Tag Archives: storm

Quick tips for shooting lightning – Video and Stills.

day2-frame-2-300x155 Quick tips for shooting lightning - Video and Stills.
At night we shoot lightning!

With the UK set to see a couple of days of strong and severe thunderstorms I thought I would put together a very quick guide to shooting lightning with both stills cameras and video cameras. Your first issue will be finding somewhere dry to shoot from, you don’t want rain on your camera or lens. You also do need to consider safety. Lightning is dangerous, it can strike many miles from a thunderstorm. If you can hear thunder you are in the strike risk area, so do take care. One of the safest places to be in a thunderstorm is inside a car. If the car is struck the electricity will pass through the body of the car and not through the occupants, before jumping from the underside of the car to the ground. If you are shooting from a car stay inside the car, don’t sit with your feet out of the door or any part of you touching the ground. Don’t sit in the car while holding on to a camera on a tripod outside the car. Don’t stand under trees, they can explode when struck by lightning, don’t stand on the very top of a hill. Use your common sense.

day2-frame3-300x168 Quick tips for shooting lightning - Video and Stills.
Long exposure captures great nigh time lightning.

For either stills or video you’re really going to want to use a tripod to get the very best results. As you often get strong winds around thunderstorms you want a good stable tripod. If it is windy keep a close eye on the camera and tripod, you don’t want it blown over by a strong gust of wind.

A wide angle lens will increase your chances of getting a lightning bolt in your shot, but the wider the shot the less detail you will see in the lightning bolt. You can always crop in to a wide shot a bit if it’s too wide. I like to have something in the foreground to give some interest to the image, but try to avoid too many obstructions to the skyline as these will block your view of the lightning.

NIGHT FOCUS:

This is probably the easiest for still photos, but it has many challenges. One is focus as it’s hard to focus on a brief flash of lightning. You will need to use manual focus, autofocus will not work. Start by focussing on a very distant object, perhaps lights on the horizon, the moon, stars or any other VERY distant object, preferably a mile or more away. Then check and double check your focus. Lightning is very fine and if it’s out of focus it will ruin the shot. If you don’t have anything to focus on set the lens to infinity, the sideways “8” symbol is infinity and there will normally be a line to mark the point of infinity focus. Infinity is often NOT at the very end of the lenses focus travel so check for the proper infinity mark. By the way, take a torch/flashlight if your going out in the dark!

STILL PHOTO’s or DSLR AT NIGHT:

You will need to use a tripod. If you have a cable release or other electronic shutter release use it to trigger the camera to prevent shaking the camera as you will need to use a long exposure. As you will be using a long exposure you want to use a low ISO. I typically use 200ISO with an exposure of between 10 and 30 seconds depending on the frequency of the lightning and how bright the surrounding area is. If you are in a town or city with lots of street light you will probably need to use a shorter exposure, maybe 10 to 15 seconds. Out in the countryside you might be able to use 20 to 30 seconds. For the aperture you don’t want super shallow depth of field as this will show up any focus errors, so don’t use your lens wide open. I normally use somewhere around f4 to f8, so f5.6 is probably a good starting point. Take some test shots and check that you are not over exposed.

As a starting point try: 200ISO, f5.6, 10 second exposures, manual focus.

Once the camera is set, it simply a case of snapping away taking pictures until you get lucky and capture one in the frame. It takes a bit of luck and patience, but don’t give up too soon, just keep snapping away. You can just delete all the no good shots later.

700-lightning-sunset-close-1024x576 Quick tips for shooting lightning - Video and Stills.
Evening thunderstorm in Tucson, Arizona

DAY and NIGHT VIDEO:

If your camcorder has a CMOS sensor (as most do these days) you want to use the slowest shutter speed that you can get away with. If you can control the shutter manually turn it off or reduce it to 1/25 or 1/30. This will reduce the likelihood of you getting lightning bolts that only go half way down the screen, an effect know as “rolling shutter” or “flash band”. If shooting after dark, if you have a camera with full manual control then instead of shooting at the usual 24, 25 or 30 frames per second, consider shooting at half of this, perhaps at 12, 12.5 or 15 frames per second (S&Q motion, slow shutter etc), again with the shutter set to OFF. While this does mean that the motion in your final video will be sped up it almost guarantees that you won’t get any rolling shutter issues. You will need to have the camera on a tripod if doing this to prevent excessive image blur from movement of the camera. The slightly sped up video can also give the pleasing (but fake) impression that the lightning is more frequent than it really is making your shots more dramtic. If you don’t want this simply play the video back at half speed.

