Witnessing a lightning storm can be frightening, but it can also be energising, certainly to photographers. The thrill of capturing lightning in a frame is like nectar to a photographer’s calling. Before we get consumed by this exciting subject it is important to remember that lightning storms can be extremely dangerous so please take suitable precautions when around a lightning storm; photographing lightning is great but it is not worth putting yourself in danger.
Lightning occurs all around the world, at different frequencies and strengths. I’ve been lucky enough experience a good few lightning storms, with my most memorable occurring in the tropics. But this isn’t to say that you can’t get great lightning shots wherever you are, all you need is some knowhow and then the lightning! Here is a brief 101 of lightning photography to get you started.
“It’s all about the light”
Like a flashgun, lightning is over in but a moment, and like flash if it is the predominant (or only) light source then it acts rather like its own shutter speed.
When using a flash at night for example, you might set the power output of the flash and then move to the camera settings. Generally speaking you turn the shutter speed to the maximum flash sync speed and then use ISO & aperture settings to compensate for the power of the flash. If it is too bright you increase the aperture and/or drop the ISO, if it is too dark then you do the opposite; much the same applies to lightning photography.
The intensity of the light from lightning is affected by two things:
The first is the power of the lightning: if it is a particularly large strike then if you’re set up for some previous strikes that weren’t as powerful, it’s more than likely the lightning will have blown out your highlights in the image.
The second thing to affect the light intensity is the distance between you and the lightning itself. Generally, lightning storms are large storm clouds which means that the lightning can be very close by one moment and then many miles away the next. These fluctuations in light can’t really be predicted but it is something to be aware of, and even to account for by increasing your aperture by a stop more than required to save your highlights.
Lightning is spectacular by itself but sometimes a scene can be made all the more special by being aware of your surroundings and looking for things that could add to the moment.
If you’re lucky enough to have something of interest in the foreground then see if you can add this to the electric scene. If there is still some ambient light around then you should be able to illuminate the foreground via your long exposure. If not, then illuminate using a torch or flash. This simple addition to the frame can help to better portray the scene. However bear in mind that you want to photograph as much of the lightning as possible so a sky-dominant frame will help to ensure this.
Built into many of the X-Series cameras, an intervalometer allows you take a set number of photos with pre-determined intervals between each shot, this is set by the photographer and can be between 1 second to 24 hours. This is very helpful for lightning photography as you can set the camera to take a series of 30 second exposures (or less if this is overexposed) and sooner or later you’ll capture a lightning strike within one of those frames.
The curse of photographing lightning is you can never guarantee where or when it will strike so you should always be prepared to wait a while for a good shot! At the same time though, be aware of where the storm is moving to and adjust your composition if it is moving out of frame.
This really can make all the difference! Because the exposure changes so frequently due to the intensity of the lightning, you cannot always achieve the perfect exposure 100% of the time. A RAW file records so much information compared to a JPEG that you can recover many more files which have the highlights blown out according to the histogram.
If you come across a lightning storm during the daytime my method is to set up the aperture and ISO to the most light-demanding settings possible (e.g. F22 ISO 200) and then simply use the intervalometer to repeat the suitable shutter speed. It can produce some interesting results.
Let us know if you’ve caught any lightning photos using the hashtag #fujilightning
A little about Ben – Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at:
X-Photographer Ben Cherry shows us how he captures Macaws in flight using flash.
I am currently in the middle of a six-month research stint with the Wild Macaw Association, gathering data on a scarlet macaw population for a study in Costa Rica, associated with Gent University. This remarkable opportunity allows me to study these birds closely and to explore the surrounding area during our two daily treks. To find out more about this very successful project, in which 75 macaws were released from 2002-2012, please check out this link here.
Scarlet macaws are incredible birds, with their bright colours and quirky behaviour making them very photogenic. However, they are often found within the rainforest and this often means in dark conditions, too dark for even the XF50-140mm F2.8 and high ISOs to capture any sort of motion. This problem will sound familiar to many of you in different situations, where OIS is redundant as the problem is subject movement, not camera shake. There is however one way to get around this: add artificial light. It may not be suitable for some situations but with a little bit of time and understanding this can allow for that otherwise impossible shot.
Here is a video showing how I developed my flying macaw photographs.
