Lighting photography must be one of the most difficult of mother natures spectacular events to capture in a single shot with a camera. I have been trying to photograph these moments now for about 6 years and its been a real learning curve with a lot of failures along the way until I got a Pluto trigger for lightning photography.
In the beginning I was using a basic intervalometer to shoot a series of images in the day just in the hope that one of them would have a bolt of lightning in it. As you can imagine, the majority of these images didn’t have anything on them and very often, those which did have lightning had incomplete streams of light because the lightning hadn’t had time to form or it was dissipating. This is far from the ideal method of capturing lightning as it puts a considerable strain on your shutter pushing your shutter count up to silly numbers in just one session.
About 5 years ago I came across an intervalometer on the internet called the Pluto trigger which which turns your system into a smart camera and also has a built in lighting function along with many other cool features. Being smaller than the miops smart trigger the Pluto fits very easily into a pocket so I decided to bite the bullet and buy one as I do like my gadgets and this seemed to do everything I could wish for, and I wasn’t disappointed when it arrived.
It came very well packaged including a little velvet carry bag, which to honest I’ve never used but it’s still a nice touch. The trigger itself is about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, it can sit quite comfortably on your cameras hotshoe with the provided adaptor, although some Sony cameras may require a different adaptor to make this fit. The adaptor is simply a mounting device and in no way uses your cameras hotshoe to trigger the camera. This function is performed by connecting a cable from the trigger to the cameras remote port and the compatible lead is selected when placing your order and included in the price, although I would recommend ordering one or two spares whilst you’re at it as I have had one fail on me in the field and didn’t have a back-up on me which made life very difficult that day.
Whilst you’re waiting for your trigger to be delivered you can take the opportunity to download the required app onto your mobile phone. This app connects to the trigger via a Bluetooth connection and once you have set your trigger up how you want it to perform you can then pop your phone back into your pocket with no need to keep it switched on or connected to the trigger unless you want to make any adjustments.
The first thing you will want to do when using the app for lightning photography is to go into the settings menu (the 3 dots in the top right corner) and change your settings to those in the image below but make sure ‘camera brand’ is set to your make of camera. The burst count does not matter so long as you have burst mode turned off.
Now you can return to original screen and on the left hand menu you will see ‘lightning’ listed, press on this to get to the next screen. Hi-light the the little square in the bottom right corner which will activate the pre-focus mode which is equivalent to half pressing the shutter speed and will speed up the cameras response time. Now you will notice the two circular lines, the inner circle is the sensitivity setting and you can move right to left with a swipe of your finger. The outer circle is the change in light hitting the sensor of the trigger and this will fluctuate depending on the conditions, when there is a flash of lightning it will momentarily shoot up. The trick is to get the sensitivity set so the trigger doesn’t fire at the slightest change in light but only when there is a flash of lighting. I tend to start with it 3/4 of the way round to the right. When you press play you will probably find your shutter firing continuously, so you now want to press the stop button and dial the sensitivity to the left some more. The trick is to find the spot where the trigger isn’t firing unless there is a sudden change in light. Once you have this set you simply press the play button at the bottom and your trigger is now running.
Setting up your camera in manual mode
Because lightning can take upto 1/100th of a second to form from the original flash you may be suprised to learn that even though the trigger will fire the camera at what appears to be the initial flash you actually need to use a relatively slow shutter speed otherwise the camera will open and close the shutter before the lightning has had time to form a stream in the sky. Anything slower than 1/15th second is best but this can then present new problems when shooting in the day. Use the lowest ISO your camera has to offer, this varies by brand and camera but ISO 100 or less is recommended. I would then suggest setting your shutter speed to 1/15th second before moving on to the aperture. Set your focus mode to manual once you have composed your shot. The aperture for most landscape/lightning shots is best set between f8-f11 but you may find this is still over exposing your shot depending on the conditions. Keep moving the aperture one stop at a time toward your maximum number (f22 for example) until you have a balanced or slightly underexposed shot. The trouble with doing this is that if you have any dust on your sensor or lens it is far more likely to show up on the final image and if the bolt of lightning crosses this mark it can be very difficult to fix in post processing to make it look natural so clean your gear before going out.
I would also recommend using graduated neutral density filters to darken the sky which in turn will allow you to shoot nearer the f8-f11 mark. I always use a polariser too as this knocks one stop of light off the exposure.
An nd filter can also be used but try to keep it at a low value as an nd10 is going to be too dark and the bolt of lightning is very unlikely to even register on your cameras sensor.
Below is a quick checklist which you can save on your phone for reference whilst you’re out with your camera.
I have created a quick reference guide which you can download for free and save onto your phone should you ever need it.
You can buy the Pluto trigger from here
Have you got any bonus tips for lightning photography, leave a comment at the bottom of this page if you do.