STILL PHOTOS DURING THE DAY:

This is really tough unless you have special equipment. You can’t use a long exposure as you would at night because the bright daytime light will wash out the lightning bolts.

Very often a lightning bolt is made up of several flashes in rapid succession. If you do have fast enough reactions and a fast enough camera, you can get the secondary flashes. You will need to use manual focus and manual exposure so there isn’t a delay while the  camera thinks about focus and exposure which delays the release of the shutter. Use a tripod with a cable release or remote shutter and use a longish exposure, 1/30th or 1/15th as there can be up to 1/10th of a second delay between flashes and there could be multiple flashes, you don’t want too fast a shutter speed. Set your focus on a very distant object, use a low ISO, again I typically use 100 or 200 ISO. Shoot a couple of test images and set the aperture so that you have a very slightly underexposed shot, may -1EV to -1.5EV, the slightly darker overall image will help the bright lightning show up better. Then it’s just a case of pointing the camera at the storm on a tripod, with your finger on the trigger and try to hit that shutter release as soon as you see any lightning. I find it’s better to not look through the viewfinder, just look in the direction the camera is pointed. You may be lucky, maybe not, a lot will depend on the type of lightning in the storm and your reaction speed. A better way is to use a dedicated lightning trigger such as a Patchmaster: http://www.fotokonijnenberg.nl/patchmaster. This will trigger the camera electronically if it detects any lightning. It’s MUCH faster and can react much quicker than any human, but it still has some lag time so even a lightning trigger won’t capture every bolt.

A final daytime method is to use an adaptation of the night time DSLR method. If you add a strong ND filter a small aperture around f16 and use a low ISO you may be able to get an acceptable long exposure during daytime, perhaps a couple of seconds. Then set the camera to take photo’s continuously (so when you hold the shutter button down the camera will take one photo after another). By locking down a remote shutter release the camera will take a continuous stream of photos with only a very minimal gap between each picture taken. So you have a high likely hood of capturing any lightning bolts, but you will also end up with a lot of pictures that don’t have any lightning in them. You can either discard these empty frames or use all the frames to create a time-lapse video of the storm.

Have fun, stay safe.

If you find the guide useful, please consider buying me a beer or a coffee.


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The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.

Supercell-panorama-1024x232 The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.Well I’ve just returned home from NAB and a week of Tornado Chasing in the USA. For the Tornado chasing I was shooting in 4K using my Sony F5. I’ve shot run and gun with my F3 and FS700 in the past when shooting air-shows and similar events. But this was very different. Tornado chasing is potentially dangerous. You often only have seconds  to grab a shot which involves leaping out of a car, quickly setting up a tripod and camera and then framing and exposing the shot. You often only have time for one 30 second shot before you have to jump back into the car and move on out ahead of the storm. All of this my be happening in very strong winds and rain. The storms I chased last week had inflow winds rushing into them at 50+ MPH.

The key to shooting any thing fast moving, like this, is having whatever camera kit your using well configured. You need to be able to find the crucial controls for exposure and focus quickly and easily. You need to have a way of measuring and judging exposure and focus accurately. In addition you need a zoom lens that will allow you to get the kinds of shots you need, there’s no time to swap lenses!

For my storm chasing shoot I used the Sony F5 with R5 recorder. This was fitted with a Micron bridge plate as well as a Micron top cheese plate and “Manhandle”. Instead of the Sony viewfinder I used an Alphatron viewfinder as this has a waveform display for exposure. My general purpose lens was a Sigma 18-200mm f3.5-f6.5 stabilised lens with a Canon mount. To control the iris I used a MTF Effect iris control box. For weather protection a CamRade F5/F55 Wetsuit. The tripod I used for this shoot was a Miller 15 head with a set of Carbon Fibre Solo legs.

