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Getting the "Voltage"

Published February 9th, 2012

by Scott Turnmeyer

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The photos in my Voltage Collection have become some of the most known and talked about from my Fine Art shots. I alwasy get asked "how did you get that shot". So I figured I could do a little blog post to talk about that night.

First of all, I LOVE Lightning and Thunderstorms in general. To get a shot like this you can't be timid. Most good lightning shots puts you in the path of a storm heading right at you, and timing is critical. You have to know when to get out of dodge before the heavy rain hits.

Next thing to know is that there are many types of lightning, most that we see in my area of Virginia are:

Cloud to Ground - Your standard bolt from the cloud to a point on the ground.

Ground to Cloud - Same type of bolt as above, except a leader comes from the ground to the cloud.

Intracloud - These would be your sideways bolts and bright flashes within clouds

Anvil Crawlers - Probably the most beautiful. They are so huge that the human eye can actually see the lightning "spideweb" throughout the sky. You are actually seeing the leaders as they progress. These types are normally at extremely high altitudes.

Heat Lightning - actually this is a bolt of lightning so far off that the individual cannot see it.

The two shots below, out of the Voltage collection, were Anvil Crawlers. I don't see this type very often where I live, so this night was definitely a spectacle to behold. Literally the bolt would start off in the distance and work its way what seemed slowly throughout the sky. It was absolutely amazing.

Now that we have amazing lightning, how did I catch it. Actually it's quite easy once you get the settings of the camera the way that you want. My gear consisted of:

Canon 7D w/Wireless grip

Tamron wide angle lens

Manfrotto Tripod

Western Digital 1TB portable USB Harddrive

Intervalometer - allows me to fire the shutter at specific time intervals(this makes it easy)

I watch the radar very closely when I'm planning on shooting my lightning, especially take advantage of the animated radar tracks which allow you to see easier where the storm is moving. Luckily this night, the storm was headed right for my home so I simply setup on my back deck. If you are going for shots like the ones below then you could setup anywhere with a good clear view of the sky. It definitely takes more planning and cooperation from mother nature if you are trying to get lightning with a specific skyline.

Now that you know where you are putting your camera, let's setup the tripod and camera. The intervalometer connects to the camera, and my wireless grip for my Canon 7D has a USB port for my portable hard drive. I use the portable hard drive because I can start the shooting and not have to worry about my card filling up. I also have a few different weather wraps for my camera, which I like to put on just in case it starts raining lightly. The plan always is to get your gear out of there before the main rain hits.

Equipment is all setup, now for the settings. This is not that simple and will change drastically depending on the lens, type of camera, ambient light and the look that you are going for. I'm in a small town with some ambient light, but nothing like a major city. To me, it is most important to get the bolt and not the "sky lighting up". To accomplish this, I want my lens aperture at the smallest it will go. The shots below were taken at F22. Shutter speed is determined also on the amount of ambient light. These shots below were taken at 8s, and that was more or less trial and error to determine the right settings at F22. To fine tune the light and catching of the bolt, I utilize the ISO settings. Again, completely dependent on your situation. I shot these shots at 640.

So to sum up my settings for the shots that night:

ISO 640


Wide Angle Lens at 16mm and focused to infinity

8s shutter speed

Now for the timing of the shots, this is where it gets really easy with my intervalometer. You could sit there and constantly hit the shutter button(I'd use the timer function on your camera to make sure that you don't have camera shake) or you could use a remote trigger and try to catch them right when you see them. I've done both to moderate success. Or you can simply set the intervalometer to fire the shutter every 9 seconds (remember my shutter speed is for an 8s exposure). This is by far the method that I recommend.

Once you start the intervalometer and your camera is firing away every 9 seconds sit back and watch the show. You'll be able to listen to the camera and watch the sky to tell if you caught that bolt or not. Once you feel like you caught something, stop the intervalometer and check your LCD screen. You want to make sure that all of your settings are correct, and you may need to make some tweeking to get the look that you want.

Shooting lightning is by far one of the most enjoyable experiences if you do it this way. You will be amazed at how much MORE there is to a single bolt of lightning, which you can't see because it is going by so fast or the human eye just couldn't see it. You'll find yourself stopping the camera all of the time to see if you really did get that shot or not. Just writing this post I can't wait for those hot summer nights full of thunderstorms. Enjoy.

Remember you can view all of my portfolio shots here at my 500px site or you can visit and follow me at any of the following:

Fire Art Site - www.scottturnmeyer.com

Turnmeyer Studios Photography - www.vaphoto.com

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  • August 18th, 2011
  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 16mm / f/22 / 8 sec

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