not only on days when I plan on shooting. Being prepared ahead of time is critical in allowing you to position yourself accordingly to capture lightning.
The RadarScope app is critical in allowing me to plan my storm coverage from home, as well as tracking the storm’s progress while I’m on location. Unlike other weather apps cluttered with sponsor ads and unnecessarily detailed street maps, this professional app gets straight to the information.
On the technical end, my goal with exposure is to get one that is long enough to allow the lightning to “paint” itself onto my frame, while also correctly exposing any ambient light from landmarks in the shot. Typically, my frames are anywhere between 1 and 2 second exposures. Aperture varies, but is typically around ƒ8, with ISO falling somewhere between 100 and 200.
Shoot a test shot first, see what the ambient exposure looks like, adjust, and go from there. When you capture your first lightning bolt, adjust exposure further (as necessary) given the atmospheric conditions. Is it hazy with lighting far away? You might be up at 800 ISO to capture this, whereas very close lightning might be better exposed at 50 ISO at ƒ16. It all depends on your situation and what you’re going for.
Since I shoot RAW, I generally leave my white balance on AUTO and adjust in post until things are pleasing to my eye. I usually prefer to balance my lightning frames to around 3200°K (tungsten / light bulb), rendering the lightning a vibrant, electric blue color, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule either. In short, I make my color look good to my eye given the particular shot.
With my camera shutters locked down, long-exposure photos are shot continuously. When lighting occurs, it “paints” itself onto the frame that is being shot at that time. Following the shoot, I either delete all the frames without lightning, or use them for time lapse videos if the clouds are interesting.
As for actually capturing the lightning, there’s a few ways to go about it. You can trip the shutter the moment you see the sky start to glow, capturing the various “return strokes” of lightning as they flicker in the sky. Or, with a large memory card, you can lock your camera’s shutter down and take photos continuously, allowing the lightning to paint itself onto your frames as you kick back and enjoy the spectacle. I use a combination of these two methods depending on the situation, as well as available card and drive space. The bonus of locking your shutter down for continuous shooting is you end up with lots of frames that are perfect for making time lapse videos of the storm!
A time lapse video created from the still frames from both my cameras as the storm rolled in. You’ll notice near the end of each clip, the cameras begin to shake as they were rocked by 50mph wind gusts. I also love watching all the boats swing around as the wind shifts in the second angle.
No matter which one you decide on, a cable release for your particular camera (a locking one is preferred) is a must. You have to be able to trip your camera’s shutter without touching it. A PocketWizard with a motor drive cable is also a viable solution if you’re without a cable release.
Experiment with putting your camera in BULB mode and holding your shutter open manually for several lighting strikes in a row. Interesting effects can be had with four or more bolts of lighting from different times captured in the same frame. Covering your lens with a black card between bolts (shutter still open) can help keep your ambient exposure from getting completely out of control as you wait for the lightning. Quickly uncover the lens when you see the sky start to erupt, and repeat.
For those that have asked me how often the Willis Tower is hit by lighting during a thunderstorm, the answer is all the time! I captured the Willis Tower being hit three times by lighting on Monday within the span of 8 minutes. Above (from left), 8:12pm, 8:15pm, and 8:20pm. All three images were 1 second exposures @ ƒ8 @ 100 ISO. The center frame here is the tight angle of the same moment from the wide shot camera’s view at the top of this entry.
I’ve had several people ask me if I’ve ever used a lightning trigger, which is a device that optically “sees” lightning as it starts to flash, and trips the shutter automatically. In situations where I can physically access the camera, I don’t really see the need for this, but it might be worth exploring for a situation where the camera was left by itself for a given period of time.
While you’re on location: Safety first! As passionate as us photographers can get about our craft, the reality is that no photo is worth dying for. Use common sense when you’re out shooting. Don’t make yourself the tallest object around. Don’t shoot if there’s lightning directly over your location. And, as much as you’d like to dance after nailing that perfect lightning strike, do NOT wave your aluminum tripod legs in the air like you just don’t care.
Sparks are visible as they shower away from the lightning protection equipment atop the Willis Tower’s east antenna as it is struck. This frame is from the tail end of the lighting strike, giving the bolt a golden, fiery appearance.
There have been times where I’ve felt uncomfortable at a location because of how close the lightning was striking. To be safer in these instances, I’ve set the camera up outside very quickly and used my PocketWizards to fire the camera wirelessly as I’ve sat in the safety of my enclosed vehicle. Just because lightning is getting close doesn’t mean your shoot has to be over, but again, common sense and your gut feeling are going to be key in deciding when it’s time to pack it up.
Finally, in order to capture images like the ones I did this past Monday, you have to be willing to be patient and try again and again and again. For every lightning shoot I’ve gone on that has been successful, there might have been four or more that were complete duds. Storms fizzle out, fog rolls in, the sun comes up. I’ve experienced it all in just the past 2 weeks. Hours “wasted” with nothing to show for it. The one day you don’t go out, however, is going to be the day things will line up perfectly, and you’re going to miss your opportunity.
Keep trying, and I promise you’ll eventually walk away with images that you’re proud of.