Capturing Lightning on a Cell Phone

Lightning is one of the things I look forward to most during Spring and Summer months!  I love photography and have been able to get some nice lightning strikes normally with my digital SLR camera.  Lightning on a cell phone isn’t that difficult, however, assuming you have some know-how and a more advanced camera app on your phone.  There is certainly luck involved, but a little technical knowledge and a cell phone with advanced options can allow you to catch Mother Nature’s natural fireworks!

Firstly, safety is most important.  Being on a porch or anywhere outdoors is unsafe. Being under a tree is unsafe.  Being next to a fence is unsafe.  Being close to metal underground piping is unsafe.  I think you get the point!  The safest place to photograph lightning is inside of a house (through the window) or in a vehicle with the windows up.  You don’t get wet that way either!  

Lightning photography is dangerous and lightning isn’t very forgiving (i.e. is deadly), so please be safe!  

The key to capturing lightning, given you can’t predict when it will occur, is to open the exposure on the camera so you can capture several seconds at a time.  Only certain phones allow for this, but newer Android phones seem to be leading the way–it is called “Pro Mode”.  Different phones have different options in Pro Mode:

  • Being able to open the exposure for several seconds is helpful
  • Lowering the ISO and/or aperture (f-stop) to let less light in is usually helpful, especially if it is still dusk
  • Because the camera is taking in light for a longer period of time, there is no way a human can hold the camera still, so you will need to place it on a window ledge, the ground, or something else to keep it absolutely still
  • Focus for lightning needs to be exact.  Usually your subject is (better be) far enough away that you can choose manual focus and set to infinity.

My Samsung Note 5 camera allows for control of the focus, ISO and Exposure, so I lowered the ISO to the lowest setting (not Auto), changed to manual focus and set to infinity, and chose 4 second exposures.  I then positioned the camera on the ground and/or window pane so it would be absolutely still and repeatably pushed the trigger.  If you have a rapid fire mode, this could work instead of the longer exposure as well.

Arrows (from left to right) show Pro Mode ISO, Exposure and Focus setting options.

Pro mode ISO settings

ISO at its lowest setting; tells the “film” to absorb the least amount of light (and noise) which is needed because the lightning is so bright.  If you’re finding that the lightning isn’t showing up, increase this setting to allow more light to be captured.

Pro Mode focus settings

Focus is set to infinity. Mountains is infinity and flower is macro–or up close.  Most lightning is (better be) far enough away to be considered “infinity” distance.  

Pro mode exposure settings

Exposure can go up to 10 seconds on this camera, or as quick as 1/24000th of a second.  Since lightning is so quick, all this setting is for is to make it easier to capture the lightning by having the exposure open for longer periods of time in between when you have to fire the shutter.  Great since you have no idea when it will happen. 

TIP!  Lightning tends to occur (rule of thumb, definitely not scientific) at regular intervals, so i often count the amount of seconds between each bolt.  Once I get within 1-2 seconds of when it “should” occur, I open the shutter.  I also just continuously trigger the shutter so it is open most of the time.

So now that the setup is out of the way, here are some examples of lightning I caught and some tips and tricks.

Here I had the camera placed on a light post. Notice the focus of the foreground is not tight, this is because there is too much movement in the camera over the 4 seconds the shutter is open.

Again, too blurry of a picture due to the unsteady placement of the phone.

So I switched to the sidewalk which was much more sturdy.  I also used my shoe to give something to lean against to make it more sturdy. Now the foreground is in better focus.  Lightning is still far enough away to be outside, and to not be too bright to photograph.  

Lightning still far enough away (about 10 seconds between bolt and thunder) to not completely blow out the amount of light the bolts produce. Cloud to Ground bolts will most always be brighter, as in the case with the left both that found its ground.

This anvil crawler didn’t strike ground and wasn’t too bright to be captured.

Okay, these are getting too close, not only is it dangerous but you don’t get good pictures. With the ISO setting at its lowest it is allowing the least amount of light to be captured, but still it is too much. If you had an f-stop aperture setting you’d want to close the shutter letting less light in (closing the aperture is increasing the f-stop number, by the way)…but this is a limit of my cell phone’s camera.

This one is a good capture, although it is getting a little too close for comfort, time to head inside!

 

Luckily the window was tinted a bit, or this would have been way too much light. This was just a few blocks away. The window pane and window allowed for very sturdy aids to keep the camera steady. Although in cases like this, the only light captured by the phone is coming from the lightning, so at that instant in time is the only time there was light, so sturdiness isn’t as important because I don’t have any other light sources in the field of view.

Since I was focused on infinity, the rain on the window didn’t really obscure the subject of the photo. You an see the raindrops as hexagon white blobs in the upper/center part of the photo.

