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                   Friday, July 17, 2009 - 2:30PM

New tower site - first setup

By DAN ROBINSON
Editor/Photographer
25 Years of Storm Observing
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I set up for close-up upward lightning photography at a new location this morning. Unlike the WVAH tower, this mast has an easy setup location very close to its base (roughly 100 feet or so away), and the tower itself is just over 1,100 feet AGL. This allows for imagery to be obtained at a distance of just under 1,200 feet, with thunder arriving about one second after discharges. There were no upward lightning discharges to the tower this morning, but I was able to spend some time working with what turned out to be a very challenging setup.

First of all, being so close to the tower means that the cameras must be aimed nearly straight up. Barring a complex anti-raindrop system (which I have some conceptual ideas for, but no prototype), there is no way to film outdoors at this location. The only option for now is to set up the cameras inside the truck. This turned out to be harder than I thought. Both cameras must be mounted low (below the dash), as they will not fit on the dashboard when aimed at such a high angle. The DSLR had to be set up with the tripod resting nearly horizontally (limiting its stability), and the video camera could not be tripoded at all. Framing and focusing the DSLR was very difficult, with the LCD facing straight down. When zoomed in fully on my 200mm lens, a slight bump to the tripod would require reframing the shot. I had to hand-hold the FX1 with part of it resting against the steering wheel. This was very tedious, but I don't see many simple options other than to use pillows/beanbags for stability (which I'll try next time).

Then there are the ambience issues with setting up inside a vehicle. The engine creates vibration and noise, so it must be shut off during shooting. No engine means no defrosters - and during rain, the interior of the windshield fogs up in a few minutes. I had no choice but to start the engine and defog every 10 minutes. Wipers must be used at all times. With the engine off, this may create battery rundown issues with longer sessions. The wipers sweep across the frame every couple of seconds, introducing the chance that they may interfere with a discharge capture. Furthermore, being inside a vehicle muffles the thunder audio, which is important to me. Rolling down the window helps some, but will allow rain inside - and still will prevent 100% clear sound. I may set up my (Portabraced) VX2100 outside (pointed horizontally) just to capture audio that can be later synced with the HD footage.

My third and largest concern is how badly the extra layer of glass (the windshield) is going to create ghosting/reflections with lightning channels. The test shots with no lightning look OK, but bright light sources can do some crazy stuff when another layer of glass is introduced to the equation.

Lastly, the tower is much farther away from Charleston than the WVAH mast (about a 45 minute drive), which is a drawback for intensive coverage at this site.

So, all in all, it's going to be much harder to capture good imagery at this spot. After the difficulties this morning, I wonder if it would be better to just get a longer lens and keep setting up at the WVAH site. I want to get at least one or two discharges here before I make that decision though.

Here is one of many test shots from the DSLR:


click to enlarge

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