An average of 10 people in Florida are killed by lightning strikes annually and 40 are seriously injured. Of those killed by lightning in Florida:
- 98% were outdoors.
- 89% were male.
- 30% were age 10-19.
- 20% were age 20-29.
- 25% were standing under a tree.
- 25% occurred on or near water.
Of the 50 United States, Florida is the lightning capital. While the most frequent lightning strikes occur in the Tampa Bay Area, the chance of being struck by lightning in Florida is 1 in 3,000 over the course of a lifetime.
Moving indoors offers the best protection from lightning. The best structure is a large, fully enclosed building that has electrical wiring and plumbing. Small, light, or open-air structures such as picnic shelters, sheds, carports, barges, golf shelters, tents, greenhouses, and baseball dugouts are NOT considered safe buildings. Once inside, you want to avoid using any electrical device or taking a shower or bath.
If you cannot find a structure to seek shelter in, the next best thing is a vehicle.
From the area where it is raining, lightning can strike as far as 10 miles, and in some extreme cases up to 20 miles - Florida State University.
That being said, this type of photography is high risk and elusive.
Lightning and the Lightning Trigger
Two components of lightning I’m after are the bright white flash and the unseen infrared light that always precedes the white flash. Lightning triggers use a high-speed photodiode sensor optimized to the infrared burst that occurs just before a lightning strike. This infrared light comes from the vaporization of air and particles in the air. When a significant change of infrared light over several milliseconds is detected, the trigger directs the camera shutter to activate.
- Thunderstorm Image Objectives (day cityscape (see above), twilight cityscape, night cityscape, day landscape, twilight landscape, night landscape, day seascape, twilight seascape, night seascape)
- Research. There is a lot of information on the web especially on the sites where vendors are selling their lightning triggers. Several have useful camera settings based on the subject distance and brightness of a scene. I use google earth and google maps to identify potential locations for scouting and site selection.
- Scouting & Site Selection (looking for the optimum foreground, middle ground, and background that puts me 6 to 7 miles from a storm). Its day trips before the thunderstorm season, scouting for views to the north, south, east, and west, with plenty of distance between me and where I want to photograph the storms.
- Weekly, daily and hourly forecast and when onsite, it's to the minute storm location tracking using iPhone apps. The type of Storm I'm looking for is a single isolated thunderstorm. This is sometimes a half-day event because the storms here develop and move so quickly that it's hard to get in front of them once they are moving so you start well before any storms are visible and make the best guess at where you'll need to be.
- Repetition, it took about 20 attempts over two years to finally get a single isolated thunderstorm with a high ground flash ratio over the city of Jacksonville.
- One camera with telephoto lens setup for horizontal composition, a second camera with telephoto lens setup for vertical composition, third camera setup for wide-angle composition
- Depending on how close the car is and how distant the storms are, 1 to 3 camera are setup
- 2 Nikon D850s, 1 Nikon D5
- 80-400mm, 70-200mm & 24-70mm
- 3 Lightning Triggers (2 MK Controls Lightning Bug, 1 Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger)
- ND filters (Breakthrough Photography 6-stop ND & Singh-ray 5-stop & 10-stop ND)
- 3 Tripods
- Manual focus (don’t want to lose any time here with autofocus)
- Set the triggers to match the frames per second (with the MK Controls Lightning Bug, can capture up to 10 lighting strikes per second. For a camera like the Nikon D850, consider the MB-D18 battery pack to allow up to 9 frames per second. This is not an issue with the D5).
- For daytime lightning photography, I used Aperture Priority at base ISO and an Aperture based on daytime brightness and storm distance.
||ISO 64 @ f5.6
||ISO 64 @ f4
||ISO 160 @ f2.8
||ISO 64 @ f8
||ISO 64 @ f5.6
||ISO 160 @ f2.8
||ISO 64 @ f16
||ISO 64 @ f11
||ISO 160 @ f4
- My target shutter speed range is between 1.3 seconds to 1/30th of a second. Longer than a few seconds (again, this is daytime) tend to start blending the brightness of the lightning flash with the ambient light. Faster than 1/60th of a second may cause completion of the exposure prior to the formation of the visible portion of the lightning strike.
- I use Neutral density filters to reduce the brightness of the day to get to my target shutter speed range. I also adjust the ISO (and aperture), sometimes even below base ISO depending on the brightness of the day (on a D850 the base ISO is 64, have gotten excellent results with L.03=ISO 50, L.07=ISO 40, and L1.0=ISO 32), an alternative to using a higher-stop ND filter.
- Even during the middle part of the day when the light is typically flat and contrasty, moments happen when clouds around an approaching storm behave like huge softboxes or reflectors to the cities and trees below. I like to capture those moments. Sometimes these captures are useful as a layer combined with the clouds and lightning strikes. For this reason, I try not to move the cameras once they are set on their tripods until it's time to go.
- Love composites! I like having the ability to capture various elements of a storm, the texture, reflections, and shades in the water, how the light is changing over a city, the rapid formation and movement of clouds, rain bands, and lightning flashes. All these become components that I can pick and choose from to create the image I saw that day, sometimes imagined years before.
- Software: Lightroom & Photoshop
It’s exciting when it all comes together, you’re set up on a grand foreground, your camera settings are working with the changing sky conditions, a storm is approaching, lightning flashes, the lightning triggers are tripping your camera shutters and that’s about when you decide it's time to pack up and run.
For more of my lightning images, click here: Waters Edge