A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy dissects the process that led to catching lightning with a 35mm camera.
I have always wanted to photograph a lightning bolt mid-strike—for real, not using a “pre-stricken” film like the Revolog. No offense to the joys of unpredictable surprises that show up on film, but I wanted the real thing, an honest-to-goodness lightning strike during an electric storm, preferably in some fabulous landscape which would make the whole shot even more dramatic.
Whidbey Island, where I live, gets plenty of rain but thunder-and-lightning storms are very rare. I happened to catch one on the beach two summers ago with only a Holga in my hand, and I took a few shots with really interesting and unusual light but certainly no lightning bolts. So I always look for big storms when I am traveling.
I’ve been caught with cameras loaded in electric storms in Buenos Aires, and I’m sure I must have looked like quite the lunatic, out in the open under a veritable deluge, trying to nail THE shot. This past February, during the hottest summer the city had known since 1906, I was treated to several of these storms. What usually happens there is, as temperatures rise and the weather gets hotter and muggier (“heavy” weather as it is known locally), a dramatic electric storm ensues and, hopefully, “cleans” the air. Temperatures go down, it gets a little easier to breathe, and then the whole cycle starts again.
From my Mom’s 6th floor apartment, the balcony provides a very open panoramic view (about 200º) looking east. After seeing a new storm forming on an unbearably hot mid-afternoon, perhaps the fourth such storm in less than two weeks, I wondered if I shouldn’t try shooting it. I had been photographing downtown that same morning without much joy, but it meant most of my many cameras were loaded, mid-roll-and using a variety of rolls and speeds. My first idea was to load a roll of Velvia 50 into a Randy-Smith-made Holga pinhole (approximately f135), and use gaffer’s tape to secure it to the bars protecting my Mother’s 6th floor balcony.
Then came the deluge, starting on the west but rotating rapidly, as these storms sometimes do. The Holga pinhole seemed absolutely perfect because there is no lens, plastic or not, that could get wet or messed up. I was hoping that by having the “shutter open” for a significant amount of time I would surely land a lightning bolt in the sky.
The whole show lasted about two hours, during which the massive clouds moved from the southwest to the northeast. Even though I was under cover of the above balcony, I got thoroughly soaked. Undeterred, I went in and out, getting every single one of the cameras I had. I figured the more I shot, with as much of a variety of lenses and films, I would increase my chances of catching a bolt mid-strike.
As I watched, I thought I could begin to detect a pattern: there would be a soft far-away show of mauve and pink lights in the far distance, behind the cloud cover, then 10 to 15 seconds later, the lightning bolt would strike from that direction—and then we’d get the boom of thunder. I had the Pentax K 1000 loaded with a roll of Lomo Color Negative 100, measured the general level of light, and it gave me a 1/8 second shot wide open at f2.8.
The tail-end of a bolt, center image and behind the building. Pentax K1000.
After the rain stopped, I went back inside to deal with my rolls, taking notes about what I had used, drying cameras, until I looked up and noticed the most extraordinary light in the wake of the storm and a faint rainbow to boot. I went out to the balcony again, pointed south and using the balcony railing as a support, I finished the roll in the Pentax.
Images achieved with the Holga pinhole? Zilch! Taping a camera to the balcony railings in the midst of the storm, just to see if maybe, perhaps, please? Priceless. But as you can see from all of the images in this tipster, the most successful ones in catching the lightning were taken with the Pentax K1000, 28mm lens, stopped to its widest f2.8, with Lomography 35mm film 100 iso. I love the images I took with the LC-A 120 and the LC-A+ in the previous storms, but if you are trying to catch that rare photographic unicorn, the lightning bolt in action, I believe one is better served by a solid mechanical camera like the Pentax K with a wider lens. Obviously, a more luminous lens, say a 1.4 or 1.2, would have served even better, even if it had not been as wide. If I keep trying to second-guess myself, I can probably beat myself up for not shooting the storm with a 400 iso film in the Pentax, which would have given me better speeds. Perhaps the opening shot would not have been blurred, who knows. I will keep trying every chance I have. But one thing I know for sure: whether I ever manage to catch another one or not, the lightning bolt shot is off my bucket list.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.