LJWorld.com weblogs Lawrence Weather Watch

The technical how-tos of taking great weather photos


Weather Watch ...from the A.M.

Yesterday we went over some basic questions and answers about weather photography; now let’s go into more detail!

Nighttime photography is something I was always curious about. From lightning to the moon, there are a lot of amazing scenes to capture at night, but when I've tried to capture them myself, they've never turned out.

Brenda Culbertson, a viewer who regularly submits weather photographs, answered basic questions about weather photography in the previous blog, “How to take a good weather photograph.” She also gave a few tips on how to capture a great weather photograph at night. Here is what she said.

“Nighttime requires different techniques for shooting photographs than the daytime does, especially digital photos. Usually nighttime photos are best when a tripod in used for a steady mount. For Moon photos, make sure to turn off the flash. (Moon is too far away to illuminate with a camera flash.) During the lunar phase when Moon is at a Quarter to full, a short exposure is fine. Often the "Automatic" setting is fine. For the lunar phase of less than a Quarter, a longer exposure might be needed. If the night is cloudy and a halo, Moon dog, or other effect is associated with Moon, a longer exposure might be needed. Still, do not use the flash for taking Moon shots.

For lightning, I find that film is better, but digital will also work. Each photographer will give different ways of shooting any photo, but here is how I take lightning photos:

Using a manual film camera with a 50mm lens and 400 ASA color film, I set the camera on a tripod and attach a cable release to the camera. The aperture on the lens is set almost closed, and the focus is set to infinity. (Lightning is extremely bright, so a very small aperture is required to not overexpose the shot.) The exposure time is set to "M" so that the shutter can be left open for a long time. (That's why the cable release is needed.) I aim the camera to the area of sky where I think the lightning will show, then I start a shot, not to exceed 15 minutes at night (daytime - 5 minutes). When I think that I might have a good shot, I close the shutter and start another shot.

I have used a variety of lenses for nighttime photographs. A fisheye lens has given me a very large area of sky, and a 400mm lens gives me a close-up shot of celestial objects.”

Weather Photograph by Brenda Culbertson

The weather picture above was taken by Brenda Culbertson.

As Brenda mentioned above, every photographer has their own technique. Here is what Chief Photographer Mike Yoder had to say about photographing lightning.

“Since you can't just point a camera, focus and catch lightning, a photographer hoping to catch flashing bolts needs to do some prep work. Here are some tips.

  1. Use a tripod and if possible shoot from a safe place like inside a garage or shelter. Inside the back of an SUV with the rear doors open can be a nice safe place.

  2. Determine the location of the largest amount of lightning and aim your camera that direction.

  3. Use a fairly wide-angle lens so you can capture a wider view of the sky.

  4. Set your focus point to infinity or to a distant horizon point.

  5. Set your camera's ISO to 200, your aperture to between f2.8 and f5.6 and set your shutter speed on the "B" (Bulb) setting or between 20 seconds to 2 minutes.

  6. When you see lightning press the shutter button and if in "B" setting continue to hold the shutter button down until several lightning strikes have been captured or if set on a timed exposure, just press the shutter hand hope lightning strikes during the exposure. To simplify using either method it's best to have a cable release so you don't have to worry about jiggling the camera as you hold down the shutter in the "B" mode. This type of planning will help improve your chances at capturing lightning but a little luck will also come in handy. Stay safe. Stay dry. Good luck.”

Here are a few additional tips provided by Mike on photographing snow. Mike first talks about the background and camera zoom.

“Photographing falling snow flakes is tricky because they’re often small and always white. So, the first thing I do is search out dark backgrounds. By keeping the snow and a subject in front of a darker background the snow will be more visible. Rows of evergreens work great. Also, the fatter the flakes, the better the effect, although you have no control over that. Another way to improve snowfall pictures is to use a telephoto lens or the longest zoom setting on your camera. The telephoto view will make flakes appear larger in the frame in relation to the background.”

Weather Photograph by Mike Yoder

The weather picture above was taken by Mike Yoder.

He also explains how to keep your snowflakes from turning gray.

“Here’s a secret about autoexposure. Any camera set on automatic is basically determining an average exposure for all subjects. The camera’s light meter doesn’t recognize the difference between a black cat in a coal mine and a white cat in snow. What every camera light meter does is blend all the reflected light from a scene into a specific percentage of gray. This is set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The point is, all cameras are trying to help you get a neutral tonality from your images. That’s why the black and white cats can look gray in print. This exposure system works pretty well for a lot of things, but snow isn’t one of them. To the camera’s meter snow is just a whole lot of bright reflected light. To get snow exposures to maintain the ANSI standard percentage of gray the camera will underexpose the scene and give you a neutral snow. The solution is to use a manual exposure setting and overexpose the scene by 1 to 2 stops. Camera manufacturers are aware of this issue because most point-and-shoots now have scene modes you can set. Typical scenes are Beach, Sports, Fireworks and - you guessed it -Snow! These are pre-set exposure compensations that override the autoexposure system for those subjects. Setting your camera to the ‘snow’ setting overexposes the scene to help brighten the snow. The irony is that the scene settings ‘beach’ and ‘snow’ do the same thing.”

The other day I was driving home from Tulsa to Topeka; the sunset was beautiful. I pulled over on the side of the road to snap a few pictures and found myself standing, kneeling, and even trying to lie on the ground to get the perfect picture. Another time when I was on vacation in the Virgin Islands, I climbed to the top of a “hill” to capture a picture of the island. Sometime you can get distracted trying to capture that “picture perfect” scene. This distraction can be very dangerous, especially if you are trying to capture a picture during severe weather. In the questions and answers from yesterday, Brenda mentioned safety during photography. Here is what she said again.

“Stay safe while photographing weather. Storms can be very dangerous, and a photographer often does not see what is nearby, because the photographer is usually looking through the camera and not at the nearby surroundings.”

Brenda also recommends that a beginning photographer take a buddy along if they are shooting pictures in hazardous weather. I think this an important rule to follow, even if you are experienced. When we go out in our Storm Tracker during severe weather, we NEVER go alone.

If you have any photography tips or stories, please share them in the comments below. If you have any questions about photography, post your questions and I will pass them along. If you happen to capture any great weather pictures, please send them to us.


Matt Needham 8 years, 3 months ago

People don't think about it, but it's not night on the moon. The moon is a subject in direct sunlight even when the photographer is not in direct sunlight. If the moon is away from the horizon in a clear, night sky the Sunny 16 rule for exposure can be used.

Sunny 16 rule: correct exposure for a subject in direct sun is f/16 @ 1/ISO shutter speed.

tao7 8 years, 3 months ago

When you are shooting lightning and you open the shutter, don't you mean 15 seconds at night and 5 seconds during the day? Even 5 seconds during the day is way to long. You can buy a lightning trigger for day shots that triggers the shutter whenever there is a lightning bolt. I think 100ISO is preferable when you are leaving the shutter open for long periods of time because of the noise levels associated with 400. Go to www.wunderground.com(wunder photos) and look at some of idzrvit's(his handle) lightning shots. They will blow you away!

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