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  How to photograph lightning
Night exposures

Lightning near a radio tower, St. Louis
Lightning fills the sky behind a radio/TV tower, St. Louis, Missouri
Shot on a commercial assignment for an electrical equipment company.

St. Louis, Missouri

©1980 Joseph Matthews

Hints about Labs

Use a professional lab. You've just put a lot of time and effort into this, don't get cheap now. And communicate with them, tell them what to expect to see when they pull the film from the processor. Here's why. Slides that are very dark (and a lot of your lightning shots will be) are difficult for labs to mount; they need a "well exposed" frame to align the film cutter. So after you load a roll, shoot the first frame as a "slate," a card with your name on it using a flash. It needs to fill the entire frame, side to side--which is what you are trying to protect. Minimize the chances for error.

If you shoot color negative for prints, make sure they know to print to make it look like night. Often the automatic printing machines will underexpose the print to try to save what it sees as your bad exposure ruining that print. Don't worry if you see bad prints, just study the negatives to see if there is detail there and then ask for a reprint. A custom pro lab will understand all this a lot better than most discount store one-hour labs. To be fair, I've gotten some excellent work from one-hour labs, but it really depends on the staff. Trust your feelings on whether they know what they are doing and care about their work.

This is the time honored and easiest way to capture great lightning shots. To make them great you have to have a good composition and exposure. Luck doesn't hurt, either.

Work out a time exposure that gives you ƒ8 with ISO100 slide film. What kind of reciprocity failure or color shift do you get? Can you filter for it or is it acceptable. F8 probably gives you your lenses best resolution and enough depth of field for this kind of work. Any smaller of an ƒ-stop and the exposures can get too long. Any wider open and you'll probably start to burn out detail in your bolt.

The exposure problem is this: you have darkness so you need to add exposure time or open the lens; but you have an intensely bright light source that appears for a quarter of a second or so. Zap, instant overexposure in the same frame. The trick is to find the middle ground. Try ƒ8 or ƒ11 to keep detail in the lightning stroke (ISO 100 slide film). Then you need to calculate how long an exposure you need to have detail in the dark without losing the "night" of the shot. Too small an f-stop will make the lightning strokes look weak.

Go back and look at your scouted locations at night. Take some test shots with the same film and equipment you will normally use for chasing storms. Is the detail there? Are there overexposed or "blown out" areas? Street and building lights are the worst offenders on this type of overexposure. Take notes, you won’t remember next year when the storm finally comes through.

Test the film in easy to replicate time increments. For that ƒ11 aperture, try 15 seconds, then 30, then 45, then 60. Test ƒ8, too.

Time to shoot. Drive carefully, but get out in front of that cell. Set up the tripod and mount the camera. Put on the cable release if you have one. Compose your shot. If the lightning is already happening, open the camera and start your first exposure. Don't try to shot as it happens. You will miss more than you get. Watch your time, when the scene is properly exposed, lightning or no, close the shutter, wind and open it again. If you are tempted to leave it open longer thinking you might still capture a bolt--well, you might. But it will be on an overexposed frame. It not worth it.

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