Representing Invisible Subjects: Electricity :: Digital Photo Secrets

Representing Invisible Subjects: Electricity

by David Peterson 0 comments

Personally, I think invisible subjects have some of the best creative potential. Clearly, photographing something invisible is a challenge. Wait, how can you photograph something invisible at all? Read on to find out.

Obviously, you can’t literally photograph the invisible. That is, unless you practice ghost photography and feel—as many people do—that your camera can photograph spiritual things that your eyes cannot see. But that’s a whole other discussion. Today were going to talk about photographing a concept or idea—that is, something that may be invisible but that we know actually exists. A good example of this is electricity.

Electricity is not usually something we can see. We can see objects that get their power from electricity, we can see the power lines that take electricity from one part of the world to another, we can see the result of electricity (a lit bulb, for example) but we can’t always see the electricity itself. So how do you go about photographing something that you can’t literally see? That requires some creative thinking.

First, electricity isn’t always invisible, or at least, there are visible elements of electricity that human beings can universally identify. One of these visible faces of electricity is lightning. Lightning is a sudden electrostatic discharge that happens during an electrical storm. We can see it with our eyes, which means that it can be photographed.

How to photograph lightning

Photographing lightning, of course, is as much about luck as it is about skill. To get good lightning photos, you must first be in the right place at the right time—near an electrical storm. Then, you need to have your camera pointed in the right direction and you need for the shutter to be open when one of those lightning strikes or flashes occurs.

Now, I first want to caution you that you need to take extreme care anytime you’re photographing lightning. Lightning can be very dangerous, and you don’t want to be the highest point in a field when you are out there trying to capture an electrical storm with your camera. Instead, try shooting from inside your house at an open window. Or find some other shelter such as the inside of your car. Note of course that if it's raining, you will also need to protect your camera from the elements—a rain sleeve is a great investment for any wet-weather photography.

  • Nikon D3100
  • 200
  • f/16.0
  • 15.1
  • 18 mm

nature's raw power by Flickr user minbuck

You will need a tripod to photograph lightning, because you’re going to be leaving your shutter open for long periods of time and you don’t want there to be any camera shake messing up your image. Use a wide angle lens and point your camera in the direction where you are seeing the most lightning. Use "bulb" or "B" mode to open up your shutter and leave it open for a period of time between 30 seconds and one minute. (You'll also need to keep your ISO low and your aperture fairly narrow to allow for those longer exposures, depending of course on how much light is in the sky at the time of the storm.)

What you’re hoping for is a lightning strike to happen somewhere inside that wide angle perspective and during the time the shutter is open. Obviously, you’re not going to be successful with every exposure. Rather, you’re going to need to keep repeating the process in the hope that one of those lightning strikes will coordinate with one of those exposures.

Man-made lightning

Lightning, of course isn’t the only way you can visually capture electricity. A plasma ball is a commercial product that can help you visually illustrate the idea of electricity. A plasma ball, in case you aren’t familiar, is a glass sphere filled with a mixture of gases. At the center of the ball is a high-voltage electrode, which causes plasma filaments to leap from the center of the ball to the glass. Like lightning, a plasma ball can give you a stunning visual demonstration of the concept of electricity.

There are, of course, about a billion different ways to shoot a plasma ball—try zooming in and shooting one of those plasma filaments at macro range, or zoom out and capture a fascinated child touching the ball, with the light from that plasma reflecting off of her face.

Electricity as a concept

Now let's talk about some less obvious ways we can photograph the concept of electricity. To achieve this effectively, you're going to need to spend some time thinking about the meaning of electricity, that is it, what does it do for us as a society and/or for you personally? Obviously, electricity has made our lives infinitely simpler. Thanks to electricity, we can stay up late reading, we can dry our clothes in a matter of minutes rather than having to wait for them to dry on the line in sunny weather, we can listen to the radio, we can get online and spend time reading photography tutorials, or we can waste half a day playing Candy Crush on our smart phones. But in all of these examples, electricity is very well hidden behind the scenes. So let’s break it down to a much simpler form.

Electricity equals light. It is more than that, of course, but one of the first things it did for us as a society is it gave us light. Once we had electricity, we no longer had to read by candlelight or firelight or just give up and go to bed at 6pm.

So break electricity down to that one, simple idea and try shooting it in a way that illustrates that equation. You could shoot a simple, bare lightbulb, for example. You could get very close to that lightbulb and photograph the filament itself. You could photograph a line of streetlights at night. You could shoot beams of light streaming through the window of a house onto the ground outside. Whatever you choose to do, try to break it down into that very simple idea—when your viewer looks at the image, the first thing that she should think is “light.” Ideally, artificial light.

That means that light should be the subject of the image itself, not just the illuminator of the subject. That can be much more difficult to achieve than you might imagine, so think carefully about what objects you can include or exclude in the frame. Any object that is more interesting than the light itself might not belong in an image that you intend to be primarily about light and electricity. And the situation matters, too—for example, a house might be interesting in daylight, but when you photograph it at night with light spilling out of the windows it becomes much less interesting than the light itself.

You could also go to the source and photograph power lines, power plants, electrical cords or other devices that we associate with the creation and use of electricity. You could photograph wires, batteries and voltage meters. Anything that is directly correlated with the concept of electricity could make a good subject.

So how do you know whether or not you’ve succeeded in conveying the idea of electricity in a still photograph? Because electricity is a concept and not a tangible subject, the best way to approach this project is to shoot as many different ideas as come to your mind. Have a brainstorming session and think about all the ways you can illustrate electricity, using both literal objects such as plasma balls and lightbulbs and more figurative ones such as light that illuminates the pages of a book. Once you've gathered enough different examples, show your photos to as many different people as you can. Ask them to tell you the first word they think of when viewing that image. If the answer is “electricity,” you know you’ve succeeded. But if you can’t get them to verbalize the concept of electricity, ask them to help you brainstorm other ideas. Chances are good that the additional input is going to help you come up with even more creative and interesting ways to illustrate the concept.

Electricity by Flickr user Bert Kaufmann


I love projects like these for their ability to inspire creativity and make you really think about the different possible approaches for an idea. And of course the beautiful thing about modern photography is you don't have to be sure of an idea before you go out and start shooting it—if it turns out that you hate the results, you can just delete the photos and no one will ever need to know, least of all your bank account (gone are the days where you wouldn't know how successful your photo shoot was until you picked up those prints at the local drug store). So try every crazy idea you come up with, and don't worry if they don't all pan out. If worst comes to worst, just put your kid on a trampoline—after all, no one can mistake that staticy, flying hair for anything other than electricity.

  • Canon 9000F

Electricity by Flickr user Mark Dries


  1. How to photograph lightning
    • Be safe!
    • Use a wide angle lens
    • Use bulb mode
  2. Photograph a plasma ball
  3. Electricity as a concept
    • Photograph light as a subject
    • Photograph power lines and electrical cords
  4. How do you know you've succeeded?
    • Ask for critiques

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