Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I've been lucky to have the opportunity to photograph several large thunderstorms in Colorado recently, however I ran into a couple issues. The first issue I've run into is getting proper focus.

As a landscape photographer, I've become accustomed to using the hyperfocal setting on my wide-angle lenses, as it makes it easier to get good focus for very distant mountain ranges and the like. I started trying to do the same thing to photograph lightning, however, setting my lens right to the hyperfocal mark does not actually seem to capture the lightning itself in focus. The landscape in the distance behind seems to be in focus, but it seems to be a bit too far out otherwise.

Most of the time these thunderstorms happen late at night, and it is nearly pitch black except for the light from lightning itself. Are there any tricks I can use to quickly focus properly so I can capture lightning without it looking like chains of bright white bubbles? I've tried a trial and error approach, however I've ended up missing many really great shots because I was fiddling with my camera trying to get it in proper focus. Even slightly out of focus, I wish I had been able to get some of the shots I missed.

Lightning Focus

Above is the best ground strike shot from a set taken a few days ago. You can best see the lack of focus in the non-main streamers. This was a smaller bolt, struck probably less than 500 feet away. The tree in the foreground, probably about 10 feet from the camera, is also a bit out of focus. I had originally tried to focus on the landscape well behind near hyperfocal focus...at least, as best I could tell in the dark. I made several adjustments successively through numerous shots to finally get this shot as clear as it was. I missed plenty of much better shots, however, due to the lack of focus. If there was some quick trick to set a correct focus in near darkness, I'd LOVE to know about it.

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This is very speculative as I'm not familiar with the lens, but the example could almost be motion blur moving down and left. Purely out of focus, I'd expect that top-right bolt to be an even brightness; it seems to be much brighter along it right-hand side. The left bolt isn't as obvious, but doesn't seem to rule it out either. Could easily be the lens; like I said, just speculation. –  ex-ms Aug 12 '10 at 1:53
    
I agree that parts of the image look like motion blur, on the other hand I tend to think that the "bubbles" are not really characteristic of motion blur. Maybe you can post some more examples with the clues from which parts of the whole frame they are. –  Karel Aug 12 '10 at 8:38
    
My vote goes for sensor bleed. Lightning is far brighter than the sensor maximum for just about any sensor, aperture and exposure. A neutral density filter might help. –  msw Aug 12 '10 at 13:09
    
How could that explain that the clearly not saturated smaller branches are out of focus too? –  Karel Aug 12 '10 at 14:15
    
I think the branches of the tree are OOF because they were moving in the wind. Karel mentioned the fact that the "infinity" mark is not always accurate, and I've done some testing of that. I think the most logical explanation here is simply that I did not have focus correct...and I was focused forward too much, leaving the background out of focus. I've been over this shot again and again, and the only thing that explains the look of the lightning is plain and simple lack of focus. Camera shake would look different. The clip above is from dead-center on an EF 16-35mm USM L II. –  jrista Aug 12 '10 at 16:38

7 Answers 7

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'm writing down some of the ideas that are scattered here and there:

  • Hang something heavy below your tripod to minimize wind (and possibly shockwave) shake
  • Check whether you can trust your focusing scale for manual focusing (see my comment below Guffa's answer)
  • Stop down your aperture as much as you can (you probably want to stay in the 30 sec AE limit so it might not be applicable)
  • If possible check whether something is in focus in your picture to understand where the focus was set. It's really easy to loose focus by accidentally touching the focus ring (sorry if it sounds too obvious, just I've lost more shots I'd like this way myself).
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Thanks for the tips. I did some testing, and am pretty sure my focusing scale depends on the focal length, like you mentioned with your 70-200. If I put it right at the "infinity" mark, it never seems to actually be in focus. At 16mm, I have to go a little past, and at 35mm, it gets closer, but still can't seem to be right on the mark. It also seems to depend on how truly far away the subject is. It was probably a combination of things, but most likely just incorrect focus. Thanks! –  jrista Aug 12 '10 at 16:33

Do not try to autofocus. Switch to manual, set to hyperfocal and close the aperture to, say, 5.6 - this will give you a really huge depth of field for most lenses you would use for lightning short.

My guess is that the lightnings aren't out of focus; they are blurry because of the camera shake.

