Using 4K Video for Lightning Photography

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One of the oldest tricks in the storm chasing book on getting a lightning photo has been to extract a still from a video. This method of lightning photography hasn’t result in the greatest quality for years — but thanks to 4K video we are beginning to see this method of capturing lightning really become a bit more viable.

The 4K Revolution

4K video, featuring 4x more pixels than a simple 1080p image, allows for each still frame of video to be an 8mp still.

To let that sink in for a bit, most starter SLR cameras just 7-8 years ago started in the 6-10mp range. Now, you can get 4K cameras which can shot 30-60 still images a second at 8mp.

That huge jump in revolution allows for more creativity when it comes to lightning photography.

Lightning from a supercell in the Texas Panhandle in July of 2016. This is a 4K video still.

How Its Done

The simple way to do lightning photography with a 4K video camera is to simply point the camera at a scene and let it roll. You’ll capture each strike that happens (most likely). And that’s all well and good but there are some special considerations to take into account.

First, if you capture a 20 minute clip with 3 strikes of lightning, how are you going to find it in the clip?

Second, what about rolling shutter? Let’s answer both.

Finding the Lightning

There are a variety of methods for marking clips. I think there are two really good ways to mark a clip when lightning is observed.

First get a notebook and a pen. I think you know where this next bit is going, simply write down when lightning is observed in a clip. If you’ve record 4 minutes and 15 seconds and a lightning strike happens, simply write that down. You’ll have that as a reference to find the lightning you shot later.

However, if you are easily distracted like me another simple solution is to make a loud clapping like noise when you see lightning. Then you can scroll through your audio timeline and look for the audio pattern of the clapping you made. It sounds silly, and I probably look like a loon, but its quite effective in doing a quick scroll through a video.

But you may look silly, so buyer beware.

Rolling Shutter

Ever since cameras went from CCD sensors to CMOS, getting rolling shutter artifacts in lightning video has been a constant problem. If you want your lightning photography to come from video, you need to come up with a good compromise.

If your shutter is set too fast, you’ll get results like this:

The cons of rolling shutter in lightning photography
Rolling shutter from a lightning strike near Payson, AZ in July 2016.

This is a case where I had the shutter speed just a hair too fast.

How do you fix it? Simply make sure your shutter is somewhere at 1/30 of a second or below.

It is important to note that getting rid of the bright banding with lightning is not always possible, and the closer and brighter the strike the more likely you are to have this happen no matter what.

Another important note about setting your shutter speed down is that it will help actually pick up the strikes a bit better. A shutter speed that is too fast can actually result in quicker single strokes completely not showing up.

When I Use Video vs. Photos

I have found that I like using 4K video vs. more traditional stills when the lightning is especially bright. Another is when I’d like to get a video timelapse with audio as well.

Another situation that I don’t particularly mind pulling stills from are tornadoes or hailstorms. But when it comes to lightning, grabbing a 4K still and processing it will definitely help your cause.

Using 4K video for Lightning PHotography
Saguaro Cactus and lightning triple strike NW of Phoenix, AZ. July 2016.

The Cons of This Method of Lightning Photography

Simply put: quality. First off you are most likely trading a camera shooting 20mps or more for 8mp stills. That’s a lot less resolution to work with when post-processing.

Also, you are most likely giving up RAW formats for JPEG. That means that you are giving up a lot of image data which you could edit with. That’s a big problem when it comes to the end product. No matter what your end image will be worse than a RAW image could have been.

However, the pro to this con is simply that quality is more than good enough for social media or even web posting.