Photo Daily: Foudre au-dessus de la ville de Paris

Foudre au-dessus de la ville de Paris (Lightning over the city of Paris) ©2006

Foudre au-dessus de la ville de Paris (Lightning over the city of Paris) ©2006

I was living in an apartment in Paris I had rented, across Boulevard Saint Michel from the Jardin du Luxembourg when the storm started to roll in. First the winds, then lightning in the distance, then the rain. A deluge.

I walked out onto my balcony with camera in hand, framed the shot with the Eiffel Tower off in the distance, and hoped the weather-proofing of the camera’s housing was a good as it was supposed to be. In a few short minutes, I was soaked to the skin.

Lightning is an interesting phenomenon to try to photograph. It’s random. Incredibly random. It’s true that putting the camera on a tripod and doing exposures of 30 seconds or more is a good way to try to catch one of those random moments, but I didn’t have a tripod with me on this Paris visit.

So I did the next best thing. I find that if I brace myself up against something, I can usually hand-hold a camera fairly steady for fairly slow shutter speeds. I can usually get down to 1/8th of a second and still not have much noticeable blur from camera shake. But trying to time catch lightning strikes, even at 1/8th of a second, is more or less impossible. So I tried for one second exposures. That’s a really long time to hand-hold a camera steady.

Click… one second… click… one second… click… one second…

By using that extremely slow shutter speed and holding as still as I could, as long as I kept firing the shutter as fast as I could, I was almost constantly making an exposure. A much better chance to catch a lightning strike. Maybe a little motion blur, but that’s the beauty of lightning. It lights up the entire sky for such a small fraction of a second and is just as quickly gone, that even if you’re not perfectly still for the rest of the second that the shutter is open, you can still end up with a decent image.

And of course, hundreds of photos of darkness between the lightning strikes. But that’s okay. You only need one.

This one happened about two minutes into my balcony drenching, the 99th exposure. I continued to shoot for about ten more minutes, just in case I missed that first good one. You really can’t stop to review your photos while you’re trying to catch a lightning strike, because it’s nearly a sure thing that when you’ve lowered the camera to review frames on your display, that’s the moment the most beautiful lightning bolt will fill the sky. So you just keep shooting until the lightning stops.

But that 99th frame was indeed the best one. And it turns out that the weather-proofing on my camera is as advertised.


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