Palmer Divide Lightning

Got a call from my friend Jim that we were getting some great Palmer Divide Lightning coming into our neighborhood.  He invited me over to get some shots; but I couldn’t find the camera which was put out of reach to avoid accidents while my son and friends had a video game fest!

I ended up finding the camera and quickly set up on the back porch as I didn’t have time to head over to my buddy’s place across the neighborhood.  Since this was dusk I set the exposure for one second and closed down the aperture (f11) to limit the light so I could get a longer exposure.  I then put it on rapid fire and started taking photos.  

The storm’s bolts got within about I estimate 500 feet which was a bit close but I was able to capture some shots before the rain overtook me…luckily I have a safe setup when shooting from the back porch.  The storm was hardly yellow on the radar so it was a special treat to be putting out any lightning.  

This was the closest. You can start to see the intense parts of the bolt (towards the top, the “balls” along the path) and that fizzled away by dissolving; which is really cool to see. Might be hard to imagine but if you’ve seen up close lightning you probably will know what I’m referring to.

Late Night Lightning

Been awhile since I have experienced late night lightning, but I was awake and in luck tonight, Aug 28th, 2016.  We had taken a trip to the Arkansas River valley in southern Colorado to buy Pueblo peppers and visit the state fair where my kids had participated at the State level in 4-H earlier in the week.  After a fun but long day we came home and I started peeling the skins off of our many bushels of peppers; this usually goes well into the night!  Just as I was finishing bushel #1, there were flashes in the sky; at first I thought it was a car going by but to my delight a storm was passing by to our south.

The insects were having a symphony in the front yard and the only man-made noise was a train passing by a 1/2 mile or so away (lots of squeaks and metal on metal scrapes) so I recorded some of the ambience while enjoying it.  Meanwhile the lightning was becoming more frequent, so i jumped in the car and headed for vistas out of the trees.  I ended up driving about 5 miles south of Larkspur and sat on top of a hill overlooking the Spruce Meadows Open Space at Greenland and watched the show.

I enjoy taking pictures of lightning with power lines, and these were carrying a lot of electricity so I figured it would be perfect foreground for lightning shots.  Given it was raining and the lightning was fairly close, I decided to shoot from within the truck.  I have been getting better at holding the camera fairly steady with the iris open, these were 6 second shots at ISO 800, f/11, focus at infinity.  I was using a wide angle lens.

To remove the rain from the windshield I need to have the wipers on; sometimes there are drops in the shot but that goes with the territory; not much I can do about that given it is raining.  Luckily the lightning is so quick and otherwise it is dark (no light) so most of the shots you don’t see the wipers.  Then it is just a waiting game, reviewing the pictures to ensure the field of view is what is expected.  Unfortunately the lightning was infrequent, about 90 seconds apart, so I got a lot of black pictures I had to delete later.

As always, click on the photo for a larger size.

Lightning

Interesting placement of the bolt and the tower, I wish I could say it was planned, but nothing about that shot was planned; all luck…and being in the right place at the right time!

Lots o lightning

Lots going on in this shot, it was very bright!

Anvil Crawler Lightning

One of the last anvil crawler style bolts of the evening, just before midnight; the last one was massive (there was about 5 minutes between it and the previous) and it was so bright and long that I moved the camera (I have to admit I was getting tired and it startled me) and the picture was blurred/jittery.

Upward Streamer Lightning

Close-up of the previous shot (lower right) showing three upward streamers, the right most one got the return strike but was a bit off from the original streamer (or there were 4).

Colorado Lightning

If only we could harness that…looks like it almost tapped us!

b&w lightning photo

Cool black and white shot, south Douglas County Colorado, Aug 28th about 11:30pm.

July storms

Been out chasing and spotting storms a couple of times in June.  I also got a call from the NWS about a storm passing through Larkspur, but of course we were away from home in Englewood and I could only spot from afar…

This first storm system was June 13th.  I was all over this day, playing the southern part of the Palmer Divide and then heading to Northeast Colorado calling it off around Yuma.

Yoder wind farm and wall cloud

This storm had a huge wall cloud that was dragging the ground, but I couldn’t see any rotation. There was plenty of rotation with these windmills, though, near Yoder.

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The storm changed quite a bit near Calhan, a nice little scud cloud swirled up and then disappeared into the storm.

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The two cells collided and became tornado warned near Fort Morgan.

Brush Inflow

As the two cell collided in Morgan County, this was the initial inflow component to the storm. It had been tornado warned for about 30 minutes at this time.

Brush Colorado Tornado Warned Storm

The storm I followed off the Palmer Divide collided with another storm in Morgan County. Thus there were two inflow sections to this storm for a while, this was the second, over Brush while the storm was tornado warned.

