Lightning in Southwest Florida – Port Charlotte, FL

Lightning in Southwest Florida – Port Charlotte, FL

WARNING • WARNING • WARNING

OK, so here’s the thing. I’ll tell you how I did this, BUT, I don’t recommend that anyone do this. Lighting seems to like metal objects as well as people so if you try this and you die, well, sorry to hear about that, but it’s all on YOU! 🙂

Now that the lawyers are happy, on with the post…

Here’s a fun fact, Florida is the lighting capital of the world. During the summer months we can see some interesting weather pop up. In fact, since Florida is a little flat, we consider the tall cloud formations that we get, our mountains. They are big and graceful…then they turn on us. It’s not uncommon for rain to fall sideways due to the wind that is also produced.

A few years ago when I started to get into photography, I wanted to capture lighting like I had seen in magazines. I thought how hard can this be? Well, let me tell you, my first attempts were pretty dismal to say the least. Since I wasn’t fully versed in photography as I am now, I opened a magazine and it was if the photographer’s God had blessed me. In front of me was a full page ad for a lighting trigger. My problems were over. All I had to do was to attach this marvelous device to my camera and I too could get amazing lighting photographs. I called the 800 number and paid the ignorance tax $500 to have it sent on its way. When it arrived, naturally there weren’t any storms around, however the fourth of July was in a few days. I called the company and I was told “no problem” as this trigger looks for a flash of light to set it off. As the fireworks explode, the trigger would go off and capture them, perfect. When the big day came I followed the directions and it was working as advertised. However, when I looked at the photos, I realized that the exposure time was too short and what I got was a point of light. But, I wasn’t going to admit defeat, I mean this was a cool toy to take to camera clubs and show off. After a few more tries, I ended up putting it in the supplied pouch and put it in the closet with all the other stuff to “be figured out later”.

Fast-forward about seven years and that fancy trigger is still sitting on the shelf. I have since improved my skills a little and have embraced “bulb” mode. No fancy equipment needed, just some education. Let me explain, when using bulb mode on the camera, you are in control of the shutter time. I have used this method when shooting fireworks and achieved the desired look I was going for. However, I haven’t had a real chance of trying it on lighting…until now.

I find that lighting looks best at night. The only bad thing about shooting at night in the summer time in Florida is that there are these little blood sucking bugs that find you and make life miserable. However, this night was going to be different. I was sitting watching TV with the wife when my iPhone started squawking like a pissed off bird. The National Weather Center had issued a severe thunderstorm warning for our area. I thought this might be a decent chance to get something. I quietly got up and when the wife asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “I have to take the garbage out.” I wasn’t lying; I took out the garbage first to see what was going on. 🙂

I soon realized that our house was in the middle of three thunderstorms, all with lighting happening. It was beautiful and scary at the same time. When they would strike, the sky lit up like it was daytime. Not being the sharpest tool in the shed, I wanted to try and get a few photos. I knew I was going to have to keep the tripod steady as not to get a blurry shot. This meant that I was going to have to employ my tripod….my metal tripod. To justify this insane move, I told myself that I would shoot from under the entrance way so I wouldn’t be “exposed”. I came in the house and fitted the camera to the tripod and I also attached the electronic release to trip the camera. Lens, what lens to use? I wanted to use a prime lens as they are one of the sharpest that I own in my bag. After thinking for a minute, I settled on my Nikon 105mm Macro. OK, some of you might be thinking what herbs am I on? Just because this is a macro lens doesn’t mean that it can’t be used for other applications. This is the longest prime lens that I have. It does have a focus scale and I set it to infinity (∞). I set my ISO to 200 at f/8 and shutter speed to bulb. I ran out into the entrance way and set up shop. I took a few frames and had to make some adjustments. What I ended up shooting was ISO 800, f/2.8 in bulb mode. This made the bolt of lighting more pronounced. Some might be thinking f/2.8? Yes, since the lighting was happening so far away, it was all in focus. One note on the focus, I found that ∞ didn’t work too well. I moved the lens focusing ring a little and took a shot and checked the focus. Moved the ring again and reshot. I did this a couple of times to get it where I wanted it. Since it’s dark out, forget automatic focus, it will just hunt. This is one of those times I had to do it myself. As for the shutter, I kept pressing and holding the shutter open for about five seconds each. I didn’t want to keep it open any longer as I was getting light contamination from the city lights. Going with a faster shutter speed made sure all that was going to register in the frame was the strike and clouds.

