Behind the Shot with Kevin Cole

Photo by Kevin Cole
Photo by Kevin Cole

Photo by Kevin Cole

Kevin Cole
Morro Bay, CA
Canon 5D Mark II
Canon TS-E 24mm/f3.5L
RRS Gear:
TVC-23 tripod
BH-55 LR ball head
B5D2-L L-plate
200 ISO
45 seconds

“How many times in Morro Bay do the winter skies open up and streaks of bright white lightning fill the night sky? The answer: not very often. In fact, in the nine years we have lived in Morro Bay I can say this was the first. It was Saturday night on Highway 1 driving home from San Luis Obispo when a bright bolt of lightning pierced the night sky right in front of us. We screamed so loud I think we missed the thunder that usually follows. My foot went straight to the floor in excitement.

We made it home in record time, grabbed our gear and headed for the water. During our short trip home we had already discussed the location and had decided the best setup for the location so my wife was assembling the gear as I drove us to location. By the time we arrived at location she had loaded our Canon 5D Mark II with our TS-E 24mm Tilt-Shift lens and attached the Canon intervalometer. By the time I was out of the car she had the legs extended on our Really Right Stuff TVC-23 tripod and mounted the camera on the RRS BH-55 ball head.

At the time I didn’t own a lightning trigger so I would need to expose for the ambient light to capture the scene. I first set the exposure intervals on my intervalometer to 1 second, the camera would initiate exposure every second. I knew I needed to expose for the lightning and balance that to the ambient light. I usually set my ISO to native 100, but in this situation I decided on 200 to ensure that I didn’t extend my exposure time to include multiple lightning strikes. I knew my f-stop would need to be either f/11 or f/16 to expose the lightning; I chose f/11 which gave me an exposure of 45 seconds and a good balance to my ambient. My first test exposure resulted in this first image, “Wowza!” I screamed. I chimped the shot, said “that looks great”, and the minute I started the intervalometer the second strike hit. Three minutes later and it was over. We had made it just in the nick-of-time. As photographers we are often quoted as saying “I’d rather be lucky than good”. Well, this experience needed both luck and good.”
– Kevin Cole

Kevin Cole is a local Fine Art photographer based in Morro Bay, California.


  1. Bob says:

    Just the best Kevin. Always insightful and on the spot at the perfect time. Wonderful image

  2. Mantice says:

    Wow – I would love to know how you did it, so the shot was taken with f/11 and exposure of 45 second? How about the interval-meter, how does it come into play??

    Will this shot be possible using film?

  3. SHERM says:

    I love how the lighting strikes behind the point – giving nice depth. Great shot!

  4. Kevin says:

    Mantice, the use of the intervalometer was to allow me a longer shutter than the 30 seconds the camera allows, and, to set exposure intervals to 1 second to automatically cycle the camera.
    As for using a film camera, sure it is doable. You would set up the same, assuming film speed of iso 200, expose for the ambient and hope lightning strikes and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Thanks for your comment

  5. Mantice says:

    Hello Kevin:

    Thank you so much! So I think the interval did the following, right?

    45 second exposure – done – wait 1 second – another 45 second exposure – done – repeat. Is this correct?

    Sorry for my newbie questions 🙂

  6. Mark Gvazdinskas says:

    Such an incredible shot! Thanks again for sharing, Kevin.

  7. Joe Johnson says:

    Kevin, what a shot! This is especially rare in Morro Bay and the fact that you caputured it is nothing short of amazing. Beautiful. Joe

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