Focusing in the dark for lightning shots

I took some lightning photos around midnight in Kansas on May 29th... pretty nice anvil crawlers. My exposure came out okay, but I was a bit disapointed in how blurry they were. I used a tripod and cable release and it wasn't windy so the camera could not have shaken. My guess is that I didn't focus good enough. I tried to do an automatic focus with the cable release but the camera didn't allow me to take pics (which I find weird?), so I had to do manual focus... does anyone know how to focus in pitch dark and get sharper lightning images?

I'm using the Canon rebel with the kit lens. Perhaps not the best lens, but I can't afford to get a better one at the moment.

Thanks in advance for any tips and tricks....
 
I took some lightning photos around midnight in Kansas on May 29th... pretty nice anvil crawlers. My exposure came out okay, but I was a bit disapointed in how blurry they were. I used a tripod and cable release and it wasn't windy so the camera could not have shaken. My guess is that I didn't focus good enough. I tried to do an automatic focus with the cable release but the camera didn't allow me to take pics (which I find weird?), so I had to do manual focus... does anyone know how to focus in pitch dark and get sharper lightning images?

I'm using the Canon rebel with the kit lens. Perhaps not the best lens, but I can't afford to get a better one at the moment.

Thanks in advance for any tips and tricks....
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Laura,
the way to go about it is to set your camera and lens to manual focus and spin the focus ring on the lens to the infinity setting. Leave it like that and shoot away :) . The camera is unable to obtain a correct autofocus in pitch dark surroundings - that's why it does not allow you to take a picture (in autofocus mode).
Good Luck and feel free to ask more questions.

Martin Kucera
FloridaLightning.com
 
What aperture (f-setting) were you using? If you were using something like f/3.2 or f/5.6, minor errors in focus distance would be amplified, relative to using a smaller aperture like f/11 (which has a higher field of depth -- though this also has implications in how "bright" or "dark" the lightning appears).
 
Laura,
the way to go about it is to set your camera and lens to manual focus and spin the focus ring on the lens to the infinity setting. Leave it like that and shoot away :) . The camera is unable to obtain a correct autofocus in pitch dark surroundings - that's why it does not allow you to take a picture (in autofocus mode).
Good Luck and feel free to ask more questions.
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I guess that would make sense, since it was so dark it couldn't focus on anything. I noticed my lens doesn't have an infinity marker on it.... Is it because it has a focus ring? I almost feel silly asking these questions, but I guess it's the only way to learn. I never used to own a digital camera before June 2005.

What aperture (f-setting) were you using? If you were using something like f/3.2 or f/5.6, minor errors in focus distance would be amplified, relative to using a smaller aperture like f/11 (which has a higher field of depth -- though this also has implications in how "bright" or "dark" the lightning appears).
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I was using F/5.6 since it was the lowest my lens could go. Although my images on the computer say it was f/3.5... ? If I were to put it at f/11 would I have to leave the shutter open much longer to compensate to get the right exposure? Interesting, thanks for sharing that tidbit.

I have never taken lightning photos with a digital camera before, so this thing is kinda new to me.
 
The lightning exposure itself has nothing to do with shutter speed. That is important to remember. If you stopped it down you'd have to expose for the scene longer if you wanted it lit up. Some closer bolts you'll have to stop down from 3.5.

As for the focus, I will often just find a street light out on the horizon. I'll set my meter/focus point to center(it's always there anyway) and grab a light out there with auto focus and then flip it back to manual and leave it. That seems to work the best for me as the infinity spot on the 17-40L is pretty wide and I think is that way because of temperature differences...I don't know. I've gotten them to be in focus quicker grabbing a street light than finding that right spot manually. And that is with the 17-40L which is pretty good to manual focus with. Many of the others I've had were a joke to manual focus with.
 
Ding Ding Ding for Mike. Focus a light on the horizon. There are few if any times you won't have one somewhere. As far as setting the focus to infinity... be careful, as the actual position for infinity changes based off temperature. That's why you can go past it some. Also, don't forget to tripod (a sturdy one if possible), and if you can... enable mirror lockup.

Close lightning... f/8-f/11 ISO 100... far lightning... usually I shoot f/5.6 or so and adjust ISO as needed.

