Shooting Lightning With Olympus Live Composite

One fine evening I got distracted by the lightning flashing in the sky repeatedly outside my window view from my workstation, and I decided to pay closer attention. I have tried shooting lightning before, not actively chasing lightning, but when there was a storm I would see if I can position myself to get a decent lightning strike, but to no avail as the lightning was always not within the framing possibility. This time, it was within reach and I decided to set up my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III on the tripod at my balcony (overlooking the same direction where the lightning was actively flashing in the sky) and I managed to capture a few decent shots. I thought, why not make an article on how to capture lightning using Olympus cameras?

Of course I did a video on how to shoot lightning with Olympus Live Composite, if you prefer to watch me ramble on YouTube you can see the video here (CLICK HERE). 

The main problem with shooting lightning is the unpredictability of where and when the lightning is going to strike. There are a few solutions to this problem, the most practical one using a lightning detector/trigger system, a device that detects the change of ion charge in the air just before the lightning is about to strike and it trips the shutter release just in time to capture the shot. I don't intend to become a full time lightning chaser and whenever there is a thunderstorm I honestly prefer to just hide inside my house and maybe curl up into a ball on my bed, not living life dangerously going outside and be crazy. So this method is a no no for me, as I would probably use it once or twice and forget about ever having purchased a specialist equipment. 

The second solution is to leave the shutter open for a long duration of time to capture any lightning that will strike within the long exposure. This is quite effective, but depending on the lightning condition, if the sky was not completely dark and you leave the shutter open for too long, this will lead to overexposure, ruining the shot. The third solution which I did not discuss in the video was to use time lapse setting, having the camera to continuously capture a sequence of images non-stop and when the lightning strikes the camera will surely have successfully grabbed the shot. I believe many serious lightning chasers are using time lapse method and the cool thing about using time lapse is that you can then merge the many shots into an interesting time lapse movie that can be really dramatic. 

How did I capture lightning with Olympus camera? I used Live Composite setting of course, and it is closely related to the second solution - leaving the shutter open for a very long duration of time - instead of worrying about the risk of getting an overblown image, the Live Composite does it's trick to maintain balanced exposure, no matter how long the duration of shoot is.

This was the one shot that I was happy with.

I was hoping for a vertical lightning bolt to strike somewhere in the middle, but I had no such luck. But hey, there is always a next time. 

I probably should have used a wider framing for this shot. Oh well, maybe I will get luckier next time. 

I have blogged about what Olympus Live Composite is, how it functions, and the steps required to activate and shoot with Live Composite. In that article (click here), I was sharing about how to shoot Star Trail, but the explanations and how to step by step guide are every bit similar and applicable for shooting lightning, so I will just refer you to that article if you want to find out more about Live Composite. 

Olympus Live Composite is technically an advanced bulb mode. Instead of a single 15 minutes exposure image, which will most likely gather too much light even in the evening, the Live Composite allows the image to be taken at much shorter exposure duration - say 30 seconds each image. The camera will seamlessly and continuously capture image after image consecutively for 15 minutes, in total shooting about 30 shots of 30 seconds exposure each image (30 shots x 30 seconds = 15 minutes duration). The camera employs additive brightness blending in the composite mode, when merging the images together, the camera will compare the base image (first) against subsequent images, and any part of the other images that has brighter region than the base will be added into the first image. This works very well if you are shooting fireworks, light trails on the highway, star trail in the sky or in this blog, lightning in the sky. The brighter part of the sky due to lightning strike will be blended additively onto the 30 seconds image, successfully preventing the overall image to be overexposed. 

The cool part about Live Composite? The compositing of the images, and the effect of the light additive blending happens live and can be previewed in real time from the LCD camera screen, while the Live Composite process is still running. When the lightning strikes and that lightning bolt was captured and merged into the composite image, you can literally see this happen while the camera is still shooting. So far, this neat feature is only available in Olympus cameras, and some newer Panasonic bodies, but I am unsure if the Panasonic variants have the same full functionality as Olympus Live Composite. 

If you use Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III, E-M1 Mark III and E-M1X, there is a B mode (Bulb) on the mode dial, turn to B and find the Live Composite mode (there are only 3 modes, Bulb, Live Time and Live Composite). 

If you use Olympus E-PL9 or E-M10 Mark III, turn the mode dial to AP mode (Advanced Photo) and find the Live Composite setting by navigating through the menu. 

If you are using any older Olympus camera bodies, such as E-M1 Mark II, E-M10 Mark II, E-M5 Mark II, PEN-F, E-PL8, then you need to go to the M mode on the mode dial (Manual), then adjust the shutter speed (typically rear command dial), slow it down until it reaches 60 seconds, then keep going you will find, Bulb, Live Time and finally Live Composite. 

As the compositing process is happening, images being merged, you can see the results and effects live, during the shooting process, as previewed on the LCD screen.  

I know this particular shot is not really that special, but I managed to capture quite a few motion elements all at once. The lighting, air plane flying by, traffic on the highway (bottom left) and also a short burst of fireworks!

Here is my shooting process in short:
1. Mount Camera on tripod
2. Activate Live Composite mode
3. ISO200, F-number almost widest, Shutter Speed 1 second (adjust accordingly to your situation)
4. 3 presses of shutter button - first to capture a base shot, second to start the live composite process, and third to end the shooting
5. Repeat until the desired effect is achieved. Luck is important. 

I know that my lightning shots from this session were not really that great, nothing to shout about, and honestly there are many better shots out there, but hey, I am doing this to share as much as I can about using Olympus cameras in different shooting scenarios. Shooting lighting can be fun, and I genuinely believe Olympus Live Composite is such a wonderful feature that can push the boundaries of creative photography processes. 

If you have not used Olympus Live Composite, you have no idea what you are missing out. Go find some beautiful stars to shoot star trail, or go up high on a bridge to capture light trails on the highway, shoot beautiful fireworks shots, or if there is a thunderstorm, capture the lightning!

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  1. Hi Robin, I have a M10 iii and your comment "If you use Olympus E-PL9 or E-M10 Mark III, turn the mode dial to AP mode (Advanced Photo) and find the Live Composite setting by navigating through the menu. " is ONLY suitable for beginners.
    Reason is it will not allow for Aperture selection.

    Only way to control the Composite, Live Time modes it to go to manual and turn the dial back past Bulb...just as in the M10 ii. I had Olympus advise me of this because of errors I was getting in the new AP - Advanced Photo mode Option.

  2. Hi Robin. I am not a professional photographer but would be have been very pleased to have created any of these images: they are all fantastic. I am very happy to have recently discovered your Youtube channel. I recently lost my job and had to sell my aspc nikon camera and lenses and am very sad about that. When I finaly find a job I will seriously consider buying a M43 camera. I am really interested in nightime street photography, but was never happy with my images. Not the composition, just the images were soft. Neither camera or lenses had stablisation and the lenses weren't very fast. I thought I would have to invest in full frame to get the best chance of capturing images but the images on this blog and YT channel are making me seriously reconsider. One advantage of the M43 system is the cost, which, when you have no money, is a serious consideration. I hope you and your fmily are safe and well.