Washington, DC is a jungle. It’s hot in the summer, there are herds of tourists and it’s nearly impossible to find a place to park. It’s also one of the most magical places (in my humble opinion) to shoot. It’s the perfect place for an urban explorer to loose themselves and come back with incredible content. My intent for this assignment was to spend the week time-lapsing amazing sunrises and sunsets behind America’s most recognizable monuments. As it turned out though, mother nature had other plans. She decided that she wanted to water the lawn… for 9 days straight. Thankfully there is plenty of beauty when it comes to weather related photography. This small setback actually gave me a chance to try something new. Lightning.
Since I’m a time-lapse photographer by profession I like to carry lots of gear because, hey, why not!? My gear list on this shoot includes the following, a Canon 1DC, (2) Canon 5DMKIII’s, Canon 14mm T3.1 Cinema lens, 16-35mm f/2.8 II, 70-200mm f/2.8 II, 50mm f/1.4, and a 24-105mm f/4. All of this and more is packed snugly into my Manfrotto Professional Backpack 50. One of the greatest features (and it definitely sounds like I’m over promoting here but I’m really not) is the fact that you can attach 2 tripods to the bag for hands free convenience. For someone who uses multiple tripods, this is huge! When you’re trying to capture lightning it can be a big advantage to have multiple set-ups, ensuring you don’t miss the action.
To begin with, any photographer looking to capture day to night time-lapse transitions or lightning photography will need a few tools; an intervalometer/shutter relase and a sturdy tripod. The intervalomter/shutter release allows you to take repeatable shots and also allows you to keep the shutter open for an indefinite amount of time (when your camera is set to Bulb mode). This is needed when trying to capture lightning because it will allow you to leave the shutter open long enough for the lightning to strike. Some cameras (depending on the manufacturer) will have built in intervalometers or they can be purchased online at very inexpensive rates.
Lightning can be a tricky beast, since you never know when or where it will strike. First, You’ll want a long exposure, so set your shutter speed to 15 or 20 seconds and adjust your other settings accordingly. Lightning is incredibly bright and can become over exposed so you’ll generally want to shoot at a very low ISO, such as 50 or 100 and an aperture of f/13-16+ (depending on the brightness of the scene). For me, I decided to shoot with a shutter speed of 20 seconds, ISO 50 at F/13. This gave me a lot of time to try to capture the lightning. Since my shutter speed was set to 20 seconds, I used my intervalometer and told my camera to shoot a frame once ever 21 seconds for 10 minutes. This meant my shutter was always open and ready to capture lightning.
I set up outside the Washington Monument hoping to capture lightning behind it as the storm approached but it decided to change direction and move parallel with the monument so I switched positions. I moved my camera in front of the Lincoln Memorial and smiled. After only being there for 5 minutes the lightning rolled in. My eyes lit up with excitement as I saw multiple strikes behind the Lincoln memorial and that’s when the rain came. It felt like I was being sprayed with a fire hose that’s how wet it was. I packed up my gear as quickly as possible and retreated to a nearby structure.
At the end of the night I walked away with a single image – one that I had never captured before but was happy to have endure the rain to get it. It’s these small adventures that really excite me and rejuvenate my passion for photography. So, next time if you see a storm and you’re feeling brave, go shoot some lightning. Of course do it safely. No one likes a barbecued photographer!