The History of Photography: Lightning Photography

by Matthew Cole
Home Page The History Of Photography 2001

Adventures with Lightning

If you've waded through much of my site you may have realized that I enjoy exploring some odd corners of photography. One corner which has been of passing interest over the years is lightning photography. Taking pictures of lightning is pretty straightforward, falling into the Have Fun With Your Shutter Open category of taking pictures just like fireworks, meteor showers, star trails and freeze-action flash photography. Lightning photography also seems to have become pretty popular. Try searching for lightning photography and you'll get loads of hits. Not all the sites are optimum quality, unfortunately, but there are some wonderful sites out there, with really good lightning photography, and I've compiled a few links to them further down this page. You can also look at my own How to Photograph Lightning page if you are here looking for that sort of thing. Before we get to that, though, I thought I'd run a few of my own lightning photos with a some comments. [Note: as with most photos on this site, if you click on the picture you'll get a bigger version]

My First Lightning Photo!
My First Lightning Photo! On many sites you read of the excitement of getting the first lighting photo! Yeah, we're happy for you, but success on the first try is not that uncommon. The photo at left is my first ever lightning photo, an otherwise dull shot of a car sitting in a parking lot in Fort Collins, Colorado in July 1980. How hard was this? It was trivial. I took precisely one frame on my Rolleicord. I thought the picture was kind of cool, printed the photo into my album of pictures from that happy summer and was surprised at how much people liked it. It does have several lightning strikes in it, but it's sure a boring photo. Rolleicord Vb, Verichrome Pan
Lightning near Mingo, Iowa
Lightning near Mingo, Iowa, May 1987. Although the Fort Collins parking lot shot got lots of favorable comments, even I realized it was a pretty mediocre picture. Unlike many lightning photographers, I was not instantly hooked, and indeed didn't even try again until seven years later. Karla and I had been up to her grandmother's in Waterloo, Iowa, and driving back on the Highway 330 diagonal southwest of Marshalltown in the gathering dusk, I noted persistent lightning off to the east. I pulled off on a dirt road, set up the Nikon FE with 55mm and tripod, and proceeded to shoot 40 exposures (finished off one roll, shot the whole next one). Three had lightning in them, and two were pretty nice. This is one of them. The real miracle in this shot is that there is no sodium-vapor yard light on this farm! I like this picture well enough that a print of it hangs in my living room. There, I thought, I've pretty much conquered lightning photography on my second try. Nikon FE, 55mm Micro, Kodachrome 64

The Lightning Trigger on the G2

Well, maybe not quite. One day in 1999 I read a reference to a device which senses lightning and fires the camera, even in broad daylight, to capture daylight lightning photos! But it cost $329! Yowza! However, I'd recently picked up a Contax G2, which has an electronic release, and called up photo buddy and erstwhile engineer Dave Dahms and asked if he'd design and build a lightning detector/shutter release. Dave, always good-natured and a great practical engineer, did, testing it in what must have been a comical display of setting the unit up on a tripod in broad daylight and backing away while firing a small electronic flash and staring at the unit through binoculars to see if it worked. Once he'd nailed down the circuit, he sent me the schematic and a board layout and I built one too, just in time (August 1999) to miss virtually all the severe weather that summer. My "build" of the device is pictured at left on my G2. The circuit is simple enough, and Dave generous enough with some spare parts, that I spent more on the stainless steel allen bolts and Radio Shack case than on electrical components. And the G2 isn't necessary; the Nikon FE would probably work with a motor on it, since the MD-12 had a connector to hook up a remote release. Dave uses a Canon A-1 and now, in the age of digital, it can be adapted for all sorts of cameras. [and before you email me or Dave asking for the circuit, sorry, it's not for distribution, we don't want to turn into the Help Desk for this device and we don't want to get sued by you or your grief-stricken relatives for encouraging you to go out and stand around in storms.]

Anyway, the chase was on. For the first time, I began to actually try and position myself in front of thunderstorms hoping to get shots of lightning. Initially I was more concerned with a proof-of-concept shot, anything with lightning, to prove that this unit worked. Most of our storms seem to be happening at night rather than in daytime, and a couple of attempts in daylight resulted in extremely mediocre shots with no lightning (Target parking lot with no lightning, pile of dirt in a cemetery with no lightning, windblown lake with no lightning, etc.) Both Dave's experience and mine showed the device to be so proficient at keeping lighting away that we started calling them the Lightning Preventors.

Having been foiled in daylight, I decided to instead try a nighttime usage just to prove that the darn thing worked in combination with the G2 [the issue here wasn't that it would fire the camera, which it clearly would, but that the camera would focus and fire quickly enough to get the lightning. The G2 is autofocus and even set manually to infinity it needs to move off a resting position to infinity focus]. The first attempt was of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, when I shot about 30 pictures, mostly triggered by in-the-cloud lightning, although some were fired by several police cars who came zooming up with flashing lights to participate in running after some perp. One shot had a little hook of lightning in the far left. Yes!! It worked! Sort of. The Prevention aspects held the storm at bay, stationary over Eagan, Minnesota 10 miles away, where it dropped 12 inches of rain in a couple of hours and flooded a bunch of homes. Sorry! This is one darn powerful circuit considering it only uses a 9v battery.

