Nature’s Megawatt Smile: How I Managed To Capture Lightning Over The Opera House

Lighting strikes over the Sydney Opera House.

Photography has blessed me with the opportunity to capture little moments of time in my pictures. I’ve travelled far and wide, taking pictures of monuments, immortalising them forever.

Nothing gets me more excited than trying to photograph a storm and, in particular, the sense of wonder and accomplishment that comes with capturing a lightning strike. Ask any photographer and they will tell you the feat is not easy. I was recently blessed with the opportunity to forever capture a massive lighting bolt strike over the Opera House in Sydney, which I can safely say is the best lightning shot I have taken to date.

Some may think that this is a composite image or the lightning bolt has been altered with the help of Photoshop. But I can assure you that the image is real, and I will be more than willing to show the RAW image to anyone in the Sydney area who may like to join me for a cup of coffee or something stronger.

You will find thousands of pictures of the Sydney Opera House on the Internet. It is, after all, one of the most photographed and famous landmarks in Australia. But you won’t find many photos with lightning striking as if the God of Thunder, Thor himself, had shown up to catch a show at Sydney’s world-class Opera House.

While camera technology and features have made it slightly easier for modern day photographers, capturing a lightning strike still requires incredible precision. The primary reason that lightning is so hard to capture is one that technology is not yet able to solve: and that is that lightning strikes without prior notice. Think back to your high school physics classes and you might remember that light travels faster than sound, which is why you always hear the thunder after the lightning strike.

So what measures can you take to capture it? Read on for my tips to forever capture lighting during a storm.

Preparation

Like with any process, preparation is key for storm photography. How do you prepare for it? You start by tracking the weather, scouting the location, and preparing your gear. It is only when you know as much as you can about the weather predictions that you can put yourself in the right place at the right time to capture the storm from the perfect viewpoint.

To track the weather, you need a reliable app. Personally, I use Windy. Not only does the app tell you when a storm is brewing but it also predicts lightning and thunderstorms. It may not be 100% accurate (even the world’s best meteorological experts still can’t predict the weather with 100% accuracy) but it gets the job done better than any other app I have tried, and will usually get me in the vicinity of where I need to be to capture a storm.

Windy’s weather prediction two days prior to the lightning strike.

The above screenshot image was taken on October 18, 2018. The app predicted thunderstorms two days later, on Saturday, October 20, 2018, at around 7pm. To get the best angle and structure of the storm I wanted to be on the northern end of it, so the two areas that appealed to me were Mudgee or Dunedoo. To decide which location would be best, I used Flickr, Google Images, and Google Maps, specifically the street view and satellite image, to decide on the location.

Timing is incredibly important when trying to capture a thunderstorm. Not only must you predict the weather so you have a good idea of when the storm is likely to strike, but you also need to take the time of day into account and hope that everything aligns. In my opinion, the best time to shoot lightning is from one hour before sunset until an hour after.

To achieve this, I check Windy to find the location of the storm during that period of time. But don’t make the mistake of waiting until then to arrive at the location, as you’ll need to allow plenty of time to get set up and be ready to shoot. If I’m familiar with the location I usually go an hour before, but if it’s a new location then I allow at least two hours. Use the time to compare different open spaces from where you can get that perfect shot, and to get your equipment completely set up and ready to go.

Windy’s updated weather prediction on the day of the lightning strike.

On the morning of Saturday, 20 October, the app showed me that the storm prediction had changed and it would now pass Sydney. This new information prompted me to shoot in the Sydney metro area. I had always wanted to get a shot of lightning over one of Sydney’s two iconic locations, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and since the storm was heading in the southeast direction, I decided it would be better to shoot facing the southwest direction.

With this information in mind, I decided Cremorne Point was the best location. As an added bonus, I was already familiar with the area and had an idea of where best to shoot from.

It’s important to double-check the forecast on the day of the chase. You can do this with the help of the BOM radar, which will help you anticipate the movement of the storm.

Gear

Some may say that gear is secondary to location; however, I think both are equally important. As the saying goes, you can never be too prepared, and that definitely applies when trying to capture lighting. I took two camera bodies with me – one for panoramic shots and the other for the lightning trigger – along with two tripods. As far as the camera lens goes, for the panoramic, I used an 85mm fixed lens and for the lightning shooting, I used a 16-35mm lens. If shooting from Cremorne Point, I would recommend using a 24-70mm lens instead of the 16-35mm, if you have one.

The lighting trigger I used on the camera was Miops Smart Trigger. If you have never used it before, I strongly suggest taking the time to get used to the trigger before you head out on location during a storm. You need to get accustomed to the button and sensitivity settings so you know which works best for you. Practice at home by using a torch to trigger your equipment until you get used to it, working in different light settings so you can understand how to change the sensitivity according to the quality of ambient light.

When I shot the above picture, there was plenty of ambient light. It was roughly 6pm so I decided to have the sensitivity set to 95. There came a point when the setting became too high and the camera got trigger happy, continuously shooting. If that happens, there is no need to panic. Just cover the light sensor with your hand and then you can reduce the sensitivity by 10. You may need to do this a few times depending on the ambient light.

Settings

When using a lightning trigger, I find it much easier to have the camera on manual mode. For a wide lens, I like to use f/8 aperture because I feel it works best. A slow shutter speed is important for this type of photography, and I chose to set mine to 1/15s or longer. If you set the speed too fast then you won’t be able to catch all of the light from the lightning. On the other hand, if the speed is set too slow you may capture the lightning well, but the shot may be spoiled by blurry clouds in the background because the clouds will be moving relatively fast and you won’t be able to capture their detail. You also have to pay attention to the strength of the lightning itself. If it isn’t too strong then you could get better results by underexposing one stop.

For the picture of the Opera House above, I had the shutter speed set at 1/15s and I underexposed two stops. The underexposure occurred because the initial lightning – prior to the strike I captured in my photograph – was incredibly powerful. Luckily my intuition was on my side, prompting me to tweak the settings and capture the lightning beautifully the second time around with the perfect exposure.

Immediately after the second lighting struck above the Opera House, I frantically hit the playback button on my camera to see whether or not I had captured what I had set out to. As soon as I saw the image, a huge smile spread on my face and I could not believe what I had accomplished.

With the right preparation and gear - along with a fair helping of luck - I captured a photograph that is undoubtedly the highlight of my photographic career to date.


Copyright © 2018 Yan Kurniawan
Fine Art Photography
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