Aaron
 
Laura, Lightning can be moderately difficult to photograph well, I think the key is take lots of pics. I put my lens on manual (rain on the lens can throw off the auto focus)set on infinity, and use either night landscape mode (Nikon d70s) or apeture priority. Every strike is different as far as intensity, so you can't really predict exposure.I shot about 150 pictures on Sat. and ended up with two really nice shots( in my opinion, I'm still learning too...).[attachmentid=433]

And.... by the time I figured out how to post a pic you got a bunch of replies that say what I said...
 
I'm not going to add much input into this discussion, but I would like to say that when it comes to cameras I am a dummy. I need to learn about what the f and ISO stuff means....I know that they have alot to do with aperature or shutter speed. Anyone have any helpful links?
 
Thanks for the tips, guys. I actually did try Mike's suggestion, there was a tower in the distance that was blinking some light... I tried to focus off that, but even that still came out blurry. I wonder if it is the f stop I am using, then. Or it could be the fact that I am near-sighted.

What I should be doing is playing around with the camera some more, and try different modes, aperatures, etc. I just wish my area got more lightning strikes often heh.
 
Thanks for the tips, guys. I actually did try Mike's suggestion, there was a tower in the distance that was blinking some light... I tried to focus off that, but even that still came out blurry. I wonder if it is the f stop I am using, then. Or it could be the fact that I am near-sighted.

What I should be doing is playing around with the camera some more, and try different modes, aperatures, etc. I just wish my area got more lightning strikes often heh.
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Laura,
when you shoot some landscape shots (using similar f-stop) during daylight hours does everything seem to be sharp enough ?

Martin Kucera
FloridaLighting.com
 
Laura,
when you shoot some landscape shots (using similar f-stop) during daylight hours does everything seem to be sharp enough ?
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They look okay during the daytime. There's the odd one that is a little bit fuzzy... for daytime stuff, I just used the no flash automatic mode.... it could be I either need to mess around with the f stop or get a lens that has a better depth of field. My lens is the EF 17-55 mm. Now, I will probably get in crap for shooting in automatic, lol... but I found that easiest for me to use to shoot images quickly. I seriously need to play around with manual more often.

Mike do you find the 17-40L works very well most times for you? Is it something you would recommend to others if they wanted to get a new lens? Your images do look very sharp.
 
Yeah it works well. Alot of people on here use it. I think it is kind of the chasers lens of choice(for canon users), though some don't seem to want it at all. One of the best parts about the lens was its performance all the way open at F4.

Here is a good reveiw/comparison between it and it's big brother the 16-35L(a $1300 lens).

About the focusing thing on the light. Did you change the metering point system off of using all the points to using just one?
 
They look okay during the daytime. There's the odd one that is a little bit fuzzy... for daytime stuff, I just used the no flash automatic mode.... it could be I either need to mess around with the f stop or get a lens that has a better depth of field. My lens is the EF 17-55 mm. Now, I will probably get in crap for shooting in automatic, lol... but I found that easiest for me to use to shoot images quickly. I seriously need to play around with manual more often.

Mike do you find the 17-40L works very well most times for you? Is it something you would recommend to others if they wanted to get a new lens? Your images do look very sharp.
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Laura,
it has noting to do with the lens you have. The depth of field on a lens like yours is sufficient enough
to provide sharp enough images within its apperture range whether you focus on infinity or a street light.

Could you post or provide link to one of the pictures you are talking about ?

Martin Kucera
FloridaLightning.com
 
Here it is, unedited.... photobucket resized it because it was too big.

Would also like to add it was not raining where I was taking the shots. To answer Mike's question, no I didn't.

20060529_lightning2raw.jpg


20060529_lightning3raw.jpg
 
Defintely out of focus (OOF). AS mIke suggested, turn the focus to only the center point, then shift the camera so the center AF point is on the blikly light... make sure it snaps into focus (it should). Also, if you are near sighted... try adjusting the diopeter on the camera so you can tell what's sharp in frame.

Aaron
 
Here it is, unedited.... photobucket resized it because it was too big.

Would also like to add it was not raining where I was taking the shots. To answer Mike's question, no I didn't.


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On the back of your rebel there should be a button towards the upper right hand side. There are two right next to each other. The left one is the exposure lock(it has a * sign right above it). To the right of it there is a box with a row of 3 boxes inside it going left to right and another row going up and down. Push that right button while looking into the viewfinder. When you push it the dots or dot should turn red. If they are all red(which I assume they are) then it is using them all to find the right exposure as well as using them to focus. After pushing it and while they are red scroll the dial and you can see it switch from all to one at a time. I always have it so the middle one is red. That point/dot will be what will decide your exposure and where it focuses. It is important to notice where you have that when taking the shots since it will now expose for that location. Alot of times I'll just exposure lock with that dot on the sky and offset the compensation some(to the right). I'm sure that is why it wouldn't focus on the light source. You'll only have to change it the one time as it will stay there until you change it.
 