Minnesota State Capitol Building, Saint Paul, Minnesota Minnesota State Capitol Building, July 2000. My second try worked better. I went to the State Capitol Building, set up on a corner and waited. A big line of storms was coming from the west, where in fact they spawned a tornado which destroyed dozens of homes in Granite Falls, Minnesota and killed a man there. This time I set the sensitivity a little lower, shot only 20 photos, and got 3 with some lightning, including the one at left. It's not a great photo (I'd prefer a cloud to ground strike), but it's not bad, and shows that the detector really does work in combination with the G2. It also shows the value of the detector even at night--the building exposure was 1/2 second at f/5.6 or 1 second at f/8, so it's not like you could leave the shutter open for minutes on end hoping for something to happen.Contax G2, 28mm, Fuji Sensia II
Self Portrait with Lightning, Saint Paul, Minnesota Matt & a Bolt of Lightning, 6 June 2002. The lightning detector sure helps with the hit ratio. One evening I went to try getting a bolt of lightning over the Como Lake Pavillion. I started off with an exposure in the evening light of 1 second at f/11. The camera fired about half a dozen times and got lightning once, but mostly the lighting was faint or off to the side. The light got dimmer as I opened up to 1 second at f/2.8. The lighting then moved too far south. I decided to try a self-portrait, so turned the camera around and aimed it south and sat patiently on a rock. In fifteen minutes it took three shots. Two had lightning in them, including this one. There is of course some risk of getting hit doing this but on the other hand, it would make a heck of a picture! Contax G2, 28mm, 2 seconds f/2.8, Kodak E100SW
Downtown Minneapolis with Lightning at Dusk Lightning at Dusk in Downtown Minneapolis, 24 June 2003. One night I went out to buy manure for the garden. I was at the garden center and there was some lightning and thunder about and the air was very juicy so I decided to take a crack at evening lightning. Back in the truck, I turned on the radio. The storms were developing west of the Cities and sliding by to the northwest. Buffalo Lake, Minnesota, about 50 miles west, was badly damaged by a tornado. I drove downtown and picked my spot atop a parking ramp next to the Holiday Inn, and settled in. This is looking Northwest towards downtown; the (now-gone) Metrodome is in the left foreground where the White Sox were beating the Twins 2-1 that night. Before long, the lightning detector fired and captured this bolt. Most of the good lightning was happening elsewhere so the device didn't fire much even as I dialed up the sensitivity. Contax G2, 45mm lens, 2 seconds f/8, Kodak E100SW
Downtown Minneapolis with Lightning after Dark Lightning after Dark in Downtown Minneapolis, 24 June 2003. As the evening progressed it kept seeming to hold promise. My Handspring VisorPhone [amazingly rudimentary predecessor to the iPhone] kept buzzing with new weather warnings (I'd get 13 SMS messages with warnings throughout the evening) and dramatic lightning would happen in other directions. I stuck it out until nearly 10PM, getting this shot after dark. These were the only two good photos all evening (of 30 taken, several of which were me playing around getting plane lights passing by and hoping for lightning). Driving home I figured there was more to come because it was still tropically muggy out and, sure enough, by about 11:15 a line of heavy thunderstorms came through, but by then I was in bed. I may have missed those, but the detector once again proved its worth in high ambient light situations; both on the early shot, where there was still light in the sky, and on the late shot when the downtown was brightly lit, the detector captured the occasional decent lightning strokes. And best of all, I didn't get rained on! Contax G2, 45mm lens, 4 seconds f/4, Kodak E100SW

It's nice to know that the device works, but I still would like a decent full daylight shot (I've got some crappy ones of indifferent subjects with bits of lightning far off to one side of the frame, so at least I know it'll work). I'll get it one of these days. The detector travels in my truck in a Naafi tea tin and I keep hoping to try some more shots in daylight if a particularly juicy storm is heading my way.

Just because I am not a rabid storm-chasing lightning photographer does not mean that it's not a good way to spend your time. If you do it, though, keep in mind that what makes a lightning photo cool isn't just a burst of lightning without regard to the rest of the photo, but a decently-composed photograph with lightning in it. I have listed below some other web sites having to do with lightning photography. First are some handy utilities abd then a group of sites I think do a good job of lightning pictures which are well worth the visit.

Finally, a note on safety. Lightning can kill you. In the couple of weeks after I took the picture of the Capitol building and was first writing this page, two concertgoers just over in Wisconsin were hit returning to a campground, and one of them killed, and then a corporate jet was hit at 33,000 feet over Lake Superior, knocking out both engines, and the pilots dead-sticked it into some woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Both pilots were killed, and the wounded passengers called on a cell phone to guide the rescue chopper in. At about the same time, a mountain climber was hit in Colorado (and I think his corpse hung there for a day or two before it was safe to go get him) and a couple of firefighters were killed in Utah. You need to recognize the possibility of injury or death resulting from getting hit if you go out photographing lightning. There are also long-term physiological effects if you survive and they are well-documented in an article in the August 2002 Discover magazine. Remember, the best lightning photographs aren't worth your life; with the vast majority of mediocre ones it isn't even close.

And with that cheerful thought, here are the links I like...

Some Lightning Utilities

Good Lightning Photography Sites:

Lightning photography can be a diverting pastime. Have fun, keep shooting and be careful out there!

e mail me