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Severe warned storm near Akron.

Akron Inflow

Right under the inflow scud, I love this part of the storm as the clouds are low and quickly moving as they form and then get sucked up into the storm

Cloud painting near Yuma.

Great cloud textures with this storm near Yuma.

Upward Streamer Lightning

Caught some lightning near Last Chance; this one was cool as there was a tower and some upward streamers and cloud to cloud lightning. I can’t believe they didn’t connect; they did the next time!

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On June 19th a set of storms formed on the Palmer Divide.  There were two storms where I lived.  The first was a bit north and was great viewing from the back porch.  Most bolts were in the cloud, every now and then a spike would be seen and I was able to capture several of them.  The last storm that formed west of me was putting down very little lightning and didn’t show much on radar.  The lightning was good cloud-to-cloud anvil crawlers though.  I timed them, they were between 4.5 and 5 minutes apart, on average.  I was able to capture one, and it was the last one of the storm which dissipated overhead!

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A spike coming directly towards the camera.

Larkspur lightining

One of the few remaining bolts from this short-lived cell.

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Larkspur anvil crawler.

The last lightning from this storm as it sparked overhead!

As this storm died, I jumped in the car and headed back out to check out the previous storm from one of my favorite lookouts in eastern Douglas County, about 15 minutes away. The storm became severe warned for half-dollar sized hail, but in spotting it I only saw nickel sized hail.  Watched the storm until after midnight as it entered Elbert County and then headed home.

Fireflies and lightning

East Douglas County, you can’t see them, but the field was filled with fireflies!

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Eastern Larkspur Barn

A cool barn I pass just east of Larkspur. It is pretty this time of year!

Another storm came to me on June 28th.  This one had some neat lowerings that were right overhead.

Larkspur storm

Looking straight up in the front yard.

Larkspur Storm

Same formation but from the back porch.

larkspur storm clouds

Loved the colors and motion of this storm!

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This storm put down some lightning and light rain at Devils Head, but didn’t end up doing much other than looking spectacular as it flowed across the Palmer Divide.  Taken from Jackson Creek road, overlooking Castle Rock.

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Late May Storm

There have been several great stormy days here in Colorado in early May; but my schedule has prevented me from chasing on those good days.  I’ve been itching to get out; and luckily we had a good day before we left for our family vacation!

Got several lucky shots of lightning

My son and I got an opportunity to head out on May 26th.  We targeted Limon and decided we’d then go where the storms popped up as the forecast was difficult.  The storms fired along the Colorado front range early in the day; and put down some hail, but those storms were moving due north and had already formed a line; so we punched through and continued to our target.  Once in Limon, we saw some development to the south and headed that way to check them out.

The weather was strange, it was pretty chilly (about 52 degrees) and nothing was going up discreet.  We stopped at the first storm and noted a wall cloud feature on a storm, so we watched it.  It did have a little rotation; but just as it was looking good the inflow got cut off and the storm turned into a massive rainy mess.  So we left it and headed Southeast towards the front end of the cells.

Early wall cloud, temp was about 50 degrees.

Early wall cloud, temp was about 51 degrees.

A small amount of rotation.

A small amount of rotation as this wall cloud continued

We were able to see a small, short lived funnel near Wild Horse and as we were heading south towards some great looking structure near Kit Carson the storm overtook us.  There was a tornado spotted from this cell but traffic was pretty hairy and we ended up abandoning that storm and heading north.  We saw some great lightning, Hunter actually saw a positive bolt from the top of a tower which is great; I’ve never seen one of those.  By the time we got north of I-70, the front edge of the storms were all out by the Kansas border, and we decided to not pursue those into Kansas and instead just watch the remaining daytime lightning south of Yuma and then head home.

A funnel was forming; I rushed back to the car to ensure Hunter could see it; but by then it had dissipated. It went about 1/2 way to the ground, but was just a small finger.

Here a funnel was forming, but I didn’t get a shot of it as it was 1/2 way to the ground as I was rushing back to the car to ensure Hunter saw it!  It lasted for just a minute or two; but the coulds were all active in this area.

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Interesting structure as the storm overtook us

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Aroya historic school house!

The Aroya historic school house was in use until the early 1960s.

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The greens are beautiful this time of year!

South of Yuma we caught up to the last lightning of the evening.  We parked next to a grain bin and under these power lines; ended up getting some great day lightning photos; I was holding the camera by hand and was surprised this technique actually worked as it wasn’t dark yet!

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April 25 2016 First Thunderstorm of the Spring

We’ve been having an active spring with some large multi-day snow storms.  There were forecasted storms for the afternoon into the evening and the early evening was dry, yet cold.  It didn’t seem like thunderstorm weather.  But about 7:30pm, a storm formed near the Air Force Academy moving northeast.

