Photographing a Stormy Night in the Outer Banks

First in a series on the Outer Banks

Jockey Ridge in the Outer Banks has the highest dunes in the eastern United States. Infrared. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011
Jockey Ridge in the Outer Banks has the highest dunes in the eastern United States. Infrared. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011

In the summer of 2011, some friends invited me to join them for a few days in Rodanthe, a town in the Outer Banks (colloquially known as OBX).  They had rented a vacation home for a week and had a spare bedroom part of the time.  This was a great opportunity, since hotels and vacation rentals are pricy in OBX (especially in the summer season) and would have been quite unaffordable for a solo traveler of my means.

Public transportation to OBX is not a practical option; there are no nearby train stations or major airports, and most visitors need a car once they get there.  I made the drive from northern Delaware in about eight hours, stopping only once to get coffee at a snack bar in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.  Traffic was light except the congested area around Norfolk, Virginia.

The Outer Banks refer to the barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina.  In some places, like Kill Devil Hills, the islands are quite wide and substantial.  In other places, like Rodanthe, the islands are wide enough only for the highway (North Carolina-12) and a few houses on either side.  Our rental was located facing the Atlantic Ocean, right next to the photogenic vacation home known as Serendipity.

Serendipity looking a bit less isolated than in the motion picture that made it famous
OBX’s most famous vacation home, looking a bit less isolated than in the motion picture that made it famous

Serendipity, it turns out, was used for exterior shots of the inn that is the setting for the 2008 film Nights in Rodanthe, starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane.  I hadn’t heard of the film before my trip, but I made a point of watching it afterward.  As I might have suspected given that the film is based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, Nights in Rodanthe is laughably bad.  For me, the movie’s high point comes in the first few minutes, when establishing shots of OBX brought back fond memories of my visit.  It was all downhill from there as I watched the sappy story unfold of a doctor haunted by a botched surgery striking up a romance with the caretaker of his inn.

Though the romantic portion of the plot stretches credibility, I will admit that the climax of the film—where Gere and Lane’s characters work together to help the inn weather a storm—is by no means implausible given OBX’s vulnerability to hurricanes and nor’easters.  Indeed, Serendipity was damaged by a storm the year following the film’s release.  Were it not for the film, the house might have been demolished.  Instead, it was restored and relocated a short distance.

Waterspout dissipating over Pamlico Sound
Waterspout dissipating over Pamlico Sound

Though I found neither romance nor catharsis in Rodanthe during my own visit, I did get a few tastes of OBX’s unpredictable weather.  At one point, my friends spotted a waterspout over Pamlico Sound, the body of water to the west of Rodanthe (the opposite side from the Atlantic Ocean).  Though some waterspouts are powerful (they just happen to be tornadoes that end up over water), most waterspouts are rather weak and can occur in fair weather.  I drove down NC-12 to find a vantage point with a clear view, only to see the waterspout dissipate immediately after I found one.

Calm before the storm: The moon illuminating the Atlantic Ocean. 10:28pm EDT, 8 second exposure @ f4, ISO-400, focal length 24mm
Calm before the storm: The moon illuminating the Atlantic Ocean. 10:28pm EDT, 8 second exposure @ f/4, ISO-400, focal length 24mm

The night of Thursday, August 11, 2011, began quietly. My friends and I drove south away from the lights of Rodanthe to stargaze in a dark area off NC-12.  The Outer Banks have very dark skies and the Milky Way was visible, something that’s always a treat considering the light pollution at home that drowns out all but the brightest stars.  In the distance, miles away to the south, the beacon of Cape Hatteras Light cut across the sky.  As we watched the stars and fought mosquitos, there were occasional flashes of lightning with no thunder audible.  When I was growing up, we called that “heat lightning.”  Now, of course, I know that there is no such thing and it’s merely lightning that’s so distant that the sound of thunder doesn’t carry.

One good thing about traveling by car was that I had equipment I wouldn’t have taken if I was traveling by train or plane.  The most vital such piece of equipment was my sturdy Manfrotto tripod.  As an amateur photographer, I generally don’t believe tripods are worth the weight and decreased mobility when they have to be carried while traveling.  I prefer to use The Green Pod, a light beanbag that screws onto the camera in the same place as a tripod would.  That’s not quite as effective as a tripod because it must be placed on a firm surface high enough off the ground to compose the photo (or placed on the ground itself, which was particularly tricky in the days before live view or flip out LED displays).  In this case though, I had put my tripod in my trunk in anticipation of opportunities for sunrise and star photography.

