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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!


Shooting Film (Part One)

Weathered tree in the Cheltenham Badlands. Ilford Delta 100 film

A weathered wind beaten tree in the Cheltenham Badlands – Ilford Delta 100 film

It’s hard to believe that film today has become a novelty platform reserved for artists. We’ve taken film for granted and it’s served us well over the last 200 years but it’s becoming harder and harder to find. You might be scratching your head saying “so what?”. Well, let’s look at high definition television, you know all those old movies and TV series that suddenly are now available in true HD? Well, they were shot on film, either 16mm, 35mm or some other variant. Before the evolution of high definition television and the high quality video formats of the very late 90’s, video sucked. Only low end productions would use video because it was cheap. Do you think we’ll ever see The Fresh Prince of Belair in HD? No, never, it won’t happen! It was all shot on BetaCamSP which was a very good video format for the time sporting a resolution of 560 lines which is well above the standard tv resolution of 480 lines. We can make the original Betcam video look a little better with modern technology but it’ll never look great and it’ll never be HD quality. Yet we can scan 8mm film from the late 1930’s and it looks good in HD. Take that up a notch to 16mm and you’ll think it was shot yesterday. Take it a notch further to the 35mm level and suddenly the Wizard of OZ looks beautiful in 1080P, 2k, 4k and even 8k. The beauty of film is that there is so much hidden resolution! Things photographed or filmed over 100 years ago still look great today and film has visually preserved a ton of our history.

Despite a rich past, film today is a dying medium which will continue to slowly decline in use and popularity. It is my belief that every photographer should have an opportunity to experience using good high quality film at least a few times in their life. I started photographing on film but quickly moved onto digital photos. Back in the early 2000’s digital photography was like the holy grail for me. You could take many photos, reuse the same medium (at a great cost saving) and best of all, the results were instant! You knew right away whether or not you had a good photo and it helped me greatly with my ability to frame and compose photos.

Hay bales in a green field during the long summer days of August – Fujichrome Velvia 100

Summertime hay bales in a green field – Fujichrome Velvia 100

I wont lie though, digital photography took a long time to catch up to film but it happened and now digital photography is surpassing film in most ways. Before I rant on about how good film is, I’ll let you know why digital as an everyday medium is better!

First off, I’m not getting into the whole debate about megapixels and ink blots, let’s just remember this, when you measure a photo, you look at the end product hanging on a wall. Whether it was from a 3 megapixel camera from 2003 or a 100 year old Burke and James 8×10 system does not matter, all that matters is what the viewer perceives. Film cameras, specifically 35mm systems are limited to 24 or 36 exposures which is nothing compared to how many hundreds of digital photos you can stuff on a 32GB memory card. Each roll of film is rated at a specific speed for light sensitivity such as ASA/ISO 100 locking you in until you switch rolls while a digital camera has a huge range of ISO and your not locked in. Film traditionally had more dynamic range until 2012 when digital sensors finally surpassed that barrier. Today many cameras embed EXIF data including GPS coordinates, date/time and specific information about the camera settings, so you’ll never really wonder when/where/how a digital photo was taken, film of course, does none of this.

The gardiner expressway in Toronto after a 35 second exposureusing Kodak Ektar 100

Nightfall on the gardener expressway – Kodak Ektar 100

That said, film is not digital, and digital photography is not film. In order to understand the beauty of film you need to use it. I’ve found that when shooting with film I’m forced to stop and slow down. Because I have a limited number of exposures available and I want to squeeze as much out of a single roll as possible I really stop and think. I concentrate on exposure, composition, second guess myself, wait for the right moment, breathe slowly and then in a split second I have my photo. There’s no looking down at the LCD to see if I got the shot I wanted, there’s no waiting on the camera to process the photo. It’s over and done, I’m already thinking about the next photo and move on. When I’m finished with one roll I might move on to something else such as Ilford Delta-100 black and white or Kodak Ektar.

