The story goes something like this:
The acolyte, sitting in meditation in front of the master, breaks the long silence with a question:
“What is the sound of the void, Master?”
To which the master replies,
“What is the sound of the void, Master?”
The young monk, perhaps thinking the master is absent-mindedly repeating his question, replies, “I simply wondered what the void sounded like, so that I can recognize it when I encounter it in my meditation.”
Without a word, the Master suddenly reaches out across the room and smacks the pupil soundly on the back of the head.
For some reason this apocryphal Zen Buddhist tale always comes to mind when I think of lightning. Lightning is like mother nature’s painful but ultimately educational smack to the back of the head.
Direct and immediate, it brooks no delays and allows no obfuscations. It happens right NOW! It has your full, undivided attention. You understand in a blink that nature’s power is limitless and her control of things is pretty much complete. It is a manifestation of The Way Things Are that you might as well cooperate with.
But like the master’s blow, by the time it happens it’s too late to prepare for. You realize it’s been busy preparing for you.
Before the lightning ever strikes, the strong electrical charge tunnels a path of ionized air through normal air, seeking for somewhere to land. Once the ionized paths through the air and rain and mud and ground have been established, the charge instantaneously leaps across the bridge. An electric fury hotter than the sun travels through a tube no bigger than your little finger and cracks into the earth below.
Like the Master’s smack to the back of the head, though, lightning brings about an eventual benefit despite its violence. The powerful spark travelling through earth’s atmosphere is strong enough to fuse atoms into molecules, forming nitrogen from the air into minerals and compounds that can fall out of the air. These minerals are what plants use as fertilizer: nitrates. Without lightning in the atmosphere millions of years ago, plants would would never have begun growing on our young planet. And without plants, there’d have been no animals, and there would be no us.
Thousands of lightning strikes are happening all over the earth just now, every second, enough that even today, with plants able to make their own nitrates, lightning still contributes about as much nitrogen to the soil as does all the vegetation on earth.
“Lightning’s still the biggest thrill of all…” says Merle Haggard.
Lightning bugs. Lightning Hopkins. Greased Lightning.
Lightning might scare us, but there’s no denying that it electrifies our spirit. We enjoy the sheer adrenalin rush of a good storm…especially when we’re safe and protected from it.
One of the things I enjoy is taking photos of lightning, because few things leave such a feeling of intense excitement as nature’s own celebratory fireworks.
To photograph lightning, you will use a lot of film, so it’s a good idea to keep several rolls on hand. Then let me give you a few tips on how to….
Wait, I forgot, it’s 2014, nobody uses film these days! Well, I can say this: no one is happier than the lightning photographers of the world. The techniques are pretty much the same, just cheaper….
But before I say anything about that in this blog, stop reading and go google everything about lightning safety that I won’t have time to cover here — and my internet liability insurance isn’t up to date, anyway. Take your photos from indoors!
That said, once you’ve found a vantage point, set up the camera on a tripod, and use a remote shutter release to shoot the pictures. Set the lens to a wide a field of vision. Focus the camera, which in darkness may mean learning to set your lens barrel on infinity focus by hand and disabling the autofocus.
Now, set the camera to manual function. Set the aperture to a small opening (f22 or higher), set the time to two or three seconds, and set the sensitivity to very low (i.e., ISO 100). Set the camera drive to take continuous shooting (pictures one right after another) rather than single-shot. Then take a test picture.
The resulting image ought to clearly show clouds, but only dimly. If it’s too bright or dark, adjust the time exposure until the background is dimly visible. If your test pictures looks good, shoot a few more pictures to make sure you are catching the correct part of the sky. Then once you’re sure the tripod is stable, lock down the shutter release to take continuous photos.
Go get a cup of coffee.
Don’t take too long, though. Come back to make sure the camera is still pointed in the direction of the lightning, as the storm is likely moving. Stop every so often to view the camera display and make sure images are being recorded, then keep shooting. Don’t waste time viewing pictures to see if you caught lightning, you’ll have all the next day to do that!
Here is our newest Greeting Card in the Skyboy Photos catalog, “Ancient Spark”