Lightning photography is by far one of the most spectacular subgenres of nature and landscape photography. The trouble with it is that it’s hard to capture a perfect beam of lightning on camera. Or is it?
Thanks to lightning sensors, capturing a beautiful flash from the sky is no longer an issue. These things can virtually do it all for you.
But buying one can be confusing and making the wrong decision could have you throwing money out the window. Use this article as a complete buying guide for camera lightning sensors. We will cover everything you need to know before you go shopping for the perfect trigger.
Such a device should work well in all lighting conditions. That means it must be able to spot lightning and trigger the camera during day and night. "Blind" moments pretty much make it useless. It must also capture bolts in series, one after the other. Devices that cannot capture the first bolt, are really not going to help you repeatedly capture spectacular images. You would better off using a cable release.
The question of range is very important when buying a lightning sensor. It must allow you to photograph lightning from a safe distance, no matter what the lighting conditions look like.
But what should you expect in terms of distance? A good lightning sensor will have a daytime sensitivity of approximately 25 miles and a nighttime sensitivity of more than 40 miles.
Some people will find it natural to look for manual controls, especially enthusiasts and pros. While full manual control is something you usually want in photography, when it comes to lightning sensors, it's not the best option. Manual settings mean trial and error that can cause you to miss the image of a lifetime and this exactly what these things should eliminate. Automatic control will provide constant sensitivity and the best response. This is one of the rare exceptions where you’re better off letting the gear do the work for you.
One of the difficulties that come with using lightning sensors is that they also fire at intracloud lightning. Basically, lightning can occur in different areas of a cloud and it can light up without connecting the bolt to the ground. A good sensor will limit its response to intracloud lighting, thus improving your success rate.
There is a golden rule when it comes to all gadgets: you get what you pay for. Cheap devices are based on circuit designs that can be found for free on the Internet. Don't expect them to be reliable and last, and remember that buying two or three in a year is not good business.
You also need to watch out for battery life. Some models will last a few hours, others a few days and some will give in after a few shots. Investing in something that has good battery life is the smart thing to do. You also have to be careful about battery types as some models use expensive batteries.
The Specs and Info
Naturally, your next move after you set eyes on a specific model is to dig a little deeper, maybe find some user ratings and reviews. That's totally fine, just make sure you don't believe everything you read. User ratings are easy to manipulate and reviews should have a little more info than what's already specified by the manufacturer.
A quality lightning sensor will not fall off the camera's hot shoe. Other than the small extra weight, you shouldn't even feel you have it mounted on the camera. Less quality models will poke your forehead when looking through the viewfinder.
Overall use should be easy. The last thing you want ruining your experience is a device that's hard to use, erratic and unresponsive.
Finally, read what the people are saying about it. If it comes with recommendations from top photographers whose galleries are eye candy, or those who conduct well known workshops, it might be an indication that it is indeed a quality product.
Speaking of galleries, when you look at sample images from the producer or anyone who has used the device, look for daytime images as they make the difference in the capabilities of these sensors.