As the storm entered castle rock it started to produce lightning and hail.  A true thunderstorm!  I tried to hang out on the periphery of the storm to get out of the rain and have more to see; but the shape and direction of the storm didn’t have a dry option.

Castle Rock hail

Nickel sized hail on the SW side of town

In the hopes to get out of the rain/hail I jetted north with the target of the Castle Pines area, I have a couple of nice vantage points in that area that were hopefully west of the storm and providing some cool views of the lightning.  As I was driving through Castle Rock the hail got quite big, I’d estimate quarter size, but it was rather soft and mushy.  The National Weather Service issues a Severe Thunderstorm warning for the area due to this; I wanted to size the hail and provide a report; but I was not in a good position to stop.

After the storm passed over I was able to get some lightning shots; but due to it still raining I couldn’t use a tripod, but the lighting was too close for me to get out of the car.  I watched the storm as it moved over Aurora and then another cell formed to the south and east, heading east of Parker.  Lots of great in-cloud lightning illuminated the storm and sheets of rain.  Although not a supercell or a huge storm, it was fun to watch the first thunderstorm of the year here on the western Palmer Divide!

Castle Pines Lightning

Cool lightning both over Castle Pines

Tangled Lightning

Cloud to cloud lightning protruding out of the back end of the storm, likely looking directly into a bolt appearing as tangled electricity.

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Parker Lightning

Lightning over south Parker

Parker Lightning

Lightning over Parker

Autumn Larkspur Lightning

As a large trough comes digging into Colorado bringing much cooler fall weather, we were treated with some autumn thunderstorms and lightning.  I was able to capture some of these bolts during the heavy rain inside my car.  All were taken with the camera hand-held, so focus on a couple is a bit blurry; but overall pretty good given the proximity, the amount of rain, and the varied distances.

These first few were directly overhead so I was only able to capture parts; not the whole bolt.

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tn_LarkspurLightning_Oct20-4490As the storm slowly moved north, I was able to readjust the vehicle and focus; a couple were a little closer than I was expecting so the focus was a bit out, but overall not too bad especially for hand-holding the camera.  Focus is difficult with lightning every time!tn_LarkspurLightning_Oct20-4492 tn_LarkspurLightning_Oct20-4513 tn_LarkspurLightning_Oct20-4527 tn_LarkspurLightning_Oct20-4535

Early October Lightning

It was great to see some early October lightning, although it has been bone dry for the last two months.  A small cell was putting down some lightning southwest of here (west of the Air Force Academy) but I was home with the kids while Erin was out.  That storm died by the time it cleared the Rampart Range, but another storm formed directly east of us that started to look good, so I grabbed the camera and drove out to a place I could watch the show.

There was only a bolt every 3-5 minutes, probably a total of 10 bolts total which I missed about half of getting to my vantage point, but they were all on my side of the storm and had very intense stepped leaders.  All were cloud to ground making some nice photo opportunities. As soon as the storm formed, it dissipated, so you had to be in the right place at the right time for this one!

All pictures taken from Bear Dance Road and Tomah Road between Larkspur and Castle Rock looking North.  Click for larger images.

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Rural Colorado Lightning

I love the monsoon season, because 30% chance of thunderstorms means there will be one within 30 minutes of where I live; it is the way living atop the Palmer Divide usually works!  I drove about 10 minutes south of home and was able to capture these tonight.  Not as close as yesterday’s lightning by any means, but still pretty cool.  Again, cell phone and daytime pictures so quality is appropriate, daytime lightning is much harder to photograph, especially getting the stepped leaders!  What will tomorrow bring?Rampart Range Lightning Rampart Range Lightning Rampart Range Lightning Rampart Range Lightning

 

Castle Pines Lightning

The monsoon is in effect here in Colorado, like it always is in late-July and/or early-August (which I love) as I can capture some great lightning photos. Nice thundershowers each afternoon cool it down and make just fantastic evening/night conditions (and also keep the landscape green, which is a challenge here this time of year)! I was driving home from work which is normally 45 minutes but yesterday ended up being over 2 hours. As I was in the stop-go routine, an oncoming storm with very frequent cloud-to-ground lightning was encroaching. Luckily, the traffic ended up thinning out just in time to miss the core of the precipitation which would have made the drive even longer, ugh!

I travelled to the next exit and got off to take some pretty close, daytime lightning photos. This is with my cell phone, but surprising got some really nice shots! All of these bolts were between a mile and two away.

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Castle Pines Lightning

This one is interesting I feel because it shows the end of the initial discharge and the start of the second return stroke.