When Lightning Strikes

AEO Lightning Strike – Firsts Looks

Murchison   Jun 2011 2020

I’ve often admired some amazing photographs of lightning and although I’ve read plenty on the technique of how to achieve such shots I’ve never had any success myself. All my attempts have been a complete disaster even when I’ve know the shutter was open when the lightning flashed.

It seems the generally accepted technique is to put the shutter speed on Bulb and leave it open for a certain length of time. Of course it goes without saying that you need to have your camera securely mounted on a sturdy tripod and use use a cable release too.

However, even after that, picking the right exposure can be tricky depending whether your shooting in the day or night and knowing where to focus can be problematic too, especially if it’s dusk or night and you have some foreground interest too. Many of the shots you see online are purely of the lightning, but as landscape photographers we wish to incorporate other aspects of the landscape within our composition, not just the lightning.

The Lightning Trigger

About a couple of years ago I became aware of a device called the ‘Lightning Trigger‘ made by a company called Stepping Stone Products, LLC in Colorado. Thisfirst came to my attention while watching Steve Kossaks DVD on Death Valley. Steve also posted a review of the Lightning Trigger on the Luminous Landscape web site which can be viewed here. The Lightning Trigger is a small rectangular shaped device, rather similar in size to one of those portable 2-1/2″ hard drives, that slots onto the hotshoe of your DSLR and has a cable that plugs into the remote cable socket. It comprises a sensitive optical flash sensor that responds to lightning flashes which it can supposedly detect at distances of up to 20 miles away in day light and 40 miles at night. Often our eyes and brain can only visualise a single flash of a lightning strike, but each strikes can last several hundred milliseconds and comprise multiple strikes occurring around 40 milliseconds apart. The Lightning Trigger depends on this and reacts to the first strike and opens the shutter enabling following strikes to be captured. All this depends on the reaction speed of the device and how quickly your camera responds, but most cameras react within 90 milliseconds and some are almost instantaneous.

I must admit I was sorely tempted by such a device as I have been travelling backwards and forwards to the Lake Albert region of Uganda for the last 4 years, and where we are often treated to spectacular storms during the rainy season. However at $329 and only available from the US, by the time I’d paid VAT and import tax this would be a very expensive purchase indeed. My desires to own such a device were therefore put on hold.

The AEO Lightning Strike

imageJust over a year ago I found a very similar device available on eBay called the AEO Lightning Strike. This was developed by a father and son team of the Adams Electo-Optics Photo Company and for all intents and purposes seemed almost identical to the Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger. Once more, it was considerable cheaper at only $100, which included shipping to the UK. At just over 60 quid at the time I thought this was worth a punt and duly clicked the buy-now button. It arrived reasonable well packaged several days later in a plain brown box containing just the Lightning Strike and one printed page of rather brief instructions. The device was rather plain simple looking affair, housed in a solid black plastic case, with a large on-off button in the centre of the top, with a small red LCD next to it. You have to order a device specific to your camera, so the 8-inch lead on mine had a canon fitting. I wouldn’t say the device looked crude, a little unrefined is perhaps a fairer description, as the remote socket plug doesn’t look the best quality, but with a bit of wiggling around it fits. It’s certainly a solid construction however. The underside has a plastic hotshoe fitting centrally mounted and a cover that houses a 9v rectangular battery compartment. The front a has red plastic screen housing the detector.

First Attempts

Murchison (Jun 2011) 2062

That was last May (2010) and sadly until then the Lightning Strike has sat in my Camera bag waiting for an opportunity to use it. Sadly no storms of note occurred around my home back in the UK, but last night in Uganda, the Lightning Strike was christened. A huge storm passed nearby the rig I have been working on and the distant lightning seemed too perfect to resist. The instructions included with my device suggested using shutter priority and exposure from 1/8 to 1/4 of a second, set to manual focus and focus at infinity. However, I had the rig in my foreground so focused on that, and set the speed to 1/4. However, that resulted in most of my shots being shot wide open at F2.8, which although resulted in the derrick being sharp, the lightning in the distances was rendered a little soft. However, the device worked pretty dam well and I have to say I’m impressed with my first attempts. Next time I’ll try aperture priority and use F8 or F11 if I have something in the foreground. You don’t really have to be worried how long your exposure is going to be as long as you don’t exceed the 30 second limit for Av and Tv modes.

New Models

The AEO Lightning Strike is now only available in version II, which has had a bit of a make-over since my version, and includes a battery and you can fit optional plug-in cables. Sadly with the improvements has come a price hike and it’s now $132; quite a bit more expensive but looking at the many videos on You Tube it’s certainly appears to be a more refined product. The company has obviously met with some success and they now offer 2 additional models, one which includes a pelican case and manual override of sensitivity (LS Trigger Plus), and a professional model (AEO Multi-Trigger Pro) which includes a 10m motion sensor. The aren’t cheap however, and currently retail for $232 and $360 respectively so are probably only for professional storm chasers!

Murchison (Jun 2011) 2076

Alternatives

A similar device called the Strike Finder can be purchased from here, which currently retails at around $125. The site also includes a nice video of you the trigger in action in a real storm and the results it produces. There is also the PatchMaster Lightning Trigger that can be obtained from a mere $107, and they also do a version which includes a sound trigger for $152. PatchMaster products seems to originate from Turkey and I did find a few negative reviews around where they have been dead-on-arrival, but at that price they certainly seem worth a try.

Summary

Murchison (Jun 2011) 2072

I’m very pleased with my AEO Lightning Strike trigger. It works well and my first attempts are quite pleasing. It’s opened up another area of photography for me to pursue and will hold a regular place in my camera backpack from now on. If I had anything to criticize or to say to the makers of these devices it’s the batteries, 9v batteries are an awkward size, and not one we photographers tend to carry around in out kit bags, 4 x AA would be a much better option, but I guess that would take some design changes. All in all there certainly appears to be more choice of lightning triggers around now, making this a more affordable option for the amateur photographer.

Verdict

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