Larry  Grayam

Larry Grayam

Vero Beach, Florida, United States

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Chasing the perfect lightning photograph

Photographing Lightning

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Living in Florida has exposed me to many facets of our changing weather patterns. We regularly experience, thunderstorms, tornadoes, water spouts and hurricanes. And of course I just have to grab my cameras and go out to play in the severe weather. So let me explain how I photograph my favorite of these weather phenomena.

Lightning and Thunderstorms
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*Technology plays an important role in modern storm chasing. First off on my laptop I monitor several statewide weather radar sites. I also receive emails on weather alerts from the National Weather Service, and I monitor the NWS radio alert system which operates nationwide. I also receive twitter tips from TV weathermen across the state. While on the road I continue monitoring online sites via a mobile device like an iPhone, netbook or iPad.

A hand held lightning detector warns of nearby strikes (within 48 miles).
During our peak summer season I monitor online weather radar continually to evaluate the developing storm patterns During typically stormy periods I monitor online television weather radar for approaching lightning storms. When actually chasing storms I use a laptop computer to monitor last minute changes in a storms makeup, speed and direction. One of my favorite sites is http://www.wptv.com/subindex/weather/maps this page has a lightning overlay that shows worldwide lightning strikes indicating the time and GPS coordinates for each strike. For nationwide USA weather I follow the United States National Weather Service (NWS) site http://www.weather.gov/ridge/Conus/ this site allows the user to view all individual NWS weather radar sites. A great lightning prediction site is http://www.strikestarus.com/index.aspx?id=70 . And in Florida the Media Communications site http://www.flamedia.com/lightning/light.htm visually shows lightning strikes but also has graphs and statistics for Florida lightning strikes. While other storm chasers choose to go with their hand held mobile devices I found that many site features are limited on some of these devices. Once the storms begin to develop I quickly organize a game plan. I try to move to an intersecting point several miles ahead of an approaching front, searching for higher ground with a vantage point. Our typical lightning pattern is for an approaching storm cell to throw lightning bolts into dry air in the path of the approaching storm. Being directly in the path of a storm usually gives me a darker background for lightning bolts.*

Daylight lightning strike over Kenansville Florida
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If an overhead shelter is not available then I open the rear hatch of my SUV to shelter my tripod mounted camera from the rain. I typically mount a wide angle to normal lens to cover a broad area since I don’t know where the next lightning strike will hit the ground. Finding an interesting foreground object adds depth and impact to the photographs.

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You can trigger your cameras shutter manually with a wired remote cable, shoot time exposures to capture any lightning strikes that occur during the exposure, a programmable remote timer can give you longer time exposure, or use an electronic trigger to capture the moment. I currently use an “AEO Lightning Strike II”: http://www.aeophoto.com/ and a “Patch Master”: http://www.pmgadgets.net/ These are small boxes that mount to the cameras hot shoe and connect to the cameras remote control connection via a supplied cable.

The lightning trigger is sensitive and will trigger for even distant lightning that may be too weak to record on the camera. The detector can also be triggered by other flickering light sources, so I expect many false exposures that just get deleted. To reduce false triggers I made a snoot like accessory that acts like a lens shade allowing me to shield the trigger from off axis lightning bursts.

So we have a camera, lens and trigger mounted on a tripod now we need to set up the camera for fast reaction. I manually focus the lens, usually to infinity, or zone focus ti include infinity and then turn off the cameras auto focus mechanism. I will also be shooting in manual exposure mode. These actions turn off steps the camera normally takes before opening the shutter, so I just reduced the cameras internal response time. Today’s cameras have the ability to carry out a great many automatic functions before exposing the image. By shutting down or disabling these automatic functions I reduce the lag time between sending the signal and actually exposing the image. I like to shoot at EI200 for best results. But the scene may require something different.

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I next establish the exposure I want for the foreground keeping in mind that I need to keep the shutter open for at least 1/4second to capture the whole lightning burst. Now for an aperture setting, if your storm is distant the lightning may require a wider aperture f2.0-4.0 to record the weaker flashes. However as the storms moves closer the lightning will soon overpower those wide open aperture settings and you may need to stop down to f5.6-f11 to get an exposure on that great sky filling, tentacle reaching sky burst that fills the image with streaks of lightning. And don’t forget to adjust your shutter speed downward as you stop down the lens or you will underexpose the great foreground you selected.

Once your camera is set up and triggering away safely secured under a picnic or other shelter. Go hide in your car, remember lightning can kill you.
Lightning can be cloud to cloud or cloud to ground or even ball. The actual bolt of lightning is not always visible as rain and clouds will often obscure or diffuse the bolt. While the illuminated clouds are dramatic it is the long slender fingers of the lightning bolt that adds the wow factor to your photographs.

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Photographing lightning can be very frustrating with many failed exposures even whole trips that are fruitless when the storm dies as soon as you set up the tripod. But when everything comes together you will be very happy.
Lightning triggers are black boxes that detect a lightning strike and trigger or fire your cameras electronic shutter in time to capture the lightning bolt. All mount to your cameras hot shoe but connect through the manufactures remote control connection, via a supplied cable.
If you’re handy at electronics you might follow “these instructions”: http://www.solorb.com/elect/lightning/ and build your own Lightning Activated Camera Shutter

*Or contact one of three companies that make turnkey units for modern digital cameras
AEO Lightning Strike II located in California USA
Patch Master located in Istanbul Turkey
The Lightning Trigger located in Colorado USA

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While I have and use both the AEO LSII and the Patch Master another local photographer uses The Lightning Trigger. All three of the commercially available units are similar in operation with the Patch Master being slightly smaller in size it also sits further forward in the hot shoe allowing me to more easily use the cameras viewfinder. With the AEO LSII mounted in the hot shoe it hits my forehead if I try to use the cameras viewfinder. Both the AEO and The Lightning Detector have removable connector cables a very strong plus as this allows an easy change out of a defective cable and merely requires swapping cables to change to another brand of camera. Patch Master should be offering replaceable cables soon.

*Cost is an always important factor along with availability. The Lightning Trigger has a base price of $329.00USD plus $54.00USD for a modified connector cable and ships from Colorado USA. The AEO Lightning Strike II has a base price of $132.00USD including the connector cable and ships from California USA. The Patch Master has a base price of $97.00 USD including the connector cable and ships from Istanbul Turkey.

The AEO Lightning Strike II measures 1 ½” high, 2 7/8” wide, 4 1/2” long and overhangs the rear of a Nikon D2H by 1 ¾”.
The Patch Master measures 11/4” high, 2 ½” wide, 4” long and overhangs the rear of a Nikon D2H by 7/8” this allows far easier access to the cameras viewfinder when the trigger is mounted, I find this shallow overhang to be a vital feature
The Lightning Trigger measures 1 3/8” high, 2 3/4” wide, 4 7/8.*

Both the Patch Master and AEO LSII are often available on EBAY with free shipping. Customer service from all three vendors has been prompt, thorough and friendly.

Lake Okeechobee storm front
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remember that lightning is dangerous so be careful and take appropriate safety measures

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