To me, one of the coolest types of photographs are the ones that are able to capture lightning as it strikes. There is something about the sheer power of the bolt as it connects to the earth or some structure, and even when it spreads out across the sky with tendrils that grasp clouds in almost a death grip, it can make for an awesome shot.
Now, there are a number of ways to capture lighting and take a great shot, like having a very fast trigger finger – a.k.a being extremely lucky, but chances are you will not capture very many bolts going off and if you do, they are likely to be blurry since the camera will be moving as you push the trigger. You can set your camera on long exposure, but that tends to not work during the daytime and even at night it can be hit-or-miss on the quality of shots you capture.
If you really want to take reliable high quality lighting photographs, what you really want is a Lightning Trigger. It is an optical device that attaches to your camera and will trigger your shutter for you. It contains an extremely sensitive optical flash sensor that can respond to lighting flashes up to 20 miles away during the daylight hours and up to 40 miles away at night.
The Lightning Trigger is compatible with 175 different camera models from 12 major manufacturers. The only thing required is that the camera have an electronic shutter release connection, a flash shoe for mounting the unit, and a fast shutter lag time. If you want to see if your camera will work, check out the camera compatibility page. Keep in mind that if your camera is a newer model, it still may work – the site may not have the latest information.
The unit itself is 4.95 in x 2.75 in x 1.38 in (126 mm x 70 mm x 35 mm) and weighs 5 oz (142 gm) with the battery. It uses a standard 9V alkaline battery which comes with it, and it has a nice roomy carrying case that holds the trigger as well as the cable, detailed instructions, and a five-year guarantee.
The one needed extra purchase is a cable to connect the trigger to the camera. One of the nice things about this system is that if you change camera brands, or a new model comes out that has slightly different electronics, you don’t have to purchase a new trigger, just a new cable. Again you can check out the camera compatibility page for which cable is right for your camera.
OK, how does this Lightning Trigger work? It is really pretty simple. First turn off your camera as well as the Lightning Trigger. Then attach the unit to the hot-shoe of your camera. Connect the release cable to the trigger and then to the camera. Finally turn the power on to the Lightning Trigger and then to the camera. One thing to note is that once the Lightning trigger is turned on, there are certain functionalities that are not available on the camera, notably that you cannot chimp – scroll through the shots to see what you have – until you turn off trigger unit. If you turn off the unit before the camera, it may also trigger a shot.
Now one thing that I do want to mention is that being out in an electrical storm or chasing a storm in general is not something to take lightly. Lightning IS DANGEROUS. You need to use some common sense when trying to take photos of lighting. The first is called the 30 second rule: If there is less than 30 seconds between the lightning and the thunder, you are probably too close (less than six miles). You should move out further. Second, be aware of what kind of storm it is – if there is a National Weather Center in your area, they may offer classes to help you learn the warning signs so you can be aware of situations around you. If the storm is a super cell, you may want to move out to 10 miles or more and perhaps in a different direction so as not to be in the path of a really severe storm or tornado.
That being said, the best types of storms are fairly large, isolated cells. They are usually the easiest to photograph and you can pretty easily stay out of their way. Really heavy, embedded systems are not as photogenic and they tend to be much more difficult to photograph. You can also get a lot of diffuse lightning coming out of them, which lights up the clouds, but doesn’t get the dramatic shots most people like.
Now as far as how to set up the camera: For daytime shots you want to use shutter speed priority mode with the exposure set to 1/15 to 1/4 of a second. You want to use single exposure setting, and set the focus manually. The Lightning Trigger will release the shutter and prevent re-triggering for 1/2 second.
For nighttime shooting everything is essentially the same, but you want to use manual mode instead of shutter priority. You set the aperture to somewhere between f/5.6 to f/4. The shutter speed can vary depending on conditions of the storm from, 1/4 of a second and lower; the camera may also be set to multiple exposure mode. As with learning about anything else in photography, this still takes time and practice.
I worked with a wide angle lens (15-24), a medium zoom (28-75), and a full zoom (70-200). The best shots I got were when I could get to a single-cell storm and move in from a distance with my 70-200. Living in the heart of Tornado Alley, we usually have a lot of storms during April, May, and June, but this year was not so good. Either they would pop up 50 to 100 miles away and be falling apart before I could get halfway there, or be the supercell ones. Many of them came in the wee overnight hours, which is not a good time to storm chase unless you are a professional. But I was able to get to enough storms to test out the trigger well enough to get a feel for it.
Having an isolated storm is better because you can step away from the scene and compose the shot such that you have a better reliability for capture. The unit itself has a fairly wide angle of view and so if you use a zoom, there is a good probability that lightning striking outside of the angle of view can trigger the shot. Sure, you can use a wide angle lens, but then you have to be closer to the bolt, which is dangerous, or the strike is really tiny in the frame. Therefore the more strikes that occur in your angle of view, the better your chances of getting the shot. For me, it was to find the storm, get to the angle of view outside of the actual storm, set up my tripod, and aim for the area that seemed most concentrated.
I have done some storm chasing, and when I do, I tend to be a bit fast and free with my camera – I have shot in rain and hail, once even using a model with a remote flash with tornado sirens going off overhead. The cable on the trigger sticks out on the side. While nothing has happened to me, I do worry that I am going to grab the camera and something will snag it, or that it will tumble over and crack it. It seems that that would be less liable to happen if it were tucked underneath the unit.
I found the Lightning Trigger to be very reliable and easy to work with. The hardest part is learning how to properly shoot the storm and getting to the right kind of storm and into the correct position to be effective. Once you have that down, the Lightning Trigger does its job very reliably.
While I haven’t tried them yet, there are other things that you can do with the Lightning Trigger, such as remote triggering if you are into wildlife photography. You can set your camera up where you know birds frequently gather, step off a couple of hundred yards, and trigger it with a flash unit. You can also capture fireworks displays, cars backfiring, and muzzle flashes from guns. The Lighting Trigger is $329 and the cable can range from $25-$54 depending on which one you need for your camera. Everything you need can be purchased at the Lightning Trigger Store. And it all comes with a five-year guarantee.
I really had a lot of fun using the Lightning Trigger and it not only makes your ability to capture great lightning shots much more reliable and gives you a wider range of control over your capture, it also lets you shoot during the day and evening hours and gives you more time to look at the more photographic aspects of photography such as what the storm is doing so you can set up for more dramatic compositions. For this reason, I can very highly recommend the Lightning Trigger.