Photographing a Pattaya Thunderstorm
Photographing thunderstorms is the envy of every photographer but having lived in Vancouver, BC for the last 17 years we only experienced a random thunder and lightning storm half a dozen times. Nothing like the east coast ground shakers of Ontario probably because of Vancouver’s alignment to the Pacific Ocean and the mountains that cover the North Shore. These elements aren’t conducive for a light show for Mother Nature to produce. If you live in the interior of BC or traveled outside of Vancouver you would see your regularly scheduled thunderstorms otherwise it’s raincity Vancity.
It takes more than geographical locations to photograph a thunderstorm it’s also the right vantage point, transportation, implementation of safety precautions, gear and the right camera settings. It may sound like a lot and it sort of is but it’s mostly logistical. Like most things in life it pays to plan in advance.
Try some of these recommendations when storm chasing: a good weather app – 15 best weather apps, a solid photographers landscaping app – Sun Surveyor (we have the paid version and use it often) this’ll help determine the position of the stars and moon to include in compositions if storms are off in a distance, and simply Google the region, area or country for rainy seasons with thunderstorms.
The reason we wanted to photograph thunder and lightning storms is because we’re currently living through rainy season here in Thailand. For this time of year rainy season in Thailand starts mid May to mid October. We were witnessing some very loud earth, house shaking and cracking storms during this season. Many storms knocked out the power for hours and even had our internet shutdown from lighting strikes to the local power box on two separate storms.
The biggest challenges for us in planning to photograph a lightning storm was getting ahead of it and safely into position. We were always having something on our schedule and couldn’t get ourselves organized properly. As the storms became more severe the photographers guilt was really sinking in from not getting out there to snap these shots. It was like for every thunderstorm we missed it was making us more frustrated and angry with ourselves for not capturing these shots.
So with all excuses out of the way we finally took action. The first thing we had to do was scout locations this was completed by accumulating the best vantage points when we were downtown Pattaya. I would drop into condos and shops and see if I could access the roofs with authorization from property managers. Now I know most roof top photographers would bypass this step but we’re new here and we don’t need to be off to a bad start in our new hometown. Surprisingly nearly all of the places we visited were fine with vantage points we requested.
The second thing I did was to do a bit of research on all the dates and durations of not only the rainy season but the hot and cool seasons as well. Here I learned that Thailand weather for a calendar year consists of six months of rainfall during wet season, three months of dry and cool temperatures during cool season, and three months of heat during hot season. The average temperature of Thailand ranges from 18 to 38°C. The official website of Amazing Thailand had a link that has some valuable info if you’re planning a trip here and need to know the weather seasons in advance not just for photographers but vacationers as well – About Thailand Weather.
Third, once I had all my locations narrowed down then confirmed in addition to my research of local and national weather patterns, I prepped my bag. I got all the gear required for this project together during my down time and funny enough it was on a clear day with no chance of storms. When I had my gear bagged and ready I put it to the side so I could take it on a moment’s notice when ‘go’ time arrived.
Equipment list for this photo assignment:
- Canon 5DSR – Main Camera.
- Canon 5D MK III – Secondary Camera.
- Manfrotto Tripod 755 XB with Manfrotto 804 RC2 adjustable head – Main tripod.
- Velbon Sherpa 200R Tripod – Secondary Tripod.
- Canon Timer Remote Controller TC 80N3 – used with MK III. 5DSR has its own built in timer.
- Glass – Canon EF 17 -40 mm f/4L – Main Camera 5DSr for the wide city shot.
- Glass – Canon EF 70 – 200mm F/2.8L IS – II – Secondary for tight shots of city activity.
- Digi Finder Pro – A loupe style finder to examine quality and sharpness on the back of the LCD’s of each Canon cam body.
- Giottos Air Blower – Clean lens with an air blast prior and during shooting.
- Micro-fiber cloth
The exact location I had authorized access to was through a friend who I discovered lived at one of the buildings I scouted. The position of his balcony faced South, South West on the 24th floor and was positioned from the mid point of downtown Pattaya. The balcony was small but being small allowed sufficient headroom cover from the rain as long as the winds did not blow Northward.
With all my checks and preps completed storm chasing day arrived. My Accu weather app called for severe thunderstorms and showers. The entire day was heavily overcast with unsettled clouds that were dark and ominously large but the storm wouldn’t start until evening. With most of my day done I grabbed my Lowpro Pro Roller x200 extracting it from its shell to transport as a backpack while I drove downtown Pattaya on my Honda PCX scooter. One tripod was strapped to the Lowpro with the other mounted between the bike and my right leg. It was a little tricky but prior to my scooter days in Vancouver I traveled with much more gear.
When I arrived to my friends condo the storm was still off shore over the islands with constant lighting flashing and yet the city of Pattaya lay clear but worried as if anticipating the in coming monster. In the room and prepped both my cameras and settings to begin shooting immediately. The skyline of the city was now covered in night sky by the time everything was ready for capture. I put both cameras into bulb mode with a mirror lockup setting initially. I’ve only briefly attempted Lighting photography in the past but I was satisfied with my early results. I was keeping the shutter open in bulb mode with 20 – 30 second shutters in attempt to capture the strikes. When the strikes would flash I would snap the shutter shut 2 seconds following to make sure I got the image. Most of what I got was fine but felt I was getting the most out of my setup because I was manning both cameras and there was so much activity I was missing some impressive hits.
I connected the Timer Remote TC 80N3 to the MK III, placed the settings of the cam into bulb mode with mirror lock up, f-stop was f 13 and the timer remote programed to 20 second intervals with 2 second delay to get the mirror lockup back up and down. For the 5DSR same settings with the internal intervalometer. I found these settings to be far more productive and captured a multitude of significant lighting strikes. The ISO was 320 which helped balanced the ambient city lights with the dark skies. The lighting was captured sharp with well exposed quality.
For my safety and that of my cameras I made sure they were out of rain range and positioned safe enough in from the balcony. The floor was dried with a mop and the tripods did not require any extra weight because no wind could enter the inset balcony. Once the cams were set up and positioned with full batteries I closed the balcony doors and let the two Canons do their magic.
What you see below is from the night of October 7th, 2017 in Pattaya City. From what I’m told it was a storm to remember the lighting and thunder shook the city and put much of the locals on edge as it played well into to the late morning hours. People were telling me they hadn’t seen or heard a storm of this severity in a many years. So it sounds like we caught a big fish with this project and all the planning was worth it.
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