Lighting for Lightning

by Kevin Shank | Sep 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Lightning flickered in the west. Invisible waves of wind rocked the treetops. Would it rain? The dry ground could use it.

“If there is a storm tonight, I might leave when it is over and go to Salt Fork,” Steven announced.

We had been at his place for several days already. One night we stayed up until after 2:00 a.m., painting a bass. Another night we visited Salt Fork and photographed the Milky Way over the lotus plants. Tomorrow we would be heading home. I needed my rest—Mr. Smith would be on his own.

“When you head over to Salt Fork, don’t take Beeham Run Road,” Steven advised. “Last night there were branches down all over the road. Another fellow stopped and helped me pull a branch that was almost too large for me to move by myself. There must have been a lot more wind than I knew.”

“Did you get any lightning photos?” I asked.

“No. I sat there for forty-five minutes, but nothing. The storm moved through more quickly than usual.”

So many fun things happened when we visited Steven; many of them photographic. There was the waved sphinx moth that rode to Ohio on Cheryl. It fluttered onto her dress as we left church in West Virginia, and I told her to get in and let it ride along. We could photograph it when we got to Ohio.

And then there were the cute little robberflies on the weigela bush—Holcocephala robberflies to be exact.

“Those might be the cutest things you will photograph this week,” Steven told us.

Later that first evening, Adrian was hand-feeding hummers. At least they perched on his finger while they drank from a feeder. In the coming days those birds would not be ignored either.

Holcocephala robber fly eating gnat
Holcocephala robber fly. Photo © Kevin Shank.

Back in Virginia, one evening, as Adrian and I rode home, we watched lightning in the clouds to the east. A storm had passed over us several hours earlier. With memories of our visit and what we learned from Steven tantalizing our brain cells, we called home.

“Can Cheryl please get the cameras and tripods ready? We want to run down the road as soon as we get home and try to photograph this lightning from Jeffrey’s hill.”

Thirty minutes later, the lightning was still farther away, and the flashes were less frequent. But why not try anyway? We rarely have.

Darkness had settled over the land, so long exposures were possible. However, the one time I can remember trying to shoot distant lightning, I had left the shutter open for an extended period. Yes, I got some illumination in the clouds, but there was a lot of blur from cloud movement, and I had not captured any fun bolts. With that experience in mind, and with the frequent flashes we had observed, I chose to use six-second exposures. My hope was to capture a bolt, but then have the exposure stop, so additional flashes would not illuminate the clouds again, causing blurring from the movement of the clouds.

Cheryl and I locked on our electronic camera releases. Our cameras were set to shoot continuously. So, as each six-second shot concluded, the cameras automatically began new exposures.

For forty-five minutes we alternated composing photos between two active areas of the sky. Sometimes we captured bolts, and sometimes we missed them. When we missed them, either we were pointing the wrong way, or they flashed in the brief moment between exposures.

lightning bolt
This is the uncropped photo Adrian captured that we featured in the “End of the Trail.” None of us thought to look at radar and see where this storm was. But this bolt struck beyond the mountaintop, fifty miles away. From our perspective, we could see stars overhead. Shooting a departing storm in this way is much safer than shooting when in a storm. Always consider your safety when shooting lightning.
Adrian used a 70 mm lens, f/2.8, and ISO 1000. He chose to manually expose and then stop the exposure after a flash, which was 6-seconds. The white balance was 4000K. Notice the mammatus clouds pushing downward.
Photo © Adrian Shank.

The parent/youth softball game was to begin in an hour. A thunderstorm was rolling through. Would the game happen?

We didn’t know, but I packed a camera and tripod just in case I wished for them.

The rain had skirted around the field, so it was game on. As I sat and visited with the men, distant lightning occasionally flickered through the clouds. I kept sitting, that is, until warm evening light bathed a farm while rain fell on the mountains beyond. That was too much—after the camera I went. Wouldn’t lightning in that light be fun? It happened! I missed it.

warm evening light on a farm and mountains
Photo © Kevin Shank.

And then this happened. Warm light gave way to magenta hues. The remnant of a rainbow was still visible. Gorgeous! I quickly took four base shots for a panorama, and then composed on the farm, hoping for lightning. It was now or never.

I used aperture priority, ISO 100, and f/22. I locked on the shutter release and took picture after picture. Exposures began with one second but became three seconds as the skies darkened. Three hundred and one shots later, I quit. The bolt I captured neatly arched over the silos—perfect. But lightning shot with a low ISO and small aperture is not a good combination for brilliance.

lightning, sunset, and rainbow over farm in Shenandoah Valley
Photo © Kevin Shank.

To fix that, I tweaked the RAW file to achieve contrast with the lightning. As you may have guessed, that made everything else too dark.

I first opened a properly exposed composite that I would use as a base. Next I layered on top the really dark version. By using a layer mask, I blocked the dark composite from being visible altogether, except that I used a tiny brush and painted the lightning back in so it would be visible on top of the base photo.

While this brightened the lightning, it also brought with it dark edges. To deal with those, I used an adjustment layer to desaturate the lightning. That removed the dark edges and provided lightning on the base photo that appeared as it was seen, rather than as a faint streak like the camera captured.

Lightning in clouds
Lighting has the same light spectrum as does sunlight. Just as a sunrise/set can be red/orange due to the atmosphere through which the light travels, lightning seen from long distances can also appear in the red/orange family of colors.
Photo © Kevin Shank.

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