The Difference Between Shooting Lightning in the Daytime vs. Nighttime

by Sean Setters
 
I thoroughly enjoy lightning photography, but until recently, I had never seriously attempted to capture lightning during the day. Soon after receiving the MIOPS Camera Trigger, I tested the device during a daytime thunderstorm to see how well it worked. Site visitors interested in lightning photography are often curious if a triggering device will work in the daytime, and my test revealed that the MIOPS Camera Trigger worked perfectly under even relatively bright conditions. The same cannot be said about other lightning triggers I've tried.
 
Even with a good camera trigger, lightning photography during the daytime presents a problem. How do you balance the exposure so that the lightning bolt is visible in the bright sky while keeping the foreground details from being silhouetted?
 
The best answer I've come up with – a graduated ND filter and a covered shooting location.
 
The image above of the Savannah River was taken just before 7:00pm (an hour and 23 minutes before sunset). While it wasn't as bright at 7:00pm as it would be with midday sun, relatively few opportunities for lightning will be photographed in conditions that bright. The storm clouds that bring lightning typically block out the sun or at least darken the sky in the area being photographed to some degree. However, the darkening rarely lowers the sky's exposure to that of the ground beneath it. That's where the graduated ND filter comes in. For this shot, I mounted my 5D Mark III, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, MIOPS Camera Trigger on my tripod which was set up under the Savannah Belles Ferry Waving Girl Landing, adjacent the Marriott Hotel along the Savannah River. To the end of the lens, I attached a 100mm filter holder containing a Cokin NUANCES Z-Pro Soft-Edge 2-stop Grad ND. By positioning the filter in the holder so that it primarily covered the sky, I was able to better balance out the exposure between the ground/river elements and the sky.
 
Remember when I mentioned that a covered shooting location was an important part of this technique? While a lens hood will often prevent rain from accumulating on your front lens element or protective filter, the use of a 100mm filter holder and filters precludes the use of a lens hood. With a much larger surface area to gather water droplets and ultimately impacting image quality, a location that protects the entire camera rig from rain is ideal. Of course, if photographing a storm from a vantage point where it isn't raining, no covered location is necessary. Unfortunately, storms tend to move and photographing lightning is very much a waiting game. If it isn't raining in your location, the same may not be true 10 minutes later.
 
And while I'm on the subject of rain, here's some advice: invest in some type of waterproof camera backpack for transporting your gear to and from your shooting location. I recently picked up a used Lowepro DryZone 100 – predecessor to the now available Lowepro Dryzone 200 – and it's been perfect for these types of outings. The DZ100 and DZ200 are completely watertight, have plenty of room and are comfortable to wear for moderate distances even with a tripod strapped to the back (although the waist strap sits high on my 6'2" / 1.88m frame). If you're serious about photographing in extreme conditions, pick up a Lowepro DryZone 200 or similar bag.
 
Figuring out your desired exposure level for daytime lightning photography is easier than for nighttime lightning photography. At night, a lightning bolt becomes the primary light source for the sky – where it bounces off of nearby clouds – and, if not illuminated by artificial light, the ground. It usually takes a few test shots and a little bit of luck to determine the optimal exposure settings for a given nighttime storm. You can typically vary the shutter speed until the ground is sufficiently bright enough at your chosen aperture and ISO, but that aperture and ISO are keys to determining the brightness level of the sky that results from a lightning strike. That said, if your shutter speed is too long, you may record multiple lightning strikes within the same image which will cause a substantially over exposed sky. In other words, sufficient skill and a little bit of luck are important in getting properly exposed nighttime lightning shots.
 
On the contrary, lightning doesn't typically impact the brightness level of the surrounding sky to a consequential degree during the daytime, generally speaking, unless there is a significantly thick blanket of dark clouds overhead. Therefore, you can set usually set your exposure to slightly underexpose the sky and your lightning will simply pop out against the underexposed background, such as in the example above. The ease of setting an exposure really paid off in this case. The lightning bolt I captured is the only lightning that occurred within my camera's field of view while I was photographing on this particular evening.
 
In post processing, I darkened the sky a bit further by reducing the luminosity of the blue channel and increased the image's overall contrast and saturation.
 
The following day I photographed from the same location around 3:30pm and while I didn't catch any lightning, the retreating storm provided an inspiring view.
 
Storm Over the Savannah River
 
As you can see, one benefit of attempting to photograph lightning during the day is that, even if you are unsuccessful, the clouds may reward your effort. I used the Cokin NUANCES Z-Pro Soft-Edge 2-stop Grad ND for this image as well.
 
If you don't have a graduated ND filter in your kit, you can combine multiple exposures to arrive at a similar result (under-expose the sky in the lightning shot and combine that with a brighter ground exposure). However, any elements that move during the exposure that reside within the field between those two images (the part that simulates the graduated part of the ND filter) will have to be dealt with on an individual basis with specific masking. I've worked with exposure blending quite a bit over the last few years, and while some extreme exposure latitude situations can certainly benefit from the technique, I've really been enjoying the use of graduated NDs lately. I suppose I'd rather spend more time in the field setting up the camera to capture the image I want (or very close to it) as opposed to spending more time in front of my computer attempting to create a similar image.
Posted: 8/2/2018 6:35:35 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
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