When you have a sight like this…whatcha gonna do?
Seize The Time
One Summer evening in 2003, I returned to my 40th floor, north-facing apartment near Columbus Circle New York, as a massive electrical storm swept eastwards, about 5 kilometers away. Its southern edge seemed to be directly over the George Washington Bridge because there was no curtain of accompanying rain between me and it. It provided a heart-stopping, wonder-inducing spectacle that made me literally run to my camera equipment in order to seize the moment.
Happily, I had often experimented with night landscapes from this vantage point, so I was quite practiced in rapidly setting up my camera and tripod next to an open window. (See also the blog entry “I Rise At Night” for February 8, 2013)
Unhappily, I was not then photographically trained in capturing this kind of natural fireworks, which also deeply challenged me to rapidly figure out how to time the exposures in order to coincide with the flashes. It also deeply challenged my camera to cope with reconciling both brilliant flashes and the dark of the surrounding city.
I was then using a Nikon D70, whose “first generation” capacity is laughably less capable than my current “fourth generation” monster. Nevertheless, I owe my current joy in image-making to the freedom that this instrument gave me in terms of accelerated learning, due to the new opportunities offered by digital technology. Immediate, on-screen feedback of the images allowed me to juggle with the settings to find the most appropriate mix, in terms of portraying the scene in front of me.
Given the intensity of the storm and the amazing frequency of the lighting strikes, I learned that repeated exposures, each holding the aperture open for a few seconds, was time enough to coincide with several bolts of lightning. Equally, long exposures were needed to provide enough background light, given that I had “stopped down” the aperture to f11, in order to enable deep depth of field for a scene stretching kilometers in front of me, which was now hidden in a black-dark storm.
Since the camera was fixed on a tripod, all this was possible, with the added advantage that I could “shoot and scoot”, since I also had little interest in hovering near open, aluminium windows up on the 40th floor, as nature fired giant blows from Thor’s hammer all around.
Surprised By Joy
As I reviewed the results from time to time during the ensuing half-an-hour, I knew that some were spectacular, but the most rewarding time was still to come, when I could review and correct the images in post processing on my computer.
The one parameter that I could not “nail”, as I excitedly shot one image after the other, was the white balance. The lightning was incandescent energy flashing in a generally sodium lit city, all of which was covered from any natural light by dense cloud cover.
Happily, the answer to that problem is to shoot “raw”, which I always do. This produces image files which are the “native” format produced by the camera, in which is stored all the data captured in the moment of exposure. Not only are all the mechanical settings listed in “Technicals” below retained, but also all the original information striking the camera’s sensor i.e. the impact of the photons on the millions of individual pixel sites.
Working this way allows post processing to change the white balance which was set at the moment of exposure and to experiment with the effect of alternative approaches. This digital photographic development process is capable of rescuing images, which may have been captured with non-optimum settings, and to enhance other aspects of the image which require some treatment in order to reproduce the original scene, such as tones and sharpness.
Camera: Nikon D70
Lens: VR 70-300mm zoom f/4-5.6D
Focal Length: 75mm
Focus Mode: AF-C
Shutter Speed: 3s
Auto Focus -Area Mode: Single
Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority
Exposure Compensation : +1 EV
ISO Sensitivity: 1000
Mounted on a Tripod
I was deeply moved by the beauty and power of creation as I experienced the moment. I hope that a little of this may be visible for you too, as I share part of my moment of joy with you.
Copyright Paul Grayson 2014