Monday
Sep102012

Lightning Round

I took this shot on my recent trip to Washington, and I've received a lot of inquiries on how to catch lightning in a bottle-- or a DSLR, anyway.

There are several techniques employed to achieve this shot.  I'll break it down.

First-- this is kind of a "duh"-- but you need to find a lightning storm.  While walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, this amazing storm was lighting up the sky.  I immediately thought I might be able to capture something unique.  You never really know for certain-- and if the skies opened up-- I would have been hosed.  I was limited by the 50mm lens I had attached to the camera-- so we started marching down the avenue toward the Capitol to get the ideal framing.  

Fortunately the D800E has 36 megapixels-- so even if I get the shot reasonably close-- I'm in business because there's a lot of room to reframe an image of this size.  I still got close enough to fill the frame without too much signage in the foreground.

Next-- you need to expose for the Capitol.  The Capitol is the focus of the image-- it needs to be a perfect exposure.  I want a decent of depth of field-- and I wanted to extend the exposure time-- the longer the exposure-- the greater the chance a bolt will hit while the shutter is open-- and there were a lot of lightning bolts missed-- I can assure you!  

So I closed down to f/7.  Also-- set your ISO low to minimize grain and maximize exposure time.  On the D800/D800E this means ISO 200.  Everything under ISO 200 doesn't decrease noise at all.  Now you just set the shutter speed-- which in this case was 1.3 seconds.  I probably could have stopped up a bit further and extended my exposure window-- but I didn't.  As you get to aperture settings over f/10, you start losing sharpness.  The D800E has a sweet spot in the aperture between f/5.6 and f/10.  I picked something in the middle-- could have maybe stopped down to f/9, but you begin to split hairs at some point.

You can't be touching the camera while exposing.  The slightest camera movement will cause blurring- which would wreck the shot.  A tripod is ideal, but I didn't have one with me.  So I used my old standby-- And I use this often.  My iPhone with a case is the perfect height for under the Nikon lens.  I prop the lens on the case and I don't have to touch the camera.  

Even the act of pushing the shutter button will shift the camera slightly, so I set the self-timer to 2 seconds and let the camera do the exposure itself.  You can use liveview to set the frame-- I didn't-- I just pointed the camera at the capitol and shot a test frame.  

Next step-- patience!  You need a lot of patience and you're going to take a lot of photos unless you're really lucky.  I shot around 300 frames before this capture.  I needed to stop and clear the card a few times (missing a few great bolts in the process, naturally).  

Just start shooting and don't stop until you get the image.  I had only one other frame that might have worked-- I had to delete it for space-- it was a bolt off to the extreme right of the frame.  It just wasn't quite what I wanted-- so I pressed on.  

It's not a terribly difficult shot to achieve-- but with patience and a little skill, you can get this shot, too.

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