Lightning and Night Photography with the Lightning Bug

I love photographing all sorts of atmospheric phenomena, and lightning has always been among the most fascinating of subjects. It also fits perfectly with my love of night photography. Unfortunately, a number of factors have conspired to prevent me from capturing good photos of lightning for the past several years.

The main reason is that the lightning gods haven’t been kind enough to present a good opportunity for shooting lightning at night. I’ve been out in storms during the day, but for whatever reason I’ve struck out at night. (BTW, my puns are ALWAYS intended) Yes, I photograph during the day, but you can’t shoot lightning in the day the way you can at night. At night, you set your shutter to bulb, ISO to 200, and aperture between f/4 and f/22, depending on how close and what type of lightning it is. Open the shutter, wait for a strike or multiple strikes to appear, and then close the shutter and start over again. After the first strike you can adjust your ISO and aperture if needed. As long as there is not any ambient light present, you don’t have to make any additional calculations for exposure. If there is other light in the scene, you can shoot a test exposure to see how long you can leave the shutter open before overexposing the ambient light.

Photographing lightning during the day is a different beast entirely. You can’t just open the shutter and wait for a strike to occur. The existing light determines the exposure, which means shutter speeds much too short to just open the shutter and wait for a strike to occur. Sure, you can set the shutter on continuous and let er rip, hoping you get a strike in one of the hundreds of frames you shoot within a few minutes. But you had better have a lot of memory cards if you’re going to try that!

Several years ago, an intriguing new product hit the market and electrified everyone. (Remember what I said about puns? This is going to be your last warning.) This new product promised to do the unthinkable: Detect a lightning strike and fire the camera shutter in enough time to record it. And do it in broad daylight, to boot! It works, too, but the price puts it out of reach for a lot of photographers, including me. 

Imagine my delight when my good friend Bill Lea told me about a new product he had just begun using called the Lightning Bug™. Bill had been field-testing the product for the manufacturer and he felt that the company would be a good vendor for the Western North Carolina Foto Fest that we present each September. When Bill Lea recommends something, I take it seriously, but I was concerned about the cost of the Lightning Bug™. So when Bill said the retail price was $179, including the cable, I was definitely interested. Not only did this company sound like a good vendor for Foto Fest, I wanted to get my hands on one of these puppies!   

Lightning Florida Everglades

Lightning strikes over the Florida Everglades. Photo by Bill Lea.

The Lightning Bug™ works by detecting the unseen infrared light that always precedes lightning strikes and then sending a signal to the camera shutter. I know, it’s hard to believe it could work this fast, but trust me, it does. Think about it; if the Lightning Bug™ can sense a lightning strike and fire the shutter that quickly, it will enable you capture photos of lightning DURING THE DAY. Set up your camera (at a safe distance, please!) on a tripod or clamped to your car window, determine the proper exposure for the scene (aperture priority works best as it allows the exposure to automatically adjust for changes in the lighting), and then sit back and wait for the Lightning Bug™ to do all the work. Strikingly easy! 

I’ve owned the Lightning Bug™ for only a short time and haven’t yet had the opportunity to get any good lighting photos with it. However, I’ve been testing it and playing with it and I’m excited about its potential, not just for lightning. Since it works by sensing infrared light, most any type of light that produces heat will trigger it, such as fireworks and flames. My mind is reeling with the possibilities. I’ve also tested it for us as a remote shutter release. With the Lightning Bug™ mounted to the camera hotshoe, you can fire a camera flash at a distance and it will sense the light and release the camera shutter just as it does with lightning. 

I’m so captivated by the Lightning Bug™ and convinced of its potential for night photography, as well as for shooting lighting during the day, that I’ve decided to offer the product in my online store. Also, I have a page of my website devoted to the Lightning Bug™, which includes several photos made using it. 

Before you try photographing lightning yourself, please make sure you know how to do it safely. The best resource I’ve found is the Lightning Safety site of the National Weather Service.                                                         

The Lightning Bug™ and I are new friends, but I’m excited about us getting to know each other intimately. I have a lot of ideas about how to incorporate it into my night photography and I’m looking forward to sharing the results with you. I’ll be adding new photos to the website page as I get them and I’ll make new blog posts explaining the techniques used. 

I can feel the electricity in the air!

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