For me, there are two reasons to add flash to an action situation; we’ll take a look at both of these in a little bit of detail.
You need more light to freeze the subject/scene
In other words you simply can’t get a sharp image without more light. This is the most common reason to switch to flash. Most will start with the popup flash on their cameras and/or then get a dedicated flash and mount it on the hotshoe of the camera. There are photographers who can produce exceptional images using just this simple technique, and if you have a TTL (through the lens metering) flash then this becomes relatively quick and simple as the camera will communicate with the camera how much flash output there should be. Generally this will be fine for most needs, especially if you are short of time and need to take a variety of photos.
If you do have a TTL flash and you haven’t experimented with manual flash outputs before I would highly recommend that you give it a go. This slows you down and makes you think more about what you want to produce – do you simply want the flash to give a little bit of fill light to an otherwise correctly exposed scene? Or would you rather the camera underexposes the scene while the flash exposes correctly, so bringing the focus onto your subject and away from the darker background? These are all fun things to play with.
This all sounds great but flash photography can drive you around the bend if you’re not careful. On current X-Series cameras the maximum flash sync is 1/180sec (except the X100 series because of a leaf shutter allowing 1/1000sec flash sync). Anything more than this will not allow proper flash input. When it comes to action 1/180sec is pretty slow! There is one flash currently available, the Nissin i40, which is different. It offers high-speed sync (HSS), which allows you to use the flash up to 1/4000 sec, this is certainly helpful when adding some fill flash but it does cut the overall output of the flash. The reason for the downgraded power in this mode is because the flash sends out a series of very high speed flashes (instead of one, more powerful flash) that are fast enough to expose the subject within the maximum shutter speeds.
If you want to freeze the subject and aren’t bothered by the background then what you want to do is find an exposure combination that creates a totally black image. For example 1/180sec (max sync), F11, ISO200 – a mix which should require too much light for a lot of scenes, thus leaving your image black/heavily under exposed. The next thing to do is to add the flash that will offer all the light on the subject. If your subject is moving quickly then you’ll want to cut the flash output, this sounds counterintuitive, but as you cut the light output say from 1/1 to ¼ then the flash time is four times faster than maximum 1/1 power. This ensures that the subject is completely frozen.
The scene isn’t dramatic enough so you add artificial light
There are countless blogs on creative use of artificial light and I’m not going to pretend that I am a flash master, instead I’m simply going to show the set up I ended up using and why.
First of all I love off-camera flash, it opens up so many more opportunities compared to simple on-camera flash (this is just my opinion and not fact). So I very quickly knew that for the image I had in mind, I needed to use flashes off camera. I experimented from backlighting the birds to using the two flashes one from each side and then from slap bang in front. But the combination that created the image I really wanted involved having both flashes to the right-hand side, where the bird was flying. One flash was in line with where the birds fly over, while the other was slightly around towards me so giving a bit of light onto the side of the face towards the camera. This gave sufficient light onto the face to freeze the detail (especially as the face is lighter than the body) but didn’t cast enough light onto the rest of the bird to freeze more detail so creating motion. Here is a sketch to indicate what I did.
Different Flash Curtains
There are two curtains in a flash exposure. The first curtain reveals the sensor to the light coming through the lens and then the second that closes the sensor to light, completing the exposure. This is important to understand as it can greatly affect how you use flash.
First curtain flash
Where the flash is triggered as the first curtain opens. This is the most common set up, where your main priority is the flash. The go-to set up unless you’re using slightly slow shutter speeds with subjects or moving lights. It captures the exact action that you press the shutter to capture, if you use second curtain/slow sync then you could miss the split-second moment you were hoping to catch.
Second Curtain Flash
As the second curtain is about to come up and finish the exposure the flash fires making it effectively the last light to hit the sensor. This method does send off a flash initially to get a meter reading if used in aperture priority mode (no meter flash in manual mode). I generally avoid this method as it can give weird results (see video).
Slow Flash Sync
Slow sync is only available in aperture priority/auto-shutter speed modes, generally it is the same as second curtain flash but without the disruptive initial metering flash (note that it can only go down to 1/8sec). This is my favorite option for any kind of action photography and is the method I used for the panning images. The reason why this works best is it lets the ambient light reach the sensor first; correctly exposing the background and THEN the flash is triggered reaching and freezing the subject. This is preferential for panning/slow shutter speeds because it prevents ghosting – where the subject is flashed and but there is time afterwards for some light to reach the subject and any subject movement creates a bit of a psychedelic feel!
