A few days ago my wife and daughter and I joined some good friends for an afternoon at Sand Harbor State Park on the eastern shores of Lake Tahoe. After some relaxing on the beach and swimming in the cool, clear waters of the lake, we took our seats for the evening performance of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival's production of "As You Like It". The outdoor amphitheater is right within the park and the view from the seats overlooks the beach and lake where we had been earlier in the day.
If you live near Lake Tahoe and have never been to the festival, it's definitely a fine way to enjoy theater with a grand view of the lake. The performance began at 7:30 and shortly before intermisson the sun descended behind the mountains. The sky was painted with clouds and that helped to create a beautiful sunset. I left my seat and walked up to the upper edge of the amphitheater to take in the view. The image below was made about 4 minutes after the photo of the stage above.
The weather forecast predicted a high chance of thunderstorms and rain that evening, so we came prepared for that eventuality. Towards the end of the first half, we began to hear the rumble of thunder coming from behind us, accompanied by occasional flashes of lightning. During intermission we left our seats to ascend to the top of the hill at the back of the seating area to watch the show in the clouds to the north of us. I tool advantage of the opportunity to try to capture the lightning with my iPhone (more on that below).
After intermission, the storm moved closer and a light rain began to fall. The stage became wetter and the stage manager called a halt, informing the audience that they would pause the performance for about 30 minutes to wait for the storm to pass by. We passed the time in our car just in case a real downpour developed. Fortunately, that never came to pass. The play resumed and, even though it continued to rain lightly for awhile, there were no nearby lightning strikes and our blankets, windbreakers, hats, and large plastic bags for our laps kept us reasonably dry. It was a fine performace and the stormy interlude made for a very memorable night at the theater!
Photographing Lightning with a Camera Phone
If you're interested in taking images of lightning with your camera phone, here are a few tips based on my own experiences at Lake Tahoe last week:
- Be safe! Don't be out trying to take photos if it looks like the lightning is striking close by (of course, depending on how you feel being out in a thunder storm, "close by" is a relative term). Better to survive without any photos than to become an unfortunate statistic! Avoid standing very close to water, tall metal structures, or underneath tall trees, all of which can sometimes be magnets for lighting strikes.
- Stabilize the camera. If you have a tripod, use it. If not, try to stabilize the camera to prevent camera motion. This is especially important in lower light conditions, where the camera may need to use a longer shutter speed. For my images at Lake Tahoe, I braced the iPhone on the top of a wooden fence post.
- Timing is everything. Point the camera at the area of the sky were the lightning is occuring. Turn on the camera app of your choice, place your finger just over the shutter button and get ready to tap it. When you do see a flash, tap the button as fast as you can. For these shots, I used the ProCamera app which allows me to tap anywhere on the touch screen to take a photo (Camera+ also has this functionality, as do some other camera apps). This is very convenient because you have a much larger area where you can tap to take the shot.
- Look at the sky, not the phone. Watch the clouds where the lightning is appearing, not the back of your phone. You'll be able to react much quicker if your eyes are on the real action and not on the phone's screen. Wait to review your shots until after you're done. If you're checking the shot you just made, you may miss the next impressive lightning bolt.
Finally, you might want to consider an app that is designed to take a photo when lightning flashes in the sky. I found one for the iPhone called iLightning that works similar to lightning triggers designed for regular cameras (if you have an Android phone, try a Google search for "Android lightning trigger app"). I have not tried this out yet, but I plan to very soon (maybe even this weekend, as more thunderstorms are in the forecast). I did not use a lightning trigger for my shots last week, but just relied on my own reflexes and luck. Out of 17 attempts, I was able to catch lightning in about 9 shots, which was better than I was expecting.
In some shots, the lightning flashes just illuminated the clouds, or the bolts were smaller, and in one the flash was so bright it overexposed the entire sky. In a few shots the rolling shutter effect resulted in partial exposures where the sky was not exposed evenly and these shots were not useable because of this. You can see some examples of the rolling shutter partial exposure effect below. In my shots, this only became an issue when it got darker, and it was intermittant. There's not much you can do about this, except take lots of shots and hope you get some good ones that are not affected by this issue.
If I have an opportunity to try out the iLighning app this weekend, I'll post my results here in a future post.
Partial exposures due to the rolling shutter effect.
(click in the image for a larger version)