Distant lightning
Distant lightning.  10:39pm, 25 seconds @f/4, ISO-200, 28mm

We returned to the beach house.  It soon became clear that a storm was blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.  I was excited to have all the essentials to attempt lightning photography: a tripod, a sheltered vantage place, low ambient light, frequent lightning strikes, and an unobstructed view.  At this point I should probably mention that for an amateur (and I suspect, the majority of professionals) there is no photograph worth risking one’s life for.  I took these photos from inside a covered porch on the lowest level of a beach house.  Although lightning is unpredictable (and theoretically I could have been hit if the bolt had somehow traveled horizontally at nearly surface level) I considered the risk minimal.  I certainly would not have attempted to watch or photograph the storm from out in the open on the beach.

The only time I’d attempted lightning photography before was in 2008 while visiting Mount Rainier National Park.  I’d tried to take photos from the porch of my hotel but was unsuccessful.  I got a couple of shots with visible bolts, but they weren’t particularly spectacular or sharp.  My technique at the time was flawed.  I was taking short exposures (which I couldn’t really do anything about since it was still daylight and I didn’t have a neutral density filter) and flipping the shutter when I saw the bolt.  Well, unless it was a particularly long duration bolt or another followed immediately, I’d miss capturing the strike.

This time around, I decided to treat the lighting photography like I would fireworks, albeit with a longer exposure time.  Fireworks mode in my old handheld camera worked pretty good on the Fourth of July.  It was set for 1 second exposures at the lowest ISO setting.  The exposure would not illuminate the dark sky, but the fireworks were bright enough to be recorded even though they only lasted briefly.  For lightning photography this time, I switched my Canon DSLR to shutter priority mode.  With the dark night, a multi-second exposure would capture only the moon and surrounding clouds, as well as the moon’s reflection.  Lightning was bright enough that, if present, it would be properly exposed even though it was present for only a fraction of the overall exposure time.

One of my two favorite lightning photos. Slightly cropped. 11:12pm, 8 seconds @ f4, 35mm
One of my two favorite cloud-to-cloud lightning photos. Slightly cropped. 11:12pm, 8 seconds @ f/4, ISO-100, 35mm

I dropped the ISO first to 200 and then 100 to keep noise down and limit the risk of overexposure.  The light level was too low for autofocus, so I switched to manual (I believe I focused on the moon).  Since I didn’t have a cable release, I set a 2-second timer to prevent camera shake from my pressing the shutter.

My first lightning shots were 25 second exposures, but as the storm got closer and the frequency of strikes increased, I dropped the exposure times to 8 seconds.  I triggered the shutter on a regular basis and hoped there would be lightning strikes in the right place while the shutter was open.  Strikes were frequent enough that about half my 44 exposures captured either a bolt or clouds illuminated by lightning in their interiors.  There were two photos in particular that I was delighted with, featuring clear bolts and sharp, dramatically illuminated clouds.

My other favorite shot. 11:14pm, 8 seconds @ f4, 35mm
My other favorite shot. Moon cropped out.  11:14pm, 8 seconds @ f/4, ISO-100, 35mm

As the storm moved onshore, I put the camera away and just watched the lightshow.  I was generally pleased with the shots considering that I was shooting blind (in the sense that I had no idea when or where the next lightning strike would occur), composing photos only based on the storm’s position and previous activity.  Still, in my two favorite shots the lightning and surrounding clouds filled most of the frame.  The only thing I was slightly disappointed with was the moon.  Looking at the results on the LED display, I thought the moon’s presence added drama to the shots.  What I should have anticipated was just how much movement can occur in even an eight second exposure.  The moon and the clouds illuminated by it were somewhat blurry, in contrast to the sharpness of the clouds illuminated for a moment by the lightning bolts.

Post-processing was minimal.  I converted the RAW files with Photoshop Elements.  The shots looked pretty good straight out of the camera with no need to adjust exposure, color, or contrast.  I straightened the horizons on a few photos where they were visible and tilted by a degree or so.  I cropped my two favorite shots for improved composition.  Here are the original JPEGs straight from the camera (I was shooting RAW+JPEG) for those two shots.

17a Straight from Camera

18a Straight from Camera

All lightning photos in this post were taken with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi (EOS 450D) with Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens

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