Lightning Photography | Skill or Just Plain Luck?

The Raw Story Behind Lightning Photography

By Bryan Snider | Weather Photography | Storm Chaser

Lightning is one the most mysterious gems found in mother nature.  Very little is known about it, and yet many people are naturally fascinated by its beauty and power.  I’m no exception.

As a child, growing up on the edge of tornado alley I saw my fair share of beautiful lightning storms.  It wasn’t until I was just out of high school that I began to try and photograph lightning.  In 2005, armed with my Canon point-and-shoot, (5 megapixel camera), I captured my first lightning strike.  I knew very little about the skill involved and frankly I got pretty lucky to even capture a bolt.  However, that one bolt was life changing! It sparked a passion that pushed me to develop then necessary skills to photograph lightning on completely new level.

Lightning strikes the mountains near Interstate 17 in the Verde Valley of central Arizona

“Verde Valley Lightning” | Purchase Canvas or Print

Just a few days ago, a very popular photographer / travel blogger Trey Ratcliff (from stuckincustoms.com) wrote the blog post (“Stormchasing In Guilin, China”) that sent the storm chasing community well into the Stratosphere!

Don’t let the title fool you.  It was the sub heading “Fake Lightning Shots” and the arrogance in the blog that really sent the chasing community into anticyclonic rotation. (pardon the weather humor). But I gave Trey the benefit of doubt.  His title was attention getting, and I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.

So what really broke the cap in the chasing community?

Honestly it was the whole article in general. I read it several times. I seriously tried to give Trey the benefit of the doubt, but his words made it very difficult.  Trey was pretty bold and made several storm photographers (including myself) feel like all our amazing photographs were likely “fake” and required little to no skill to capture them.  Like many chasers, I was blown away by these statements. Personally I have intercepted and photographed some amazing storms (not by luck), and I can assure you my images are not fake.  These images took quite a bit of skill to get them and that isn’t something you can learn, nor did I over night.

Does lightning photography require a lot of skill?  

The simple answer is yes. In order to become quite successful at really anything, you need the experience to help polish and define your skills.

If you are new to lightning photography, and are especially new to photography in general, then be prepared to learn quite a bit.  A lot of the skills can be taught, but many of them require practice and lots of trial and error (failures) before the skill can be mastered.

Many times I’ve seen people spend thousands of dollars on “fancy” cameras to only become disappointed or frustrated when their photos are out of focus, dark and so on.  But why is that?  A lot of it has to do with a person not truly understanding their equipment or basic photography. Digital photography is cheap, and doesn’t require people to have much “skill” to simply capture a photo. Photographers take great photographs, not cameras. Don’t get me wrong these same people might be able to capture some pretty darn good photos on their camera, but at the end of the day, an experienced photographer is one who understands why they got their results, and can replicate them time and time again.

Think of it this way. I got lucky to even capture a bolt or two with my $200 point and shoot camera back in 2005.  I had no idea what I was doing, and chances are I wouldn’t find much success in lightning photography unless I was willing and able to reach for the highest level.

So what separates a professional from the average Joe?  

A professional is one who spends a long time developing, practicing and mastering their skills.  For me, its been nearly a decade of learning, with lots of failures and frustration to get where I am today. It was no easy road, but it has been a very rewarding one.

Think of it this way.  If I’ve never played baseball before would you expect me to be any good?  Would I be able to get a hit on my first at bat?  Most likely my first experience of playing baseball wouldn’t make me an automatic baseball player over night.  However, if I practiced and practiced for a decade, went to baseball clinics, and spent a lot of my free time playing baseball, then chances are I’d probably become pretty good after a decade.

Lightning photography is really no different.  The more storms you photograph, the more time you spend learning your equipment, networking with other more advance lighting photographers, attending workshops and so on… the better your photographs will become.  I worked hard to get where I am today and it’s pretty amazing to see how my work has progressed over the last decade. I’m still practicing and setting even bigger goals for myself.

Lightning strikes the east Phoenix metro city of Goodyear, Arizona

“Lightning and the City Lights” | Purchase Canvas or Print

So what makes a “fake” photo?

If you take the time to read the article, you’ll notice that Trey mentions the word “compositing” as the reason for many of the amazing lightning photos as being “fake” at least in his opinion.  Ironically he also states that this practice is also “fine” which is quite hard to believe… given such strong statements in his short blog.  While this is debatable within its own universe, I personally stand on the side that if their is a tool out their to “enhance” or help your photograph tell a bigger story, then I’m fine with that.  If this same tool ultimately brings comfort, or happiness into someones life, then who wouldn’t be fine with that?  Photography is really special and lightning photography is no different.  We all have our styles and that is what makes it so much fun! If a bunch of lightning photographers photographed the same storm, then I’m confident that the images would still be slightly different.  The processing styles, composition, lenses choices and so on would make for some very unique and different photographs.

