I WAS in Greece for a month from mid-October and I was lucky to have fabulous weather while I was there. There was a real “Indian summer” right through the islands for the first week and though it got a bit overcast later on, I didn’t really see any rain until the day I was on the way back and, goodness me!, was there a storm then. I’m don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so ferocious.
I was returning to Athens overnight on a ferry from Crete, which involved an hour’s journey by bus to Souda Bay, near Chania. We had gone barely 10 miles when the heavens opened, with a torrent the like of which I have rarely seen in 50 years. It was so heavy that the bus ended up in a convoy behind a slow-moving police car with its orange and blue lights reflecting rhythmically off the river that the main highway had become. Most private cars just pulled off the road and waited with their hazard lights on.
When we reached Souda port the storm was directly overhead. Lightning speared a ship a hundred yards away and thunder hammered like a cannonade. And, for the first time since I took up photography seriously, I was perfectly placed to shoot a thunderstorm, as I was about to board an 11-storey ship made from about 65,000 tons of steel. But how should I shoot?
My first thought was that the lightning will act as its own illumination – it is like a huge flashgun in the sky. So I need to expose for the lightning, not for the ambient darkness. That’s good, because it means I can use an aperture small enough and a film speed slow enough for a really long exposure without over-exposing the dimly lit scene around me.
To have a chance of catching the moment, I used a wide-angle lens. For support, I used the ship’s rail and held the shutter open on B, hoping for a flash: I was lucky at the beginning that the ship was perfectly still so motion blur of the street lights opposite was not an issue, but later it began to rock very slightly, which ruined a number of shot.
The picture above was taken over 37 seconds, at an aperture of f9 and a film speed of ISO 200. The time was arbitrary, depending on when a flash happened in the general direction the camera was pointing. After that, I would release the shutter. If nothing happened after a minute or so I would close the shutter and start again (it’s astonishing how often lightning seems to strike the second you take your finger off the button!).
Getting the right exposure is partly a matter of luck. Out at sea later than night a bolt struck the sea spectacularly close to the ship, but it was so bright that the file was completely over-exposed.
Away from the land, where bright street lights will blur into streaks in a long exposure if there is any movement at all, it turns out that there is no need to support the camera. This was taken hand-held later that night, as the ship ploughed north towards Piraeus:
This one was hand-held for 19 seconds with no attempt to keep the camera still. It was dark and the camera recorded nothing until the lightning struck and froze the scene for a fraction of a millisecond (a single flash lasts for 1/20,000s, apparently, which is considerably quicker than a studio flash). Once again, I was shooting a bulb-exposure, wide-angle at f/9 and ISO 200, as that seemed to work quite well.
Obviously, there is a lot of luck in this. I took 300 shots over a period of several hours and ended up with about a dozen that were really good. I also stumbled across a curious abstract lighting effect in the clouds in one of them, that I thought looked interesting:
Finally, a word of warning: It is safe to shoot lighting from a huge ferry because hundreds of square yards of steel are in contact with the sea, acting as an earth and allowing the charge to flow round the outside of the ship. That is not true for a smaller vessels and many “weekend sailors” have been killed by lightning.