Lightning at Palouse Falls               2016/05

HDR capture of Palouse Falls via LIghtroom. Canon 5D III with Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 at f/8.
HDR of Palouse Falls via LIghtroom. Canon 5D III with Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 at f/8.

The flash of lightning greeted us as we emerged at dusk from a steep climb out of upper Palouse Canyon. My heart raced. Lightning isn’t unusual here, but this was a photo op not to be missed! I sped to the cliff overlooking Palouse Falls, a perfect ringside perch for the ensuing show. A lone photographer occupied the spot. Luckily, there was space for two or three. Also lucky, there was enough light to get a decent exposure of the canyon, and the lightning show had really just begun.

I was anxious to shoot the lightning, but I thought I better get Palouse Falls and the canyon with several exposures before the light winked out. Moonrise wasn’t until 4am. A 14mm lens mounted on my Canon 5D III embraced the scene. I bracketed exposures from 5 to 30 seconds at f8 and ISO 200. With noise reduction, it felt like an eternity to finish, but the extra light still in the canyon made the finished product noise-free (as you’re probably aware, turning on long-exposure noise-reduction causes the camera to shoot a second, dark image, with the same exposure time, which the camera then subtracts from the first shot and stores as a single file).

I tilted the camera up a bit to include more sky, to better capture the lightning. Excited, not thinking clearly, I made the mistake of shooting a few frames with noise-reduction still on, thereby missing half the strikes. After turning noise-reduction off, I shot almost continuous 15 or 20 second exposures, missing only a few bolts. As the storm got closer, I escaped to camp with the headlamp I had packed before we left on the hike.

HDR capture of Palouse Falls combined with a sky lightning exposure via LIghtroom Merge Panorama.
Palouse Falls HDR combined with a sky lightning via LIghtroom Merge Panorama.

The next day, examining my images in Lightroom, I saw I had the ingredients for a decent, perhaps outstanding, landscape. I created an HDR of the canyon, then combined it using Merge Panorama to give me a base to work with. Moving to Photoshop, I added layers from two other lightning shots and blended them in. I imported the result back to Lightroom, finishing the image with some creative dogging and burning.

Final image after adding two additional lightning strikes in Photoshop, and some additional dodging and burning in Lightroom.
Final image after merging in two more lightning strikes in Photoshop, and dodging and burning in Lightroom.

This was my first night lightning shoot in many years; a couple of keys made it successful. One basic idea is to get as many strikes as possible, with the right exposure. That means using a tripod. A remote trigger with a bulb option is helpful. Using bulb, open the shutter until you get a strike (or two), then close the shutter and start again. Turn noise reduction off; you don’t need it for lightning, and leaving it on means you miss 50% of the action. If you don’t have a remote trigger with you, no worries, just shoot continuous 15 or 20 second exposures. Manually focus on infinity. Also skip the 2-sec time delay and mirror lock, especially if your tripod is sturdy. A brief camera shake in the dark is shake un-recorded. Check your results periodically on the LCD, and adjust the f-stop or ISO as needed. For safety, head for shelter before the thunder tells you the lightning is close.