Utilizing Telephoto Lenses for Lightning

My first ever well composed lightning photo! Mostly luck but this photo changed how I thought about framing and planning – Fuji FinePix 6800 Zoom

Most people don’t really realize the powers that short and mid range telephoto lenses offer when it comes to weather. When I first started taking photographs I never really thought about how important pushing into a landscape was, instead I opted for a wider lens to get it all. This same early habit of mine also translated into lightning photography. I wanted to catch the lightning so badly that instead of focusing into where the lightning was I stayed wide and captured the whole sky with a ton of dead space. Yeah I was able to capture the lightning but it probably occupied a measly 1/10th to 1/20th of the pictures total area.

The excitement of taking my first successful lightning photographs (which were pretty poor) soon turned into frustration when I wanted better photos. Initially I was angry that the lightning was not filling my frame properly, and then I realized at some point in my early teens that I should probably try and frame for the lightning rather than take a whole bunch of photos and hope the lightning framed itself. My first successful attempt at framing lightning came in the spring of 2002. An early morning squall line was rolling towards my parent’s house and I woke up 2 hours early. It was around 6:20AM when I saw the storm coming in. I didn’t have a good tripod at the time so I wedged my Fuji Fine Pix 6800Z into my window frame and held it steady for 3 whole seconds. In a matter of less than a second four lightning bolts descended right where I wanted them! It was perfect; I even zoomed in slightly to where I thought they would fall! It was mostly luck, but it taught me to shoot towards the target rather than to target the whole sky.

Lightning strikes Georgian Bay – 88mm @ ƒ/4.0 using the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Now the one thing with lightning is that you can’t control it or the weather surrounding it. If you’re close enough to the lightning that it seems to surround you, then you’re simply too close to shoot it safely outside. The other problem with being so close is that you really can’t reliably predict where it is going to strike with any consistency and you’re stuck in a situation where you need to take wide shots of the sky, fight with rain and your limit to compose is compromised.

If you’re fortunate enough that a storm is several kilometres or miles away, then you’re in a good position to break out the telephoto lens. The image showing the three simultaneous strikes above Georgian Bay was taken from Wasaga beach looking northwest across the bay. The small town (far left side of the horizon) is Collingwood. These lightning bolts either hit near the shoreline or the escarpment area behind the water putting them around 20 – 30 kilometres from my location. To my eye, they were very far away, but using my powerful 70-200mm lens I was able to push in to 88 millimetres and have the bolts fill the frame. The white glow in the left of the image is actually rainfall from the parent thunderstorm. The benefit of shooting lightning from farther away using a zoom lens is two fold. First, the lightning appears to be focused into a smaller area so you can consistently get good results and in effect predict where the lightning will strike and second, you avoid the rain and bad weather which makes getting lightning photos potentially dangerous otherwise.

A thunderstorm 80 kilometers off the coast of Hollywood Beach lights up the horizon – 85mm @ ƒ/3.5 using the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

On a recent trip to Florida in September (prime thunderstorm season down there) I was greeted by a wonderful nocturnal thunderstorm. The storm on radar was 130 kilometres / 80 miles away near The Bahamas. Once again, utilising the power of the 70-200mm lens I was able to bring the storm to me. There were so many good shots it was like shooting fish in a barrel and I could hand pick the more impressive images showing visible lightning bolts jumping outside of the storm. In fact, I was sort of sad I only brought a couple lenses with me and did not have my whole kit including the 400mm lens. Even at such extreme distances, with a powerful telephoto lens you can pick and choose your composition and see impressive things you may not otherwise.

That said there are limitation to what can be done. All lenses are subject to atmospheric conditions and the more air you put between your lens and the subject the more potential obstruction there is. In Florida, the tropical ocean air is typically clean and you can see for many miles, but once you get into areas like the eastern half of North America and where I live in Toronto, atmospheric haze can become a real burden. In the heat of summer when low level smog lingers you’re often hard pressed to see more than maybe 10 kilometres and even then, shooting a thunderstorm through that thick soup of dirty air does not produce pleasant or vibrant results. That said, not every day is hazy and some storms are very clear or do a good job of cleaning the air around them. Other storms produce so much rain the lightning may get completely buried and then even the best lens won’t help you! Then of course, there’s fog, low cloud, trees, buildings and any number of other potential obstructions to hamper your photographic efforts.

It’s no surprise that most photographers hunting lightning gravitate towards lakes or open spaces. These locations give the cleanest field of view and sometimes but not always have less haze. One thing to note is that heat shimmer is typically not a problem with lightning because the flash duration is so short. Although exposures which include other visible elements not illuminated by the lightning (buildings, evening horizon, etc) may still suffer from heat shimmer distortion.

Lightning jumps across the sky in Texas – 20mm @ ƒ/5.6 – Sigma 10-20mm USM ƒ/3.5 EX DC HSM

Now, you don’t always need a powerful telephoto lens, sometimes a wider lens is just fine. This central Texas lightning image was taken at 20mm and I captured the whole sky during the early evening. This was a much drier thunderstorm in the final stages of its life and was putting out a fair bit of lightning. Despite the storm looking close it’s actually around 15-20 kilometres away. The lightning bolts were just huge and so was the storm! Trust me, everything is much bigger in Texas and that’s no joke! The other thing to note is the radio tower, I could have moved to a spot without the tower but the sky would have been pretty empty otherwise. The radio tower actually gives a little substance and balance to the image filling it in and allowing the viewer to get a sense of size or even depth perception! I will admit that I did have my fingers crossed that a bolt would pick it off but that never happened.

Lightning bolts from a weak fast moving thunderstorm with no structure – 22mm @ ƒ/8.0 – EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

In another example, there was an early spring thunderstorm just north of my home. The storm was moving very quickly (80km/h) and I needed to just find a clear spot to land and take photos. The storm had rain, no clearly visible structure and I really had no clue where the bolts would fall from. So I did the only thing I could and shoot the better part of the horizon filling the frame with the storm. In this case, two well placed bolts descended in frame. The framing could have certainly been better but nature did not cooperate and that’s just way it goes sometimes.

One last piece of advice is to not get frustrated! When you first try taking lightning photos, especially with a more focused telephoto lens you’ll inevitably fail or you’ll miss a few good bolts between frames. It’s normal, it happens, just don’t fixate on your losses and move on.

Then you also have those situations where the storm spits out all sorts of lightning but just does not perform for the camera or you find the perfect spot, get your gear setup and then realize the atmosphere has changed and low clouds have moved into your field of view and obstructed the sky. It happens, nothing you can do!

Supercell Lightning in Southwestern ON

Too much lightning creating ghosting – 24mm @ ƒ/2.8 – EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

There’s also the problem of too much lightning or the wrong kind of lightning. Here’s an example from Southern Ontario taken on June 22nd 2015. This was a powerful supercell thunderstorm which is the strongest type of electrical storm you can get. The storm was producing huge volumes of lightning and flicking every second or so. There was so much lightning, it was hard to get a good photo because the constant flickering washed out the storm and hid the more powerful cloud to ground bolts. In my example to the left you can see ghosting from the cloud. This was a 30 second exposure at ISO 100. I had to use a very low ISO to keep the cameras sensitivity to a minimum but I couldn’t close the iris too much or else the actual bolts I wanted would be too dim. Unfortunately there was so much intra-cloud or sheet lightning as it is sometimes called, it created the ghosting. Even at much shorter exposures I was still getting ghosting or washed out bolts.

Remember, always keep a safe distance from the lightning you’re photographing and no picture is worth your life!