Saturday, June 19, 2010

Part 2: Lightning Photography - Photography with Imre - Episode 22

Well it's about time I finally wrote the supplemental post to my lightning photography video! Home renovations have taken away quite a lot of my time, although I must say that I'm quite impressed with the paint work I've done! I'm generally more used to sitting by my computer most of the day programming or working on videos, writing, etc., not doing physical work... and I swear I've lost some weight!

Anyway, enough about home renos, let's talk about lightning! Before moving on, I can't stress enough how dangerous it can be. During my research on the topic of lightning and storm safety, I was a bit surprised to discover that lightning kills more people per year on average in the U.S. than hurricanes and tornadoes! Indeed, like NOAA's article expressed, the damage caused by other weather phenomenon are more visual and widespread, whereas lightning takes a more targeted approach, if you will, and hence it's not noticed as readily. So if you're one to venture out and do this kind of photography, and to make the legal folks happy, educate yourself well, be very careful, and you're doing so at your own risk!

In regard to the video, I'm quite happy with the information presented, but I almost forgot to mention the use of a tripod when using long exposures (luckily I added it as a bullet point). Unless you have some stunning super-human ability to hold completely still, blurry photos will be the result of hand holding a camera and using a multi-second long exposure. And by chance if you don't have a tripod, then your best bet to stabilize the shots will be to brace yourself against something, or perhaps put the camera down on a solid surface; angling the camera using the latter method would be a bit of a challenge though.

I also talked about finding a location that is not only safe, but provides a composition that results in a photo worthy of display in an art gallery. But, this may or may not be your goal. Many photographers simply like to capture a nice bolt, and frankly I've been there too... especially since I've never really bothered to drive out to a location where I could take some of those amazing shots; well there is that one time with the supercell that just missed Calgary, which you saw in the video. The thing is though, we may not always be able to get to such a location because of our busy lives, or time of the storm, or whatever other circumstance stands in our way. But as I was perusing through Flickr, I came upon some awesome and inspirational shots, where even though the storm appears to be right overhead, the rest of the locale beautifully compliments the electrical action. So as you'll see, assuming you like these photos as well, a storm doesn't necessarily have to be in the distance (it's just generally safer unless you have a cozy Faraday cage):

Lastly, I'd like to quickly discuss the implications of noise when long exposures are used (digital camera of course, not film). Generally, I turn noise reduction off when taking shots of lightning. At ISO 100, even my aging E-3 produces a very clean image. When I first got the camera, I took some star trail shots with the shutter open for a full minute. Other than a few hot pixels here and there, the image was quite good; keeping in mind, lowest ISO setting. However, if I were to turn on noise reduction, the camera will take another exposure of equal length to the exposure used to take the picture with, but his time with the shutter closed. This allows the camera's brain to perform what is called dark frame subtraction, which helps cancel out some of the noise generated by the sensor.

So I may get a very slightly improved image in terms of quality, but I'd have to wait for another exposure cycle before I could take the next shot. In other words, if I'm keeping the shutter open for 15 seconds, then I'd have to wait for another 15 seconds after the actual exposure is done (total of 30 seconds), before I could press the shutter button again. But the problem is that I could lose a nice lightning bolt or two during that second exposure. Actually, here's a good place where you might consider shooting RAW if you don't already, as the extra editing room RAW provides might allow you to reduce some of that noise in your favorite editing program (e.g. Photoshop).

Well midnight is creeping up on me, so I suppose I should trudge over to my bed and dream up some electric sheep. And in the coming days I'll be doing my best to complete my next video, so as usual stay tuned for that and I'll be posting updates on Facebook and Twitter. L8r!

Web Resources
And do a search on Flickr for lightning; there are some amazing shots from great photographers there!

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