DSC02074-300x199 The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.
Storm chasing with a PMW-F5

Overall I was pleased with the way this setup worked. The F5’s ergonomics really help as the logical layout makes it simple to use. The 18-200mm lens is OK. I wish it was faster for shooting in low light but for the daytime and dusk shots, f3.5 (at the wide end) is OK. The F5 is so sensitive that it copes well even with this slow lens. The CamRade wetsuit is excellent. Plenty of clear windows so you can see the camera controls and a well tailored yet loose fit that allows you to get easy access to the camera controls. I’ve used Miller Solo legs before and when you need portability they can’t be beaten. The are not quite as stable as twin tube legged tripods, but for this role they are an excellent fit. The Miller 15 head was also just right. Not too big and bulky, not too small. The fluid motion of the head is really smooth.

DSC01122-300x199 The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.
Storm Chasing in the USA with the PMW-F5

So what didn’t work? Well I used the Element Technica Micron bridge plate. I really like the Micron bridge plate as it allows you to re-balance the camera on the tripod very quickly. But it’s not really designed for quick release, it’s a little tricky to line up the bridge plate with the dovetail so I ended up removing and re-fitting the camera via the tripod plate which again is not ideal. The Micron Bridge plate is not really designed for this type of application, when I go back storm chasing in May I’ll be using a  baseplate that locks into a VCT-14 quick release plate, not sure which one yet, so I have some investigating to do.  The VCT-14 is not nearly as stable or as solid as the Micron, but for this application speed is of the essence and I’m prepared to sacrifice a little bit of stability. The Micron bridge plate is better suited to film style shooting and in that role is fantastic, it’s just not the right tool for this job.

F5-with-rainbow-300x199 The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.
Rainbow under a severe thunderstorm.

The MTF-Effect unit is needed to control the aperture of the Canon mount lens, it also powers the optical image stabiliser. But it’s a large square box. I had it mounted on the top of the camera, not in the best place. I need to look at where to mount the box. I’m actually considering re-housing the unit in a custom made hand grip so I can use it to hold the camera with my left hand and have iris control via a thumbwheel. I also want to power it from one of the camera’s auxiliary outputs rather than using the AA batteries internally. The other option is the more expensive Optitek lens mount which I’m hoping to try out soon.  I’m also getting a different lens. The Sigma was fine, but I’m going to get a Sigma 18-250mm (15x) f3.5-f6.5 for a bit more telephoto reach. The other option I could have used is my MTF B4 adapter and a 2/3″ broadcast zoom, but for 4K the Tamron will have better resolution than an HD lens. If I was just shooting HD then the broadcast lens would probably be the best option. After dark I swapped to my Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 for general purpose shooting and this worked well in low light but with the loss of telephoto reach, I need to look into a fast long lens but these tend to be expensive. If you have deep enough pockets the lens to get would probably be the Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9, but sadly at the moment my budget is blown and my pockets are just not that deep. The Cabrio is very similar to an ENG broadcast lens in that it has a servo zoom, but it’s PL mount and very high resolution. Another lens option would be the Canon CN-E30-105mm T2.8, but overall there isn’t a great deal of choice when it comes down to getting a big zoom range and large aperture at the same time, in a hand-held package. If I was working with a full crew then I would consider using a much larger lens like the Arri Alura 18-80 or Angenieux Optimo 24-290, but then this is no longer what I would consider run and gun and would require an assistant to set up the tripod while I bring out the camera.

LP-storm2-300x168 The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.
A Supercell thunderstorm looking like a flying saucer.

