How Not to Photograph Lightning

Someone reading this post is probably sincerely hoping for a story about how I, through sheer stupidity, got myself electrocuted.  To this I say two things.  One, you will be sincerely disappointed and Two, really? Either you have an unhealthy fascination with unlucky situations, or you have a personal vendetta against me - in which case it would be best if we just sorted it out.

Moving on.

We had a terrific thunderstorm this past weekend down in Blacksburg, VA.  As it was rolling in, I thought, excellent, I can get a bunch of awesome lightning photographs and put them on the internet and everyone will want to buy them and I'll be able to afford more expensive sandwich bread.

So, sitting on a bench underneath a shelter at the wonderful Heritage Park, I began trying to time my photographs to the lightning flashes.  Having set my shutter speed to 1/13th of a second to optimize my chances of capturing a flash without having a blurry image, I took approximately 60 photographs.  The best of these, seen above, has a small lightning bolt in the top right corner, which looks less like the stereotypical mental image of lightning most of us have and more like whatever I drew on the wall the first time I ever held a pen.

My friends and I then left Heritage Park and returned to our apartment complex.  At this point, oddly, the rain had stopped, while the lightning increased in frequency - once every ten seconds or so.  Aha! thought I, now in possession of my tripod.  Pleased with this development, I lengthened my shutter speed to 4 seconds, pointed the camera at the sky in some arbitrary direction where the lighting was striking, and began firing away.

Most of the resulting images looked like this nonsense, at right.  Who likes this photograph?  Does it evoke strong emotion?  Is it a powerful display of the forces of nature? Nobody, no, and absolutely not.  If I did have the shutter open when lighting struck, it was generally out-of-frame, yielding only a surreal purple glow among the clouds.  Not all that exciting.  If there had been a flying Delorean in the picture, then we'd have something to go with.

Finally, however, after 60 more photos (for a total of roughly 120), the lighting happened to strike in frame:

Now, this is not going to be in National Geographic, but considering I really had no idea what I was doing, I decided I was satisfied, put my camera away, and called it a night.  Next thunderstorm, I hope to be a little more prepared and able to get something truly spectacular.