Photographing Lightning in the Pacific Northwest

by Zach Doehler 3 months ago in how to

How close is too close?

Photographing Lightning in the Pacific Northwest
"Thunderstruck" - Single Shot - 30s - f/2.8 - 18mm - ISO50 © Zach Doehler

Photographing lightning has always been a dream of mine as a landscape photographer. There have been many times that I have witnessed lightning in-person in recent years, but often I wasn't able to shoot it due to a lack of time, preparation, sometimes both. Lightning storms are very rare here where I live on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. We might get one or two annually, and when they do happen, it's often in the middle of the night when I am asleep and unaware of what's happening outside.

Unlike places out in the prairies and the mid West, we just don't really have the right conditions for good thunderstorms. It's not often humid out here, and when it rains, it often cools down any hot Summer temperatures that we may have when the sun comes out. So as you can probably tell, I am never prepared to shoot lightning where I live, simply due to the fact that it just doesn't happen!

But last week, something unexpected came about. We got lightning. And we got a whole ton of it. It was honestly the best lightning storm that we have had here on the island in over a decade. That night, over 1,600 lightning bolts struck the Southern BC coast during that intense storm. And it completely caught myself and everyone I knew off guard when it happened. The weather was supposed to be warm with sunny and cloudy conditions that night. There was no forecast for rain and there certainly wasn't any forecast for thunderstorms. But fortunately for me, the forecast was wrong. Not often am I stoked about that, but I sure was that evening!

I was having dinner with my family on the other side of town from where I live, when the lightning began. The lightning strikes started not long after sunset, and wow was that sunset ever incredible... When we noticed the skies lighting up with color, we crawled up to the roof of my parent's house to get a better look of it. It was spectacular. Even the world's most followed IG photographer thought so, he posted this image taken from his phone at a place only about a 40 minute drive from where my parents live.

Side note: If you don't follow Paul Nicklen, you really should. He is one of the best NatGeo photographers in the world. Spectacular work...

Not long after the sunset faded away, the lightning began. We could see the bolts shooting across the sky a fair distance from the house. Then after 20-30 seconds we would hear the resulting thunder. It was incredible. I wanted to go out and photograph it, but I had no idea where I'd go and all of my camera gear was across town at the house I had been moving to throughout that week. I figured any opportunity that was there to photograph the lightning was likely unattainable for me. I was simply going to have to sit back and relax...

However, this wasn't no short storm. The lightning wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. The storm was just getting bigger, louder, and more frequent. I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe I might be able to get a photograph somewhere of this lightning. But I had to get back to the other side of town and grab my gear. I also needed to figure out a good location that I could go to and get a good view of the lightning. I had no idea where it was moving and where would be the best place to go, I just decided to go with the flow.

I met up with my girlfriend and her sister and then we booked it to a local Timmies, got some hot chocolates, and then sent it to my new place. I grabbed my camera gear, made a last second decision to change the target destination of where I wanted to go to, then we headed straight for it. I decided to head down to the ocean in hopes of getting a good view of the lightning with some half-decent foregrounds. I had no idea though that this spot would be a little too good.

"Cluster of Power" - Single Shot - 30s - f/2.8 - ISO 100 - 18mm © Zach Doehler

This spot was perfect. I had excellent foregrounds, decent reflections in the calm ocean water, and an incredible view of the lightning surrounding us. But that was just the problem, the lightning was all around us. At first it seemed to be striking in one section a good distance away from us. But after about 10 minutes or so, it started striking in another direction. Then another direction after that! It didn't take long for me to start realizing that we were in the very center of this massive storm. I began to wonder to myself: How close is too close? How much do I have to push the limit in order to get the shot? This was such a special and highly anticipated moment for me, I didn't want to miss out on photographing it. But at the same time, I didn't want to risk my life and especially not the lives of my girlfriend and her sister just for a photo. I had to make a decision soon. Should we stay or should we go?

A massive bolt of lightning struck less than a kilometre away from us. The flash of light was incredibly bright and the thunder roared loudly immediately after the bolt struck the trees. That was it. That was the sign I was waiting for. Now I knew without a doubt that it was time to leave and that if we stayed any longer; it would be a fool's move. I told the girls it was time to head back to the car where it was safe and we quickly packed up and booked it out of there. Once back in the car, I looked at the back of my camera; speechless. I had never captured such an intense moment in my life before. This was something truly special. And what was more, how fortunate we were to come out of that situation unscathed.

I learned from that experience of photographing lightning that it's best to do your research beforehand, even if you never think you'll actually have the opportunity to shoot lightning. Be safe out there. Know when it's time to leave. And if you absolutely have to be outside of your vehicle in order to photograph it, tell those who are with you to stay safe inside the car and enjoy the show from there. Worst case scenario, if a bolt strikes your vehicle, the metal frame will take the charge and ground it. It may fry up your vehicle's electronics, but at least you will be safe inside!

Thanks for reading!

Stay safe out there.

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how to
Zach Doehler
Zach Doehler
Read next: 4 Ways To Find Inspiration As A Beginner Photographer
Zach Doehler

Hi! My name is Zach and I am a landscape and nature photographer from British Columbia, Canada. I look forward to sharing with you the behind-the-scenes of some of my adventures!

Website: calibreus.co

Instagram: @calibreus

See all posts by Zach Doehler