In July of 2015, landscape photographer Jonas Piontek found himself standing on the shores of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. In this region by the Catatumbo River, locals see lightning storms almost 300 days a year. As a member of the German storm chasing team Gewitterjagd, Piontek felt the need to visit Lake Maracaibo to document “the Never-Ending Storm of Catatumbo.” According to the American Meteorological Society, the amount of lightning that strikes the region often called “Maracaibo’s Lighthouse” make it Earth’s principal lightning hotspot.
“You can read a newspaper in the middle of the night because it’s so bright,“ the photographer said in an interview with The New York Times. With up to 200 flashes a minute, “The cloud becomes a giant bulb.”
Lake Maracaibo is surrounded by the Andes Mountains with the Caribbean Sea joining to the north. The warm winds from the lake and sea meet with the cold mountain breezes at night, causing the perfect mix for lightning to form. The scene is incredible and has attracted visitors from around the world, but to the local residents who live through the lightning storms 297 days a year, it’s just another day.
We sat down with Jonas Piontek to talk about his experience photographing at the location that NASA has declared the “Lightning Capital of the World.”
How would you describe what it’s like to witness Maracaibo’s Lighthouse?
As a storm chaser, it was a great experience to be able to shoot storms every night in the same place. I just had to sit at the shore and wait for the nightly storms. It was a complete different experience than having to drive hundreds of kilometers with a risk to not capture anything.
Wasn’t it dangerous to be out there?
Of course it’s dangerous to be surrounded by storms with frequent lightning strikes, but as long as you are not in the middle of it, the situation was kind of safe. However, just weeks before I arrived, a few kids were actually killed by lightning.
What gear did you use to take those pictures, and how did you use it?
Back in the days, I used a Canon 5D Mark III, usually with my Tamron 15-30mm lens. Now I go with a Nikon 4DS, which gives me better image quality.
Shooting lightning at night isn’t too difficult, given that you use a tripod and a long exposure on the storm. The aperture can be adjusted depending on the brightness of the strikes.
What’s your advice for aspiring lightning-photographers?
Always use a tripod and a low ISO. If you really want to capture the big, bright bolts that look the best, try and shoot with a high aperture. It will leave you with many underexposed shots, but when the big one hits, the perfect bolt for your shot, you will no longer have to worry about it being overexposed.