How to Photograph Lightning
I love taking photos of lightning - it is just so powerful and amazing to see! You may think capturing it in camera can be difficult, but I'm here to show you that photographing lightning can be fun and easy. Just follow these tips:
Make sure you are VERY aware of the weather and your surroundings. Lightning is dangerous and it’s not worth killing yourself for ANY photograph. Keep in mind lightning can strike even without rain. This is one of the reasons I use a remote trigger – it means I can set up my camera and then back into a protected area.
Gear You Need for Lightning Photography
Camera: While you don’t need an expensive camera, having a camera that allows you to shoot in manual is ideal. I prefer using a digital camera for lighting photography because I take A LOT of shots and I don’t want to waste film.
Tripod: Having a tripod is pretty much a must. You need to be able to secure your camera to a tripod to prevent camera shake during your long exposures.
Remote trigger: A remote trigger is not necessary but very helpful. When you press the shutter button with your hand, it can causes vibrations that result in a blurry photo. A remote shutter release will prevent this from happening and also allow you to shoot from a protected area too.
Rain cover/protection for your camera: While I typically only photograph lightning from a distance, before a storm reaches me, there is often a bit of rain that starts coming down before I can complete my shoot. You will need some kind of cover to protect your camera from this rain. One trick I use is to back my minivan up to the location and open the trunk, using the popped open trunk as cover for my camera.
Lens cloth: Make sure to bring a lens cloth to clean off any raindrops!
How to Choose a Location & Background for Lightning Photos
Lightning by itself can make for some breathtaking photos – but consider adding some foreground interest as well. While I’ve photographed lightning from home (through windows and from my garage), I often look for interesting areas to shoot from as I drive around in normal weather and return when there's a storm.
Interesting foreground elements can help to tell a story, or show the size and power of the lightning and can increase the dramatic feel to your image.
Some foreground elements I look for include churches because of the symbolism (the power of God) and power lines (the raw power of the lightning vs the man made power). Trees in fields, city skylines, barns, water (such as lakes) or even a row of houses can also make for great elements to add to your lightning photographs. Do some exploring and be creative!
Types of Storms
Not all storms are the same, especially when it comes to lightning. Some storms have very sporadic lightning. In that situation it’s still possible to get some great lightning shots, but it will take more patience, or at least more luck.
I have found that photographing night time storms to be the easiest when trying to capture lightning. You can use a longer shutter speed, and finding the balance of light between your two subjects (ambient daylight and the lightning) is easier at night too.
Other storms have lightning that rolls around within the clouds (often referred to as sheet lightning or heat lightning). In my experience these storms do not usually photograph very well.
Tips for Capturing Great Lightning Photos
Capturing those brief flashes of lightning is NOT about having a super fast trigger finger. Lightning flashes so fast that even hitting a trigger at the first hint of the lightning will likely result in missing it all together, or only capturing the main bolt without the branches.
Here is what you need to do to take a great lightning photo:
1. Set up the camera on your tripod, with your remote trigger (if you have one).
2. Camera settings: while I can’t give you the perfect exposure settings for every situation (as with all photography), however here are some basic exposure guidelines:
- Shutter speed: I usually start at 30 seconds (for daytime you will likely need to use a faster shutter speed, such as 15 seconds). You can also use the bulb setting. Longer shutter speeds will allow for a better chance to get a bolt of lightning in each frame.
- Aperture: A narrower aperture is better, as it allows for a wider depth of field, especially if you have subjects in the foreground. This also means less incoming light so you can achieve slower shutter speeds.
- ISO: I usually start at 400 ISO, and bump it or lower it as needed for proper exposure, or based off the lightning. I have found that setting ISO at 800 or higher starts to blow out the detail of the lightning too much, but each storm is different!
- Underexpose a stop: The lightning flash will act as a super-sized strobe and add additional light to the scene.
- Making Adjustments: Adjust some or all of these settings as needed. Every storm will be different! Have fun and experiment!
3. Set the focus to your desired point. If you are JUST photographing lightning then set your focus to infinity. For scenes with buildings/landscapes, set your focus on the subject in the frame (and try to use composition to add more strength to your image). Now switch the focus mode to manual, and be careful not to accidentily bump the lens!
A wide angle lens will give you the best chance of capturing a lightning strike (or even more than one) each time. You can also try zooming in (or using a longer lens) to capture lightning up close, showing more detail.
For extra sharp images, its a good idea to use your camera’s mirror lock up feature (to prevent camera shake from the mirror flipping up to reveal the shutter). If the storm is windy, consider adding extra weight (such as a sandbag) to your tripod to keep it steadier.
There you go! Just follow these tips to capture some incredible lighting photos! Most importantly, make sure to stay safe and HAVE FUN!!
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