Photographing lightning is something that we’ve been asked about several times since posting this picture on our social media, so here’s how it was taken.
Firstly, the location choice. Due to the unpredictable nature of lightning it is very difficult to judge where the next flash is going to be in your photo. As such, Mow Cop Castle was chosen as a subject for 3 main reasons.
1) It is accessible and reasonably photogenic from any angle, so it didn’t matter where the lightning was, it would be possible to get a shot of the castle with lightning behind it.
2) At night, while it's hard to see with the naked eye, unedited lightning can create a distinctly purple colour cast. Mow Cop Castle is surrounded by heather, which flowers at this time of year, allowing for a matching purple colour scheme for the image.
3) Mow Cop is close to home, so before setting off, we could be certain that there would be lightning at the castle when we got there.
One final advantage of Mow Cop Castle specifically is that there is a tall phone mast nearby that is (in theory) more likely to get struck than the castle and transmitted through the wet ground to people and expensive cameras!
Once a location was chosen, it became a matter of guessing where the next lightning strike would be in the frame (be watching the storm move behind the castle), and picking an angle that would provide a compelling composition, while also featuring the lightning strike.
The camera was then set to continuously take 10 second exposures (this method ends up using a lot of card space, but means that you don’t end up missing a good strike), at an appropriate sensitivity to catch the lightning in the background, without it being too bright in order to maintain the detail in the clouds. On the night, there were very few visible ‘forks’ of lightning, mostly the flashes were just clouds being lit up - as such, when I got the sky in this shot (having already been out in the rain trying to get a decent shot for 2 hours), I decided that I’d be unlikely to get a better shot than this.
Once the sky was captured, in order to show off the colour of the flowers, a second shot at a much brighter exposure level was taken in the same manner from the same place, waiting for a strike to light up the foreground. It is theoretically possible to do this shot in a single exposure, however this would rely on a perfect exposure and would result in a very dark foreground. Dark areas of an image can be brightened in software, however this can degrade image quality once brightened past a certain point - so in order to preserve at much fine detail/colour graduation a two shot method was preferable in this case.
The end result was created by blending these two images together using photoshop, with minimal colour correction, dodging and burning and sharpening.
In an ideal world, I would have preferred to have got a bright ‘fork’ of lightning, however on the night the single and only fork lightning strike I witnessed was the one that I used to light the foreground of this image, which struck off the frame to the right (and set off about 10 house alarms around Mow Cop I think).
Prints of this image are available on request, please use the contact form on this website or message us through our social media.
Canon 5D Mark IV with EF 11-24mm f/4L Lens
ISO 3200, 5s, f/4 (foreground)
ISO 400, 5s f/4 (sky)