Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lightning Photography: Doing it my way

Lightning Photography

The Johannesburg highveld has some of the most spectacular afternoon lightning storms. It was during one of these that I decided to try and capture a lightning bolt on camera.

I had heard about some cameras that record a four second stream of images at incredibly high framerates, and then when you depress the shutter, it saves the four previous seconds in addition to the picture you've taken. You can then choose the best from those pictures, which makes it ideal for split second photography, such as sport, waves and, of course, lightning.

The best of my shots from the first day

I however, do not possess such a camera. I use a Canon Powershot SX110 IS; a 9.0MP camera with a 10x Optical Zoom. As far as my needs go, I find it to be the perfect camera; small enough to be portable (unlike some of the more ridiculous things you occasionally see), with a decent zoom lens, an expansive and brilliant screen and an excellent sensor. It also allows for Apeture, Shutter Speed and full manual control, which can come in handy. I would say that the three things missing are that it does not support bracketing (which makes HDR photography slightly more challenging), that it does not automatically rotate pictures as they were taken upon caputre, and it lacks the in-camera ability to stitch panoramas. The latter two exist in other forms though; the rotation information is saved in the pictures' EXIF information and can then be used with the Canon software to rotate the images once they're on the computer. As for stitching, Canon cameras come bundled with Photostitch, which is - in my opinion - the best software for the job. It allows lengthy horizontal, 360°, vertical and matrix arrangements and has both intelligent auto matching of edges, and flexible user-defined matching.

Lightning, rain (the haze on the horizon) and a rainbow.

Enough about the camera, let's get to how I used it to take these pictures. I was struck (interesting word choice) by the idea that instead of lightning quick reflexes (ah, again), and miniscule shutter speeds, I should use an incredibly long shutter speed, and thereby capture the entirety of each bolt, rather than an instant only.
I must mention that this idea did not come to me from google. I actually thought it through myself! Woo! At the time of publishing this, I had yet to search and see if anyone else has done this (which I'm sure they have).
So I set the speed to 15 seconds, the highest allowed by the camera. I tried to install the CHDK add on that allows overrides of up to 64 seconds on some Canon cameras, but unfortunately this camera was too new and was not supported. So 15 seconds it was.

The lightning started early on the second afternoon, and so the above image was garish and overexposed. It took some adjustment to make it almost presentable.

My first few shots, despite it being late afternoon/early evening and heavily clouded over, came out pure white. And so I turned down the exposure to -2, and the ISO to 80, the lowest allowed.
And I began to shoot.

Our house is situated on a slope, and so looks out on one side on an immense flat plain, with the horizon off in the distance, broken only by some trees in the foreground. The lightning storms rend the sky from West thru North to the East, half the hemisphere of the sky.

This was an interesting shot, as most of the in-cloud lightning led only to the illumation of the clouds, with no visible bolt.

Unfortunately, I have incredibly bad luck when it comes to taking pictures of waves, and - it seems - lightning. Using my method means that I must commit to about an eighth of this section of sky. Almost invariably, the lightning would strike in another part of the sky, and so 8 out of 10 of my shots were simply the most beautiful, but soon monotonous, and then infuriating storm clouds sans lightning. In fact, I chose 16 out of about the 100 pictures from the two evenings on which I shot. See all 16 here.

But sometimes I was fortunate.

What you see here are the best of my pictures so far, taken from two consecutive highveld storms, on the 22nd and 27th of October 2009. While they cannot hope to compete with true lightning photography, I at least was impressed with what I could achieve with a compact camera. With the exception of having a monstrous zoom, I think that most photographic effects can be achieved through crafty use of a Canon compact camera.

By far the best of my shots; what I describe as fingers in the sky, because the lightning bolts in the upper half of the picture reach out across most of the sky simultaneously. It's stunning.

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