To date my favorite film by far, and I say this without any hesitation is Ilford Delta-100. It’s very sharp, clean and extremely responsive. There’s no colour information, it’s black and white, but it produces the best black and white photos period. Heck, they’re way better than anything my 5DMKIII produces. My two favourite colour films are Kodak Ektar 100 and Fujichrome Velvia 100. For someone just getting into film your going to want to stick with a C-41 process, that’s the standard and most basic chemical process for development. Most Wal-Mart’s and drug stores still have machines capable of developing this film. Kodak Ektar is a C-41 process as well as Ilford XP2 which is not true black and white but simulates the process well. If you want to spend more money, anything that’s not C-41 will do, but be warned, you’ll need to use specialty stores to develop those types of film. Fujichrome Velvia has the highest resolving power and some of the richest colours among colour 35mm films still in production but be warned, it’s an E-6 process which very few places are capable of developing/working.

20150309-_E1A8632So to reiterate, C-41 is the most common film development process followed by RA-1. Next on the list is E-6. After E-6 there is a whole bunch of special and discontinued formats, bringing us to the Ilford Delta series which has its own very specific process that is for the most part completely manual.

If you don’t have on old 35mm camera laying around or you want one with a good, fast and responsive auto-focus system then head over to your local camera shop and they’ll probably have a few dozen used cameras. Don’t spend a lot of money, you can probably get an old Rebel or Elan7 for $10 or $20. In fact, I’ve found an old Canon EOS-1v in a bin of SLRs and bought it for a WHOPPING $40. That’s not bad when you consider that it was Canon’s flagship camera at one point and remains their only film based camera still in production. If you do have an older 35mm camera check to see if it has a metering system that actually still works. Retro old school cameras that use the sunny-16 rule are cool but you might just take a whole bunch of under or over exposed pictures, especially if you venture into the shade. For a beginner, I definitely recommend a digital metering system so you can get a feel for what’s going on before you rewind to the days before digital meters existed.

Now with all this talk about film, going out and shooting it and getting it developed are one thing. Transferring this analog medium to a digital format is a whole different ballgame. There are three basic methods to accomplish this transfer, the first is using a traditional flatbed scanner, the second revolves around the use of a specialized film scanner and the third is using a $100,000 drum scanner. The first two you can do at home, the third is something that only a professional company can do for you.

The problem with flatbed scanners is that they lack the high resolution you need for really nice prints and the colours can be flat. If you wan to spend $99 – $500 you can get a pretty good CCD/CMOS specialized film scanner that can get you upwards of 3600 to 6000 DPI of resolution. If you want to get every ounce of detail out of your film then a drum scanner will do that with resolutions surpassing 15,000 DPI and every detail coming out of any shadows, but be warned, you’ll pay $$$. I use a Plustek 7400 scanner, it’s now obsolete (go figure) and boasts 7200 DPI of resolution. The real world resolution is actually around 4000 DPI and generally speaking you only get around 30-60% of the “advertised” resolution from any scanner. Some scanners have infrared lights and silver detection tools which help detect scratches and dust to later have software remove them. Cheaper scanners use algorithm based guesses to hunt for dust and grit.

Cooking up some ribs – Kodak Ektar 100

This photo was taken at the Woodbridge Ribfest using Kodak Ektar 100 in daylight. The colour detail and saturation are excellent, it was scanned using my Plustek 7400 with Silverfast 6.0 and Wal-Mart developed the photo (remember C-41 process) at a cost of around $6 plus prints. The good thing about films like Kodak Ektar is that they are very tolerant to over and under exposure whereas Fuji Velvia needs to be almost spot on or you’ll loose the highlights. The downside to more tolerant films is that they often have bigger ink blots and more grain, so none of my Ektar prints will have the same degree of detail or “resolving power” as Fuji Velvia. The other thing to remember is that as you increase a films sensitivity to light the ink blots become bigger. What I mean by that is a film which is rated at say ISO/ASA 800 will not have the same resolving power as the same film type at a rating of ISO/ASA 400 but of course only needs half as much light as the 400 film to garner the correct exposure and hence the difference between requiring a 1/60th versus 1/30th shutter speed.

Here are a couple shots showing 100% crops where film grain is visible. Left is Ektar, center is Velvia and right is Ilford. Hands down Velvia wins for resolving power but Ektar and Delta are not far behind. These scans are also not that great compared to what a drum scanner would produce so keep that in mind too!

20150310-9482212978_300937a766_o-2 20150310-Velvia 100 - 03-3 20150309-Ilford Delta 100 - 18-2

Well I think that closes out part one of “Shooting Film”, eventually I’ll get around to writing up Part 2. Until then, go and enjoy some good old fashioned photography.