Olustee, Oklahoma, United States
Time / Date:
4:44 pm / May 27, 2008
Camera Body: Nikon D300
Lens: Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8
Other: Lightning detection device
Shutter Speed: 1/4s
Focal Length: 18mm
Storms have always been a favorite photo subject of mine. They’re one of the grand spectacles of nature — pure, majestic, untamed power. Every year, I travel 15,000 miles or so, crisscrossing the United States, seeking the worst weather I can find.
In the vicinity of powerful storms, the tortured atmosphere can be stunning; beautiful and terrifying in equal measures. My goal is simple — when mother nature puts on her show, I want to be there with a camera.
It’s not easy. Storms are ephemeral and often unpredictable. The best you can do is study the weather forecasts, position yourself in the areas where severe weather is likely, and then react quickly when a storm forms.
On the day I took this photo, warm moist air — the fuel of storms — was streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico and spreading over the southern great plains. The weather forecast called for scattered severe weather in southern Oklahoma. By mid-afternoon, numerous storms were forming across the flat landscape of farms and fields. One storm near the town of Olustee looked promising on radar, and was close enough to reach quickly.
Over the next couple of hours, this storm sailed briskly over a sea of wheat fields. Periodically, its dark underbelly would unleash a barrage of lightning.
At one point, the storm’s rain shaft assumed a spectacular teal-green color due to a large amount of hail inside the cloud. Hail scatters the red and orange components of sunlight, leaving the green and blue light. The blue color of icebergs is a result of similar physics.
Brilliant bolts of lightning were striking the field in front of the rain shaft, illuminating a shelf of ragged clouds. I rushed to photograph the scene, knowing it wouldn’t last long.
I keep my kit light when storm chasing — conditions change quickly, and it’s important to be able to move fast. Typically I’ll have a small bag with two bodies, one with a wide-angle zoom and the other with a normal-range zoom, along with a tripod.
To capture daytime shots of lighting like this photograph, I use a lightning detector. This is a small device that triggers a camera’s shutter when it senses a sudden flash of light. There are a couple of brands of detectors available. I use a Lightning Trigger, made by a company called Stepping Stone Products.
The nature of lightning makes such detectors possible. People perceive lighting as instantaneous, but a bolt actually consists of a series of distinct flickers that can last as long as a few hundred milliseconds. A professional camera like the Nikon D800 can open its shutter in 40 milliseconds, so the later flickers of a lightning bolt can be captured.
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes a bolt doesn’t last 40 milliseconds. Sometime the later flickers are too dim. Sometimes the shutter opens and closes between flickers. You have to be prepared for a lot of dud shots. But, when everything comes together, a lightning detector allows you to get shots that can’t be taken any other way.
Making the Shot:
For this shot, I wanted to include the green rain shaft, the diagonal line of ragged clouds, and a lightning bolt. I set my camera on a tripod, attached the trigger, and adjusted the field of view to include an area where lightning was occurring frequently.
Setting the exposure is always tricky when photographing lighting. A single storm can throw bolts whose brightness varies by orders of magnitude. In general, I’ll expose for the landscape, wait for a few bolts, and then chimp the histograms and make any necessary adjustments.
Since the bolts from this storm were quite bright, I used a small aperture of f/9.5 at ISO 200 so the highlights didn’t blow out. I then selected a relatively long exposure time of 1/4 seconds so the landscape wasn’t too dark. By varying the exposure time, you have some control over the relative brightness of the bolt verses the landscape.
Editing & Processing:
My post-processing tools are pretty standard. Most of my work is done in Lightroom, with Photoshop used for special situations.
For this photo, I set the color temperature manually so the foreground landscape appeared reasonable, then used a series of seven masks in Lightroom to target different sections of the photo. The main challenges were taming excessive brightness of the sunlit area on the left, increasing the contrast around the bolt, and adding definition to the dark clouds.
I love the otherworldly look of this photo. It captures the eerie feeling of being underneath one of these monster storms, when the sky turns a color that the sky should never turn.
Storms with green skies aren’t rare. Neither are lightning bolts. But it’s unusual for them to combine in such a photogenic fashion.
Accept that lightning photography is a game of chance with the odds stacked against you. You’ll have so many duds. Photos where dim lightning bolts are underexposed. Photos where bright bolts blow out the entire picture. Photos where the bolt is half out of the frame. You’ll have storms that die the minute you set up your tripod, and storms that unleash a barrage of lightning just after you take down your rig. Try to achieve a calm Zen acceptance of the missed bolts, and try again.
Where to even begin? There are so many great photographers out there, producing so many fantastic images. With the cross-pollination of ideas that the Internet has unleashed, I believe we truly are in a golden age of photography.
As far as what drives me to make images, that is easy — it’s the lure of the unknown. It’s the feeling of exploration that comes from never knowing what photo ops a day will bring.
About the Photographer
At heart, I am a hunter of special moments; sublime points in space and time where the forces of the world come together to produce something extraordinary. These can be as awe-inspiring as a tornado churning up a field on the sweeping great plains, or as intimate as a songbird performing a mating display in a quiet forest glade.
What these moments share is an intense sense of privilege. I’m left with a feeling of gratitude at being fortunate enough to have witnessed them.
The camera allows me to share these special encounters. My goal is to produce images that evoke the strong emotions — awe and fascination; humility, delight, and wonder — that these moments evoke in me.
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