One night, somehow already over two years ago, I found myself at midnight unable to sleep. There was a torrential storm going on, so I got up and poked my head out of the window to see the most intense lightning storm I have seen before or since.
I’ve always been impressed by lightning photography, but have rarely found myself in a sustained enough storm to warrant the trial and error form of shooting I tend to employ for any sort of photography that has a particular technique to it.
So the fact that it was the middle of the night and my wife was fast asleep be damned, I decided I was awake enough to give it a go, and would be silly to miss this opportunity. So I grabbed my camera, googled the best way to photograph lightning, and started trying to get some shots.
For the record, I’d also like it known that I tried to wake my wife, because she loves storms, but all she did was grunt and roll over, so she missed it all and was annoyed at me the next morning (and indeed has remained so ever since) for not successfully waking her.
The advice for shooting lightning that I found was relatively simple: use bulb mode (which keeps your shutter open as long as you keep your finger on the release), use an ISO of 100-200, and an aperture of f/5.6, and then keep the shutter open for spells and hope you get lucky.
I spent half an hour trying to take photos whilst the lightning continued. Luckily it would persist in certain spots so I could train my camera at that direction and try my best, and then shift my direction as the storm itself moved. I did not, however, leave the house. I’ve not got anything to protect my camera gear whilst in use, and since I had been trying to sleep I was not exactly dressed for the outside world, so I took these shots from my living room. Not wanting to make the noise of setting up my tripod, as well as the knowledge using my tripod would make it hard to get close to the window, I elected to shoot with my camera resting on my windowsill, right up against the glass for both stability and to minimise any reflections (although all the indoor lights were turned off anyway so there were few reflections to speak of).
Most of my first attempts were, if you’ll forgive the expression, a little damp.
As you can see, shooting through a rainy window has added nothing to the sharpness of the image. I also didn’t have much luck with where I was pointing the camera, because the small amount of lightning you can see is in the very top corner of the frame. Finally, clearly the exposure was out, because between the long shutter and the amount of lightning the image doesn’t look particularly like it was taken at night.
Sometimes I had a little more luck with the framing, but the exposure was still off.
As you can see, I was still dialling in the settings too. The exposure is still too long: the sky is too bright, and the fork of lightning I’ve managed to capture is a bit faint. I wasn’t being helped by the rain-splattered window I was shooting through either.
The storm started to come past us, and I continued to dial in my settings. Eventually my angle to the lightning found me looking towards one of the blocks opposite us, where someone was evidently still up. This next shot doesn’t feature any lightning, but it does help set he scene a little, my own grubby window and nearby streetlight included.
Eventually – eventually – I got lucky, and the 5-second window my shutter was open for coincided with a bolt of lightning. I put it through the same post-processing at the image above, and then through another filter to encourage the contrast a little more. This is the end result.
Eventually the storm passed by, and I continued trying to get some shots of the lightning out of the back of the flat. Sadly the storm was beginning to wane at that point, and with slightly closer buildings I wasn’t able to get much – this is about the only shot that contains any lightning, which was you can (probably just about) see is comparatively very faint.
All told I took about 200 shots… just to get essentially one photograph worth sharing. But as far as I’m concerned it was totally worth it. Sure, it’s not the cleanest lightning photograph ever taken; certainly the grubby window reflecting the streetlight looks really untidy, but I also think it adds to the feel of being inside watching a thunderstorm.
Now of course, there is an amount of processing going on in this shot, which is both bringing out the lightning and also emphasising the purplish hue of the sky. Just to give you an idea of how relatively little processing has happened, I wanted to also share the original shot. You can compare the two below.
The other image I wanted to share was the mid-process shot, after the work in Lightroom but before the additional definition was applied, because I’m still partial to it as a shot and I’m sure some people will prefer it.
This remains the single most intense lightning storm I’ve ever experienced. In fact, it was so intense it made the news, with one newspaper claiming it as ‘the mother of all storms‘. It was an epic storm and I’m glad I was awake for it.
Just don’t mention it to my wife. She’s still a bit bitter about missing it.