There concludes a rough/quick break down of different flash curtain types for the X-Series. To summarise there are a number of ways you can use flash to help your action photography:
Fill flash either up to 1/180sec or higher if using a HSS flash.
Causing a correctly exposed subject with a darkened/underexposed background.
Freezing a subject
Capturing motion with a bit of detail while panning with a moving subject.
Blending ambient light with directional flash light.
I hope that gives you a little bit of inspiration to get out there and try your hand at creative flash photography.
See how X-Photographer Ben Cherry utilises the Fujifilm extension tubes to capture stunning images with the XF50-140mm & XF56mm lenses.
With travel photography, one of the issues is prioritising equipment. You simply can’t carry everything you could possibly want to bring. If you do then it often hampers the overall travel experience as you’re weighed down by equipment and have to constantly look after it. For me, on my current trip that meant I couldn’t justify bringing a dedicated macro lens, especially when I had the XF56mm and XF50-140mm covering the similar focal lengths offered by the two available macro options. Instead I chose to pack both the 11 and 16mm extension tubes (MCEX-11 / 16). Offering camera-lens communication that allows autofocus, these simple compact devices can turn nearly any lens into a macro option (but please check lens compatibility).
My primary role in Costa Rica is to work as a researcher for a scarlet macaw program, so macro functions weren’t really at the top of the list. However the wildlife in this region is remarkable and macro functionality quickly became important. One of the sites we regularly see is a trail of leaf cutter ants marching through the forest taking supplies from the canopy to their nest. Following the tiny motorway, which has been carved out of the rainforest floor you’ll eventually find yourself at the base of a tree that’s being harvested.
Although I am focusing on leaf cutter ants, the general principles apply to all types of macro photography.
Macro Photography fundamentals
For this type of photography you generally want to be using very high F Stops e.g. F22. The reason for this is when you start to focus on very close objects; the depth of field becomes very thin with more regular F Stops like F4, 5.6, 8. Even the maximum aperture on your lens is often not enough to get most of the frame sharp. One technique employed is to focus stack. Taking multiple pictures of a static subject, moving the focus throughout the frame and then stacking the pictures in postproduction. This wasn’t an option for me unfortunately as the ants were moving continuously (so fast when you’re looking at a macro frame!).
Extension tubes – what are they?
They are simply extensions of the lens barrel, extending the distance between the rear lens element and the sensor. This shifts the focus, so for example instead of focusing at over 10 metres according to the lens, you’re actually focused 0.5 metres away when using an extension tube. There are two extension tubes available from Fujifilm a 11mm and 16mm. This gives you three options as you can stack the two together. The greater the distance, the closer the focusing.
Some lenses have very close native focusing distances
There are non-macro focused lenses that do actually have very close minimum focusing distances. For me, the two lenses spring to mind – the XF10-24mm and XF16mm. Though not particularly helpful for ‘normal’ macro photography because of they’re wide-angle lenses. However, I really like using both of these lenses for placing my subject within its environment, the benefit of these two is that my subject can be an elephant or an ant, both lenses are capable.
Downsides to extension tubes?
Well as you might have seen on some of the images, the bokeh can regress from the wonderfully smooth circles we are all used to from Fujifilm lenses, to something more like heptagon! The high image quality we are also used to does degrade somewhat, but this is to be expected when you’re pushing a lens from what is designed for. What you have to remember is that these are ultra lightweight, convenient macro inducers that save you money and carrying around another lens.
I am only touching the fringes of what is possible with macro photography, there are many out there who know a lot more about macro, but the benefit of extension tubes for those on the go is obvious.
With a little time and patience you can really start to create some interesting images. Though the images below are nothing particularly new, it was nevertheless satisfying to produce them. Using an off camera flash, placed behind the ants shooting back towards the camera backlights the ants and produces some interesting silhouettes/shadows thanks to the leaf cuttings.
I hope this has been helpful. Here is a short video of how I went about creating these images. Filmed and edited by Ellice Dart. If you liked this blog and video then please leave a constructive comment below.
Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at:
I have longed to try my hand at star trails for many years, and for one reason or another there would always be an excuse as to why I didn’t try it. Finally, all the factors came together to allow me to give it a proper go. With star trail photography you 100% have to know what you’re doing, I say this because if you’re ‘experimenting’ and don’t fully understand the factors involved then more than likely you will waste many hours getting cold in the dark and come back with nothing!
This blog is going to breeze over the general set up and workflow of putting together star trails. Just to make it clear I am not an expert astrophotographer but if you want to create an image similar to the one above then this might be helpful. So lets get started!
As I mentioned before, preparation is key to getting really rewarding results. I really recommend you read the article above and also do some things which can really make your life easier – such as the brilliant Star Chart app for your smart phone or tablet. This app gives you a map of the starts, which is particularly helpful if you know nothing about the stars (like me) and want to find polaris, the north star (if you’re in the northern hemisphere). The reason why you want to find polaris is that it is the centre point for the stars rotation, so effectively the stars are rotating around it.
Camera (obviously), preferably one that is compatible with a remote which has an intervalometer built in, or use a camera like the X-T1 which has one built in. An intervalometer is a device that can control your camera to take pictures at set intervals for a set number of photos and sometimes for a set duration. This is VERY helpful as it means that you can set up your shot and leave your camera to take all the photos for the duration of the shoot without any further input from yourself. From there you’ll usually want to use a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible. Finally you need a sturdy platform to leave your camera, more often than not a good tripod (however I have managed to produce some shots using a gorilla pod too!).
Hopefully you have found a suitable location, ideally with little light pollution, on a relatively clear night (with a good forecast). Foreground is what makes a star trail photo different from all the other star trails, so really think about you composition and how you want the star rotation to affect your photo, whether you want to have polaris in the picture to have a centre point for the stars to move around, or whether you want to shoot away from polaris to exaggerate the star movements.
This wants to be done all before sunset happens. Choose your location, frame your image and then don’t change it, leave it on the tripod! Over the next hour or so take a selection of sunset photos, preferably with F8/11 to give you a large depth of field, which you won’t be able to shoot later. If you really want to cover all the bases then you can do some bracketing to make sure you have every part of your composition correctly exposed.
As the stars start to come out you can then set up your camera for star photography. I used an X-T1 and a XF10-24mm F4 OIS for the top photo. I set it up to shoot a series of 30 second exposures at F4, ISO1600. 30 seconds is the longest that you can run with the built in intervalometer, ideally you would shoot longer exposures so you didn’t have so many photos to merge later, but this is often the easiest way.
A few hours later and I stopped the camera and downloaded the shots.
This is where it gets quite interesting and fun, now that you have the shots you can experiment to see what works best for you. I downloaded all the images into Lightroom and selected all of the star-focused images and ran a preset on them which boosted the highlights to make the stars brighter. This helps to make the star trails that much brighter. Don’t worry about the rest of the content in the star images as this will be replaced by the earlier landscape image. Once the images were all ready to be blended together, I exported them as high resolution jpegs.
I then opened Photoshop and used a script made by Floris Van Breugel which you can find here. Go to File -> Scripts -> browse -> select the script (I used the flat version instead of the layered version as my computer couldn’t cope with the layered version!), then select the folder where you’ve exported the star images. These must be named in a sequence e.g. star image 1.. The script effectively blends the images together taking the brightest part of all of the images and bringing it forward. What you will end up with is something like this.
Notice that there is some ambient light, the lights on the water are from fishing boats and the green glow is from a few houses on the other side of the headland. To remove these lights I opened up the original landscape photo shown earlier on. I copied the original file (background) and placed it above the inserted landscape photo. Using a mask layer I then removed the lights using the brush tool which acts like a non-destructive eraser making the landscape photo come out above the background copy (I really hope this makes sense!). You can adjust how effective this is by adjusting the opacity of the brush, this is helpful when removing light pollution in the sky.
I hope that made sense and that you’ll go out and try your hand at star trail photography. If you manage any star trails then share them with us.
Pygmy elephants are endemic to the island of Borneo, famous for their slightly smaller size, they are endangered with a population of roughly 1,500 left in the wild. This species is increasingly vulnerable to human impacts as a result of deforestation and conflict with palm oil development. They are the least understood elephant and in my opinion the sweetest, with their oversized ears and long tail to keep them cool and usher away insects.
