April is upon us, and with it come April showers, thunderstorms and spectacular lightning displays.
I'm a lightning freak, and I love to photograph lightning storms. Several years ago, a photo I made of lightning striking a number of buildings in New York City ran on the AP wire and appeared in newspapers around the world.I was inundated with requests for technical details about the photo. It was downright embarrassing! The truth is that it was no great technical achievement. Photographing lightning at night is easy - it just takes the right equipment, a little know-how and a great deal of luck.
Although it's almost impossible to catch a lightning bolt at the moment it strikes, it is easy if you lay a trap for it. You can do it by taking a time-exposure at night and letting the lightning take its own picture!
First, the equipment: You must have a camera equipped with a setting for either time-exposure (T) or bulb (B). Most of the newer cameras have the B. You will also need a lens with adjustable f-stops, a tripod or clamp to hold the camera steady during a long exposure, and a cable release to prevent any camera movement.
With all this in hand, the next step is to pick a likely spot from which to shoot. Don't wait until the storm comes - pick your spot ahead of time. My picture was taken from the terrace of an apartment in New Jersey looking across the Hudson River toward the Manhattan skyline. A porch or upstairs window might be used instead.
Remember - it will probably be raining, so pick a sheltered spot where you can keep yourself and your equipment dry. For safety's sake, don't stand under a tree or anyplace that will attract lightning.
If you shoot through a window, open it. Glass sometimes distorts or it could throw the picture out of focus.
You must shoot at night, using this technique and, ideally, from a spot where you have a city skyline in the distance and a great deal of sky above it. Make sure that there are no strong sources of light shining directly at the camera. The lights in my New York picture were so far away they were no more than pin pricks of light that would not affect exposure.
It's OK if you have no skyline at your disposal, but try to silhouette something in the foreground, like a tree or building. Keep the horizon line near the bottom of the picture. You want all the activity in the sky overhead. A wide-angle lens may come in handy; it covers more area, and you never know where the lightning is going to strike.
Once you've gathered your equipment and selected your shooting spot, the hard part comes - waiting for a lightning storm to arrive.
Once you see the storm approaching, the rest is easy. Set up your camera to take in the field of view you've selected. I prefer shooting in color using an ASA 100 film, either print or transparency, tungsten or daylight.
Set the f-stop at f8 and the shutter at either T or B. When the bolts start hitting, open the shutter and wait. Most of my lightning exposures have run two to five minutes, sometimes longer. When I felt that I had captured enough bolts hitting, I just closed the shutter and advanced to the next frame to try another shot.
That's all there is to it! Just set up the camera, open the lens, sit back, have a cup of coffee and enjoy the show. There's really nothing to it, if luck is on your side.
Good luck - and, if you catch a good one, I'd like to see it.