What is compositing and why would someone call this style of photography fake?

A composite is several individual exposures (photographs), that are blended together into one single exposure.  This is often done in software like Photoshop.  While some might call this “cheating” or in Trey’s case “fake.” I’ll argue that it’s your photograph, and you can do whatever the heck you want with it.

Light trails from airplanes on approach to Phoenix Sky Harbor create a magical sky over Tempe, Arizona

“The Rhythm of the Urban Sky Full” | Purchase Canvas or Print

Compositing has been around for some time.  In fact, people use to do it all the time in the dark room and still do it.  Art is whatever you want it to be and thats how it should be.  Look at Greek art, the Greek’s would exaggerate the muscle in their body figures to make them look strong.  Does this make their art fake? What about Egyptians?  Egyptian art is different because Egyptians painted the human body in a unique way that focused on what they believed were the best angle of different parts of the human body.  Notice the placement of the head compared to the body and feet?  This isn’t a natural way for humans to stand, but this doesn’t make it fake.  In fact, if I were to claim that Egyptian or Greek art as “fake,” I’d be laughed at.

Composites are very much real and I enjoy doing them.   I find myself doing composites when I feel it can help tell the bigger story.  I’ve done several composites, and two of them are some of the most popular photos I’ve ever done.  One is titled “The Rhythm of the Urban Sky.”  While this photograph has nothing to do with lightning, it’s most definitely a “composite.”  Its a composite of 30+ photos stacked to show how busy the airspace of above Phoenix really is.

Another example of a cool composite I’ve done is called “WHOA Airplanes!”  The airport in this photo is real and the airplanes in the photo are real as well.  Just because our eyes perceive the world differently, doesn’t necessarily mean that our imagination can’t perceive the world creatively.

Just because our eyes perceive the world differently, doesn’t necessarily mean that our imagination can’t perceive the world creatively.

A multiplicity photo of airplanes taking off from Phoenix Sky Harbor

“WHOA Airplanes!” | Purchase Canvas or Print

I’ll admit, I’ve yet to fully answer the question above “Are Most Amazing Lightning Shots Fake?”  Truthfully, I do not believe this to be true.  My two lightning photos above are not composites, and yet some would regard them as amazing.  You really can capture several bolts in one exposure.  I’ve done it several times.

In fact, I’ve been asked several times by people if the photo “It’s Electric!” was a composite?  The answer is no.  It’s simply a 37 second exposure captured at f/16.  This was a very electrical storm, and I was able to capture several bolts over the course of a 37 second exposure.  Can you image what it would look like if I did a composite of every exposure I got from this storm?

Several strikes of lightning captured from a very electrical storm

“It’s Electric!”

Do Camera Triggers Take the Skill Away?

Trey really opened up a can of worms, because his article kept insulting the storm chasing community.  Just a few lines into the short blog, he goes on to say that camera triggers pretty much take the skill away from lightning photography.

To be perfectly honest, that may have been the dagger in the heart for me.  Camera triggers are amazing devices and a great tool to have in your camera bag as a lightning photographer.  However, they are not the “end-all,” nor do they replace 80+% of the skill required to successfully capture amazing lightning images.

I am personally armed with two of these devices, and even then, I still have to know my cameras, lenses, and be prepared to photograph lightning without a trigger just in case one fails.  Over the years I’ve developed the skill to know which lenses I need for certain lightning scenarios.   I also require the skills to understand how to compose the image (composition), as well as know which settings I need to used based on the time of day.

I am NOT guaranteed ANY lightning photos (even with a trigger) if I can’t get myself to a good storm.  This requires knowing how to forecast, reading a storm or even anticipating where a storm might be. Those are all skills in themselves! I also have to have the skills necessary to put myself safely in an area to photograph the storm.  It’s with these skills that I was able to capture the photo “Grand Canyon Lightning.” Yes I used a trigger, but a lot more skill went into that photograph then simply using a trigger.

Lightning strikes the center of the Grand Canyon

“Grand Canyon Lightning | Purchase Canvas or Print

Conclusions

It was definitely unfortunate to see an article like Trey Ratcliffs on the internet, but it was even more unfortunate to read the arrogant words from one of the worlds most followed photographers.  However, even at the end of the day,  Trey doesn’t know everything about photography and neither do I.

My goal was not trash Trey’s work (it’s not my nature to trash someones work), but to simply challenge him, his followers and others to rethink their feelings towards lightning photography and storm photographers in general.

Trey is a very accomplished and successful photographer, and I greatly respect that.  Yet at the end of the day, his success does not give him the credentials to rip apart lightning photography or our community.  It’s simply arrogant and unfortunate.  He should have reached out to the community, and instead he mowed right over it.