When Lightning Strikes

Behind the Shot: Advanced

There are moments where I’m hesitant to look back to see if I got the shot. It’s when the experience of shooting overwhelms me. These moments come unexpectedly and test us as ultimate problem solvers.

 

The sun was setting in the Everglades when a friend and I drove into the park in search of a spot for landscape sunset photos.  In the matter of minutes it went from semi cloudy to torrential downpour. “Well there goes our sunset... time for lightning photos” we told ourselves. By the time we parked our car, settling on a location, the rain had amassed so much that I had to run off into the rain barefoot. I only had one pair of shoes for this trip and getting it wet would’ve been a major drag. Which I don’t suggest anyone doing because there are venomous snakes that come out on paths during the rain (which I also later photographed). By then, the sky had fallen to complete pitch darkness and it was the sporadic lightning that led our way. Halfway to the spot where we would have some cover I noticed two football shaped silhouettes about 15-20 feet to the left of the path. “It can’t be!” I told myself. Two adult Barred Owls were perched out in the open!

 

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm  A Barred Owl silhouette. Got the subject in focus without motion blur, but taken a millisecond too late from a lightning stike.

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm

A Barred Owl silhouette. Got the subject in focus without motion blur, but taken a millisecond too late from a lightning stike.

 

I immediately accessed the challenges of photographing them.

  1. It was pitch dark, with the only source of light being lighting strikes. Thus in order to get this shot, I would have to shoot when the lightning struck. I would absolutely need some luck for this one. With landscape lightning photos, these shots are usually done with long exposures in multiple intervals. Shooting too slow would be out of the question even if I was completely still because there were high winds,heavy rain, and live subjects.

  2. I tend to shoot 95% handheld with my 600mm F4 IS II which meant I didn’t have a monopod nor a heavy tripod with me. This was quite a handicap as I knew I could only get this shot with a very low shutter speed. I’ve been able to consistently get away with shooting 1/60th of a second at 600mm handheld, but I gauged that I would need to be around 1/15 to get enough light. My final shot was taken at 1/8th of a second. This couldn’t have worked without bracing the foot of my lens on something and having impeccable IS (image stabilization) in my lens.

  3. No light meant no auto focusing, not even for my Canon 1DX II which focuses down to -3 EV. Solution? Good ol manual focus! This meant I had to quickly focus when the lightning struck and by trial and error, hopefully getting it right. Being very familiar with my lens helped as I had in the past shot with manual focus and was able to gauge the distance and attempt to get it by peeking at my focus meter on the lens, again doing this only when lightning struck. The hardest part of manual focusing was that I was hand holding and shooting at a thin depth of field. The slightest move either front or back would result in a subject out of focus.

  4. There is always a sense of urgency when shooting wildlife because there is a lack of certainty that your subject will remain still or even there. I reminded myself that haste makes waste! I needed to slow down, double check all settings, and correct for any errors before the situation changes. Spoiler alert: the owl flew away shortly after I got the shot!

  5. Having the right gear at the right time counts. I’m not endorsed or paid by Canon in anyway, but time and time again my 1DX II and 600mm F4 IS II have proven to be nearly weatherproof. I have shot during monsoon season in rainforests, out in open seas with splashing waves, high winds on sandy shore, and now this. All my buttons functioned as I needed and even with build up of water inside my lens hood and viewfinder I was able to consistently shoot. Having confidence in the durability of my tools allowed me to focus more on my shot.

Warning: Please be aware that I do not encourage shooting in inclimate weather situations. If you intend to shoot in such weather please do so at your own risk.

Reviewing my Contact Sheet. Please... all I need is one!

Reviewing my Contact Sheet. Please... all I need is one!

Solving these various challenges tested my understanding of the limits of my gear.

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm  I got the lightning in this shot, but It doesn't help to have a moving subject under such conditions. I had to quickly refocus manually and recompose from a further distance.

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm

I got the lightning in this shot, but It doesn't help to have a moving subject under such conditions. I had to quickly refocus manually and recompose from a further distance.

I remember when purchasing the 1DX II, one of the features that set this aside from other sport cameras was that it had no apparent raw buffer limit. Most people said it was overkill. Was it? The Nikon D5 (183 shot buffer with 5 seconds to clear) or even the Sony A9 (241 frames with 38 seconds to clear) buffer seemed more than adequate. So after bracing myself to steady my lens, practicing breathing techniques to minimize shake, I literally held down the shutter for 30+ seconds at a time. Shooting at 14 frames per second.  That’s over 420+ photos in one burst! I did this until I felt I got the shot, which took around 2.5k shots.

(Buffer data provided by Imaging Resource https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/canon-1dx-ii/canon-1dx-iiA6.HTM, https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/nikon-d5/nikon-d5A6.HTM, https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/sony-a9/sony-a9A6.HTM)

When I give talks, lessons, or workshops, high ISO is always a subject that people are wary about. There seems to be a lingering notion that a noisy image is a bad image… an unprintable image and yes, I’ve been guilty of this too. It took working professionally as a wildlife photographer to help me understand that an image is comprised of so much more than image quality, not to mention I have made large prints with ISO up to 6,400. Years ago, I would’ve without a doubt missed this shot, limiting myself to a maximum of 3,200 ISO. When it came down to this instance, it was a either a chance of getting it at ISO 25,600 or going home with all blurry photos. 

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm  Finally!

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm

Finally!

With all being said and done, this photo was created under a  truly incredible experience. I still remember the rush of excitement along with the hyperventilating due to the the cold rain blasting on my face. These are the moments I live for.