Thanks very much, Mike. I made that change in the camera (they used to be all red). I will try shooting this way from now on. It's amazing how there is so much to think about when shooting with digital cameras compared to film cameras.

Now to wish for some nice lightning at night! :blink:
 
??? I don't think it has much if anything to do with digital vs. film Rebel. You have to make sure that all your settings are manual including focus, and pre-set that to infinity. Since the kit lens is also no optical prize wide-open you want to keep your apertures at least f8 for sharpness IMO.
 
Speaking of lightning photography the film cameras/slide film are still much better option when it comes to final image quality and probably will be for some time in future. The digital world is quite decent and a cheap alternative though.

Martin Kucera
FloridaLightning.com
 
I use the Canon Digital Rebel. What I do is zoom in to a distant light on autofocus. let it focus, then lock it on manual. Then I zoom out and set up for the lightning. My biggest problem is seeing the horizon to level the camera.
[attachmentid=442]
 
AS far as leveling goes... that's what digital is for. I usually do a quick ISO 1600 ~10s shot and then preview on back of the camera to make sure the camera is level. Then I shoot away!

Aaron
 
Good tip for levelling, Aaron! Then don't forget to set ISO back, or you'll regret it ;)

As for the focus, you will have way less hassle if you buy a fixed focal length lens, e.g 35mm f/2. These can simply be set to the end of the focus scale so you will be fine in a fraction of a second, also easy after changing lenses, etc. Some lenses with a focus scale will be at infinity not at the end. You need to keep a light with you to check the marks. These lenses usually also perform better than zooms at lower f-numbers.

For exposure, this is purely determined by aperture and ISO for the flash, and by exposure time, ISO and aperture for the scenery light. Your ideal exposure will have a bright but not overexposed lightning flash, and a not overexposed scenery. So you set the ISO (100, only when you have to go brighter than your maximum lens aperture allows increase it) and aperture for the flash according to their brightness and distance, then use the meter or your experience to determine the exposure time for the surroundings, e.g. if you are in a street with some sodium lights, you would typically arrive at about 6 seconds at f/5.6. This is reasonably simple, but in practice you will notice that city lights make the sky orange. You will want a pure flash colour, not mixed with too much orange. Same for dusk situations where you want to show a flash (maybe even without a channel in it) in the still visible updraft tower: the flash has to expose relatively bright compared to the clouds, so arrange your exposure time for the storm like -0.5 to -1 stop. In that situation you do not want a motion-blurred storm so you typically get only 2 seconds exposure time.... there is no free lunch. I use to hear many people about using f/11 or even f/22 in dusk situations, some mounting a polarizer, to get more exposure time. You may try, but you will not see normal cloud flashes, and lightning channels become very skinny, unless the storm is very close to you with bright strikes, and the clouds will become blurry due to their movement.

You will undoubtedly find Murphy on your side. The best flashes always happen when you're not yet/anymore set up, or erasing pictures with nothing, to make space.... or during any other adjustments, or lightning playing cat-and-mouse: you start aiming there, then lightning happens where you had aimed before, and so on...

Good luck!
Oscar
 
Hey, everyone, thanks for all the helpful information in this thread. Following the suggestions of adjusting the autofocus so I just had one focal point and autofocusing on a light on the horizon, I was able to get this picture as a storm passed to our north a couple nights ago:

[attachmentid=451]

Definitely better than quite a few I have gotten trying to set the focus manually for night lighting photography.
 
Bump for good threat...

The idea of trying to focus on a light in the distance sounds like a good one. I have been setting it to infinity. Will defin have to try this...the next time we have lightning. My bigger issue is setting the Aperture - I see most in here are suggesting F5 or so. Give or take. Will have to try that as well.
 
I usually stop down to f/11 - f/22 so that I don't have to worry about the focus so much. The bigger the f/ number, the wider your depth of field or area that is in focus. Your lens.. and all lenses can stop down that low.. the range on your lens is the widest you len's ap. can open, not the lowest it can be stopped down. The reason it's a range is because your lens has a different ap. "wide open" when you are zoomed in than when it's zoomed out.
 
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