Our first encounter was through an opening where there were about twenty elephants grazing. Our presence obviously wasn’t too big a concern as we were still observing different behaviour which is only seen in relaxed environments, such as play fighting and suckling.
We moved on in our boat and headed around to a more suitable location and the view that greeted us was unbelievable!
I didn’t think the XF16mm would get much work but I was wrong. Having that mounted on one X-T1 and the XF50-140mm on another, sometimes switching to the XF16-55mm too, made for a brilliant set up.
One set up that proved to really work was the XF10-24mm and the X-T1 on a monopod fired via wireless triggers. Using the electronic shutter mode meant that I could have the camera really close to the elephants with no sound being produced so they stayed nice and calm. I couldn’t have done this with an SLR or in mechanical shutter mode. Using that set up on a monopod meant that I could shoot from a really low (or high) angle and still stay on my feet incase I needed to move. The tilting screen meant that I could see exactly what was in the frame and I used continuous auto focus as I trusted it to keep the focus on the subject. the wide perspective really worked well with these large animals, they may be called pygmy elephants but the adults still stand 2.5 meters tall! The other advantage of this lens was the OIS which worked fantastically. Considering I was holding the camera on the end of a 1.5 meter poll, in a busy environment and still getting sharp photos at 1/60sec is a testament to the OIS.
However when the conditions were particularly gloomy and I didn’t want to push the camera past ISO3200 (ISO6400 is fine but on this occasion I decided not to) I switched to the ever-present XF16mm and utilised the F1.4 aperture. Though the angle of view was much narrower the benefit of the faster shutter speed was huge. This was particularly important as when the sun was shinning it would often create very strong dappled light which would often result in blown highlights. As a result the best results were usually from overcast conditions as it meant that everything was correctly exposed, but this meant there was less light available.
To get some close ups I used the ever-present XF50-140mm utilising the wonderful sharpness at F2.8.
This was a truly incredible experience, one that I will never forget and I am so pleased that the X-Series produced photos to do the interactions justice. From the XF50-140mm to the XF10-24mm, the Fujinon lenses were exceptional across the range. We were even lucky enough to see the elephants beside a river just as the evening light reached its vivid climax.
I hope you have enjoyed this series of photos, let me know your thoughts. The X-Series is developing into a great, lightweight wildlife system, I can’t wait for the forecasted XF100-400mm to complete this fantastic system!
I have been lucky enough to be using a prototype of the XF16mm F1.4 since March and I have to say it is brilliant. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d end up using it for, but as it turns out it is an extremely flexible lens and helped to produce some shots that would otherwise have not been possible.
This particular story has a bit of an unusual beginning. The location is the Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia, I was in this region with another photographer, Christian Loader from Scubazoo who I’m currently doing some work with. I have to thank Christian for some of the photos of me here. One morning, we headed up river briefly as our guide Osmon wanted to show us something he had spotted the previous night. We slowed underneath some low lying branches. Before I knew what had happened we had come across a relatively young python and… it fell in the boat! At which point I almost jumped out, much to the amusement of the other two who have handled snakes extensively before. The snake then decided to snuggle up to my Millican Dave camera bag! They calmly caught it and we relocated it inside the forest on a nice tree branch, in return it kindly sat still allowing us to take some pictures.
The close focusing capabilities of this lens really impressed me and allowed me to get some really close wide-angle shots, allowing me to fill the frame with the python and to also capture the environment.
I used the X-T1 with the XF16mm F1.4 attached as well as a Nissin i40 flash I used a rogue flash bender. But because this would involve getting very close to the snake I decided to put the camera on a monopod and used a wireless trigger set up to keep me working at a safe distance. To stress, the snake was absolutely fine and did not once try and strike the set up. The angled screen on the X-T1 was very helpful here as it meant that I could see exactly what was in the frame, regardless of slight angle changes to composition.
Because I was using the i40 flash in TTL mode, I couldn’t shoot above 1/180sec so I had to stop down to F8 for much of the photos. The location was very dark and flat as the vast majority of the tropical sunlight is absorbed by the canopy above. Thankfully the XF16mm seems to have very quick and accurate autofocus, even in these less than ideal conditions.
In an up and coming blog I’ll show the benefit of the F1.4 aperture when photographing Pygmy Elephants.
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