Lightning over the pier

It’s been for some time that I planned to take photos of a thunderstorm over the Orłowo pier. Earlier I tried to get some luck at the breakwater in Górki Zachodnie but the only thing I achieved on that July evening was the confirmation that a waterproof jacket can get totally drenched. Having my photos in mind, I kept checking the weather on ICM everyday, so I expected thunderstorms on Friday. Visiting Gdynia on that day, I received alerts about intensive lightning discharges every several minutes, so I decided to head to the pier.

When I go to a specific location, I try to plan what I will be shooting – since it often happens that the moment to catch the sun or some optical phenomenon is so short that it makes sense to be prepared and not to deliberate about the perspective or equipment settings because it unnecessarily takes time. I planned a frame where the pier runs in the middle of the photo. Even though it is possible to try a more creative take, I decided for the most routine variant, which I had often repeated myself in this location in various weather conditions. In this picture, the focal point was to be the lightning – not a creative shot of the pier. Nevertheless, this composition of the frame requires precision if all objects in the photo are to be spaced evenly. As this was not the first time I visited the pier, I knew that the deck was built of 48 planks – and therefore you could get an ideally straight positioning of the tripod when you placed the forefront leg between planks no. 24 and 25 and the two other ones symmetrically behind it 🙂 Such geometry guarantees that the pier’s axis of symmetry will be placed centrally in the whole frame and none of the barriers or lampposts will be skewed. And you may now think what a useless piece of knowledge it is, but if you get up at 4 a.m. to be on location at 5 a.m. and if lighting conditions can change over just 15 seconds or so, there is definitely no time to be spend dancing lambada with your tripod trying to find the centre of the pier 🙂 I prefer to count to 24 and be sure that the tripod is placed centrally. And, despite the fact that this time I wasn’t taking the photos at dawn, this knowledge was equally useful, because the thunderstorm was moving fast towards Orłowo and in several minutes’ time I wouldn’t be able to shoot such a picture.

With this concept in mind, there was only one possible choice – an ultra-wide angle lens, to get as much of the sky into the frame as possible, and a fragment of the pier to close the image at the bottom of the frame. Therefore, I reached for 16-35 mm f/4L mounted on a full frame Canon 6D Mk II. By my feeling I estimated that the photograph should get about 4 seconds exposure time in order to make the lightning sufficiently visible. I began the photo session about 4:30 p.m. so it was still quite light despite the cloud cover. After mounting two filters – a neutral grey and a graduated filter, I set the other parameters of the exposure in such a way that I reduced ISO to 50 and closed the aperture to f/14. With a standard ISO 100 the aperture hole would be too small, while f/14 guaranteed the depth of field across almost the whole frame and sufficiently high resolution. Unfortunately the Cokin filter mount I use is too narrow and with short focal lengths (16-20 mm) its edge gets into the frame. Because of that, when editing the photograph I have to cut the sides of the frame.

I set the focal length to 16 mm, straightened up the frame and took the trial picture. After a quick visual check, I adjusted the graduated filter, wiped the glass, secured the lens under an umbrella and started taking pictures in continuous mode with the interval set at one second. When I was taking the first continuous picture a huge lightning stroke. The thunder and the flash happened at the same moment, the lightning stroke some 100 metres next to me, close to the characteristic yellow buoy at the pier. I stopped the interval, to check what I had in the frame. It was almost ideal, even though with such positioning of the lightning it was a pity that the lens had not pointed slightly more upwards. But I knew that it was THE picture and I could finish my session after just 5 minutes, especially as, at that moment, a downpour started. I stayed put because I hoped that there will be another opportunity to catch a spectacular photo. Unfortunately, the thunderstorm started to go away and my fight with the umbrella ended in a defeat – next time I will get equipped with some sort of a canopy with a lightning conductor 🙂

Even though I managed to catch yet more several lightning strokes on almost 150 shots, all others have disqualifying defects compared to the photo I have published. When editing the photo I made small changes – standard correction of the lens profile, geometry and cutting the frame, and subtly increasing the contrast, level and tone balance, and filters – gradient (darkening the sky) and brush (the light from the lightning because it was overexposed in several places; finally subtly darkening the 48 🙂 planks of the pier). 

When posted on the Instagram, the photo got over 1000 likes – as the first of my over 500 posts! Thanks! I also received several questions from you asking how I took that photo and what post-production was like, so I decided to write about it on my blog. Wiktor asked me whether I hadn’t wanted to edit colours more. No, because as I explained above, the photograph was about the lightning and not about making the Baltic Sea look as Carribean 🙂 Plus, I didn’t want to improve the lightning in Photoshop nor to combine several lightnings from other frames in one photo. Piotr asked whether the frame is not blurred. I admit that I was slightly afraid of that when I started Lightroom, because the thunder shook the pier a bit, yet fortunately the focus is sharp! Of course image stabilisation was switched off because I shot from a tripod.

The area around the Orłowo pier is usually teeming with people, but at dawn, when I most often take my pictures, or in a weather like that shown in the photo, there are never any crowds 🙂 And the best thing about landscape photography is that I will visit the same location most likely again but I won’t take another photograph like this.