At this point, I had the process down, same as I do with fireworks. No big deal, except if I’m not careful this subject could kill me. It was apparent that after a few minutes that the three storms had shifted and I was getting nothing but trees from shooting from the safe entrance way. Ahem, well, since we are the only house on the road where we live, I took a little walk to see exactly where I wanted to shoot from. Out in the darkness I go (forgot a flashlight) and found a perfect place, right in the middle of the wide-open road, how bad can this be? I went back and picked up the tripod. At this point, I have lost about 20 pounds due to the mosquitoes, but sometimes we have to do things that we don’t like to get the photo. I set up the tripod and get into position and it was then I saw the sky light up and the lighting actually went across the sky…over my head. At this point, most folks would be hiding under the bed. I said a little prayer to the man up stars and explained that all I wanted was a photo of the light show. At that moment, it started to rain. I just laughed and thought; OK we’re going to have to work for this one.

At this point I put all my fears aside and started concentrating on the task at hand. I got many beautiful photos of the tall clouds lighting up, but I wanted the strike like I had seen in magazines. As I was pulsing the release button, I was hoping I was going to get one. During one of my frames, I saw a strike go across the sky and I hoped I got that one. I did a quick review and sure enough I did. I wasn’t going to press my luck any further. I’m out here in an open area with a metal tripod and camera in the rain. (this is why I make sure all my stuff is weather sealed!)

I came in and got dried off. At this point, I was caught, the wife saw me come into the house with the tripod and I was drenched. She had this puzzled look on her face and I told her, “I wanted to see what the trash can looked like in a rain storm at night”. She put her hand on her face, shook her head and walked away. (I keep telling her it’s not too late to fire me, she insists on keeping me for some reason).

Without further ado, here is the resulting photo of my efforts….

 Spencer Pullen captured this lighting from a recent storm in Southwest Florida.Lighting in Southwest Florida – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

To process this, I just did a little cropping and ran a Pro Contrast and sharpened in NIK. The colors were as shown here. I shot about 100 frames and I got this one. This was partly due to the moving storm and my position. But, I was happy to get this one!

To be a little serious for a minute, this was REALLY STUPID to do this. Dangerous is an understatement. I know folks who go out and shoot lighting, but they are usually miles away. I was doing this during a storm. So, PLEASE DON’T TRY THIS…FOR REAL. Will I do this again, probably not…unless I can get miles away, ahem. I’ll just have to take an extended trip of taking the garbage out!

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean (and DRY!)

Spencer

7 Comments

  1. What an electrifying experience you had and you lived to tell the tell! Your hair’s not curled and your equipment is still in tack! I’d say that was a decent shoot!

    Thanks for the input. Have been wanting to know more about how to do this.
    Not sure if I’ll try but tempted!

  2. Hey, you’re alive and the photo is dynamite. I won’t be trying this, but highly appreciate your result!

  3. Oh, and congratulations on your fruit photo in FL Weekly. It’s stunning and I can’t think of a better photographer to represent our locale.

  4. Still love the way you tell a story. Lightning, stunning photo. You are crazy….and I won’t be doing that. So thanks for your craziness.
    Your photo in Florida Weekly was the best, even if I am a little prejudiced. Some I thought weren’t even that good. Maybe it’s me, but I know what I like.

  5. Spencer

    I appreciate all the kind words. Now that I have publicly acknowledged that I’m not right, this should answer some questions!

    Nature is beautiful and she’s all around us, but some times we have to know when to view from a distance.

    Thanks…

    Spencer

  6. I too, like many, love the lightning and am fascinated with lightning photos. That being said, I am more scared than fascinated☺

  7. “Lighting in South West Florida” I love it. I am glad you have found time in your busy life to appreciate the wonders that the Floridian sky has to offer. This pic reminds me of stormy nights looking out the window for every shape and form of lighting…..just fascinating.
    Thank you for sharing and please do not try it again.

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