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All my focusing is done manually when I shoot things like this. I also use a tripod, a remote cable release, and mirror lockup, so I don't think camera shake is the problem. I have been using a wider aperture, 3.5 or 4. I'll try a tighter aperture and see if the larger DOF helps...I didn't think of that before. –  jrista Aug 11 '10 at 23:37
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A thought occurs: my whole house shakes during a big storm. Maybe it's not the camera, but the thing holding it up? –  ex-ms Aug 12 '10 at 1:56
    
@matt: You know, I wonder if that might be what it is. The last couple storms, the lightning was right on top of me, and I could feel the shockwaves. I also had the thought that the foreground items are probably blurred because of the wind, as all of our recent storms have been very windy. –  jrista Aug 12 '10 at 2:41
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Speaking about wind - I've had to hold by tripod steady myself with strong wind, of course the results are not top quality, but at least usable and far better than not holding the tripod. The normal approach is to hang something heavy below your tripod, I ended up in that situation just because of poor planning. –  Karel Aug 12 '10 at 8:14
    
The argument against wind shake is the fact that lightning is very short. –  Karel Aug 12 '10 at 8:44

I went on a shoot with a photographer that focuses on storms, and his techniques included the following ideas:

  • Counter-intuition for your aperture. Use a narrow aperture (even f/22) for close lightning as focus will not be not an issue.
  • Distant shots can bump up the aperture, even to f/2.8, as the area of activity will be narrow (being far) and DOF is not an issue in the dark.
  • Keep ISO (and noise) down. Lightning is high-contrast.
  • Use "soft waterfall" and "light painting" shooting techniques to build ambient light and highlight lightning patterns, which will emphasize (and ideally not swamp) the major singular events.
  • As above but stressed; long exposures (think bulb mode) will be more useful than a CF card full of human attempts to capture one-billionth-of-a-second natural events.
  • Light reactive triggers are also an option.
  • Don't stand anywhere you might get zapped.
  • Daytime lightning photography is the most difficult, whereas night time can exploit the lighting contrast, singular content features (lightning, not landscape) and the use of long exposures (without needing to ramp up ND filters).
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Thanks for the info! –  jrista Dec 5 '11 at 7:39

Does the channel move around a bit between bolts? Lighting is usually several flashes, so if they're not exactly in the same place, it might appear fuzzy. Also there is the leader, which isn't very bright but maybe that's affecting things.

Could also be bloom. Lightning is very bright (it's a lot hotter than the sun's surface).

Verify that stuff in front of and behind the lightning is in focus. If yes, that means focus isn't your problem.

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I think the foreground was in focus, however thinking about it, both of the recent storms I've tried to photograph were very windy. Matt had the interesting idea that the shockwaves from the close strikes might have also affected the stability of my tripod, and given that I could feel the shockwaves myself, it certainly seems plausible. –  jrista Aug 12 '10 at 2:42

The best thing to do is set focus to infinity.

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When set to infinity (hyperfocal), the landscape in the background (what you can see of it) is in focus. The nearer lightning is not in focus. –  jrista Aug 11 '10 at 23:36
    
@jrista What lens/aperture? You mention wides above, and if so, I'd be expecting hyperfocal distances in the 10m range wide open. You're hopefully not THAT close to the lightning. –  ex-ms Aug 12 '10 at 0:30
    
I'm currently using my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, however I've tried using my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro a couple times (without a whole lot of luck.) As for range...well, it varies, but I've been pretty close. We had a massive storm over my home only a few days ago, and a bolt struck so close it almost knocked me off my feet, and was so loud made my ears ring for about 5 minutes. I was sitting on my front porch when that happened...it was rather unexpected. Most ground strikes have been probably 150+ feet away, but not really terribly far, very loud...I seem to live in a hotspot. –  jrista Aug 12 '10 at 1:08
    
Oh, in terms of actual aperture, I think it was pretty wide open. The last couple times were pretty intense, as the storms were literally right on top of me, and I spent most of my time trying to get decent focus. I don't think I really paid much attention to aperture, but the few shots I kept seem to be f/2.8 through f/4. –  jrista Aug 12 '10 at 1:15
    
@jrista - very strange. The 100mm would definitely be very tricky; hyperfocal distance of 100s of feet at f/4. But at 35mm, even wide open, I'd expect to work rather well, and 16mm would just improve the situation. –  ex-ms Aug 12 '10 at 1:54

This image looks to me BOTH shaken (although very slightly) and out of focus.

To verify it, this is what I suggest you do. In a bright sunny day, switch your lens to MF, set at hyperfocal and shot a tree across the street. Or perhaps even a long street with clear road markings.

Look at the results. Find the in-focus spot. Tune the lens. Repeat until you will figure out the REAL hyperfocal point in your lens. Should take no more than a few minutes.

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You can do this the same way you would with fireworks, Use a very wide aperture on a long exposure, so say f18-22. This will bring the whole strike into focus, you should also have a low ISO from 100-200

Shoot a 30sec exposure, fire the trigger and keep a black piece of card over the lens, as the lightening strikes remove the card and pop back on when it fades, this will stop the camera shake when the shutter opens and closes.

You should also cover the view finder with a piece of black tape, this will stop any unwanted light getting to the sensor while the shutter is open.

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