On Sunday night I was out photographing neon again, when an enormous set of thunderstorms rumbled through over the Rincon and Santa Catalina mountains. I grabbed my last picture (Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant on Craycroft), and headed home to get some photos.
I’ve been waiting all summer for a really good lightning storm to show up. The year-round residents promised me a light show like I’ve never seen before, if I would only stay through the monsoon season. This year has been a bit of a bust so far, but Sunday night made up for it. There were hundreds of lightning strikes visible from our neighborhood in a couple of hours.
I’ve never photographed lightning before, so I played around a little and shot several hundred images. (About 80 of them can be viewed on my Flickr site.) Conditions were perfect where I was standing: no rain, no wind, and a clear sky with great views to the storms.
My technique was fairly simple. To maximize my chances of catching a lightning bolt, I used the super-wide angle lens (Tamron 10-24 mm) set to 10 mm. This allowed me to capture a large swath of sky. I mounted the camera on the tripod, set the ISO to 100, and manually fixed the focus at infinity. Rather than choose a pre-set exposure, I let the camera choose but I dialed in three to four stops of underexposure to make the lightning bolts show up. I have no idea if this is similar to the technique used by professionals, since I just made it up, but it worked well.
The real trick of lightning photos seems to be patience. It’s basically a matter of aiming the tripod where you think the bolts are most prevalent, and pushing the shutter over and over again. If the storm cooperates, you can frame up a nice image in advance, using foreground objects to set the scene. But storms don’t cooperate with anyone, so you have to stick with it until that lucky confluence of preparation and timing occurs. My exposures ran about 5 seconds. If there was a strike in that time, I’d get it. But most of the time the lightning was obscured by clouds, which resulted in a well-lit sky but not a visible bolt.
If you try this, get ready to hit that Delete key a lot later. Most of the shots I took were duds. Don’t pause to edit on the camera — just keep shooting. If you stop to delete photos from the camera, you’ll miss that great lightning burst, guaranteed. This means a big memory card is also an asset, to store hundreds of photos.
This is the sort of storm that Eleanor and I were watching a few weeks ago when we were tent camping up in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. We were fortunate that storm never reached us. (We would have been much safer in the Airstream, thanks to the protective aluminum shell and the “skin effect“.) Watching the fury of these summer lightning bolts on Sunday, I was grateful that I was safely near home, and not in a tent. The monsoon may have been mild for Tucson most of this summer, but one night like this demonstrates just how fierce it can be — and what fun it can be if you happen to be standing in the right spot for a view.