From an operating point of view one thing I had to do was to keep reminding myself to double check focus. If you think focus is critical in HD, then it’s super critical for 4K. Thunderstorms are horrid things to try and focus on as they are low contrast and soft looking. I had to use a lot of peaking as well as the 1:1 pixel function of the Alphatron viewfinder, one of the neat things about the Alphatron is that peaking continues to work even in the 1:1 zoom mode. As I was shooting raw and using the cameras Cine EI mode to make exposure simpler I turned on the Look Up Tables on the HDSDI outputs and used the P1 LUT. I then exposed using the waveform monitor keeping my highlights (for example the brighter clouds) at or lower than 100%. On checking the raw footage back this looks to have worked well. Quite a few shots needed grading down by 1 to 1.5 stops, but this is not an issue as there is so much dynamic range that the highlights are still fine and you get a cleaner, less noisy image. When shooting raw with the F5 and F55 cameras I’d rather grade down than up. These cameras behave much more like  film cameras due to the massive dynamic range and raw recording, so a little bit of overexposure doesn’t hurt the images as it would when shooting with standard gammas or even log. Grading down (bringing levels down) results in lower noise and a cleaner image.

chase3-300x168 The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.
Frame grab from the F5 of a Supercell storm with a grey funnel cloud beneath.

So you can run and gun in an intense fast moving environment with a large sensor camera. It’s not as easy as with a 2/3″ or 1/2″ camera. You have to take a little more time double checking your focus. The F5 is so sensitive that using a F3.5-F6.5 lens is not a huge  problem. A typical 1/2″ camera (EX1, PMW-200) is rated at about 300 ISO and has an f1.8 lens. The F5 in Cine EI mode is 2000 ISO, almost 3 stops more sensitive. So when you put an f3.5 lens on, the F5 ends up performing better in low light, even at f6.5 it’s only effectively one stop less sensitive. For this kind of subject matter you don’t want to be at f1.8 – f2.8 with a super 35mm sensor anyway as the storm scenes and shots involved work better with a deep focus range rather than a shallow one.

Having watched the footage from the shoot back in HD on a large screen monitor I am delighted with the quality of the footage. Even in HD it has better clarity than I have seen in any of my previous storm footage. This is I believe down to the use of a 4K sensor and the very low noise levels. I’d love to see the 4K material on a 4K monitor. It certainly looks good on my Mac’s retina display. Hopefully I’ll get back out on the plains and prairies of Tornado Alley later in May for some more storm chasing. Anyone want to join me?

 

Ultimate Documentary Production workshop. (3D as well if enough interest)

alister-and-supercell-300x225 Ultimate Documentary Production workshop. (3D as well if enough interest)
Alister Shooting a Supercell Thunderstorm

I’m planning on running a Documentary production workshop and 3D workshop based on a Storm Chasing trip to the USA from the 4th to the 12th of June. The trip would be an excellent chance to really put your documentary skills in to practice and learn more about your cameras and workflow shooting a short film about the violent weather that hits Tornado Alley every spring. We can even shoot in 3D if that’s what people are interested in. I can provide a PMW-F3, lens kit and EX1R, but hopefully you would bring your own cameras and I can teach you how to get the most out of them. depending on the weather each day there would be a classroom session or practical on location session covering everything from sound and interview techniques, to camera setup and shooting tips. Will will do a lot of timelapse, make use of cache record (if you have it) and work in some very challenging lighting situations. Each member of the group will be given different roles to play as part of the “crew” each day so that they may gain a better understanding of the difficulties of each role. At the same time the idea is that each person will also create their own personal short film about our storm chasing adventure. With luck we should see incredible thunderstorms, giant hail and maybe even a tornado or two (I’ve been storm chasing for 12 years, it’s my speciality). The cost for this comprehensive and very exciting workshop will be $1800 USD per person for a place on the course. In addition to that each student will be responsible for their overnight accommodation. Typically we will stay in hotels/motels that cost approx $100 USD per night, so you should budget for approx $800 for accommodation bringing the total to $2600. We will depart from Denver, Colorado so you will have make your own travel arrangements to/from Denver. This will be a real educational adventure. The previous trips I have run to Norway for the Northern lights, Arizona for lightning and Tornado Chasing have been great successes with many people returning for more. We will spend a lot of time on the road, visiting many parts of the Mid-West. It will be fun and you should come away with improved video skills, a great short film, and amazing stories of adventure and excitement. Please use the contact form if your interested. Places are limited.