How to Photograph Lightning

Photographing Lightning

An article on how to photograph lightning seemed appropriate after my article about photographing fireworks.  (You can read the fireworks article by clicking here.)

Weather Signboard indicating where storms can be foundThunderstorms and lightning are a lot less predictable than fireworks.  There are no road signs advising when and how soon it is all going to happen. You need to be aware of local conditions and pay special attention to forecasts.

Or …

Simply wait until a storm starts and then set up as quickly as possible.

Photograph Lightning – 8 Point Check List
Once you know you have a storm on its way, or if lightning is already active, how do you go about capturing the perfect images and the raw power of nature?

A lightning bolt set against a black sky1. Safety.  This advice goes without saying. The Guinness Book of records for surviving lightning strikes is something like 17.  Don’t try and break it.  Lighting generally strikes the highest point in the vicinity of the storm so avoid trees, hills, tall buildings etc. Water is a perfect electrical conductor and you, water and lightning are uncomfortable bed fellows! Standing with your feet in the lake for a chance at getting the perfect photo of  lightning reflecting off the water is not a good idea.  Stay as far away as you can from the actual storm.

2. Use a Tripod.  To take any photograph of lightning you will be using long shutter speeds so holding the camera yourself just won’t cut it.  You can use any solid or flexible and supportive surface (such as a bean bag) but there is a further advantage to using a tripod (see “Editing” below). A tripod can cost from as little as $30.00 but you get what you pay for.  The tripods at the lower end of the price range tend to be a bit flimsy and in many cases short.  If you can’t invest in something like the very popular and reliable Manfrotto range  then spend some time shopping around for a solid and sturdy second hand one.  Getting a good quality tripod at the outset will save you money and a lot of frustration.

3. Know Your Camera. Make sure you have read your manual from cover to cover and know what you camera is capable of. Chances are you are not going to have time to fiddle during a storm. Set your camera up before hand on the settings you think you are most likely to need.  Any adjustments should be a few clicks either side of your original selections.

4. Be Patient.  Just like there are no sign posts to say where the storm will be there is no guarantee of exactly when the strikes will happen.  You need to be patient but expect to take some photos that are blank or simply badly timed.

A well composed image of a lightning strike5. Compose Your PhotoAlthough all the action takes place in the sky giving the image some depth, through the use of a focal point, creates a dramatic effect.  Having said that individual lightning strikes are pretty damn dramatic by themselves but it is always good to experiment with your imagery.

6. Go Manual. Forget about auto settings – lightning requires manual photography. Depending on the time of day (yes you can take photos of lightning strikes during the day – see below) you will need to adjust all three settings; ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Unless you want to spend a lot of money on very expensive remote control shutter equipment you will need to have long shutter times – as long as 30 seconds in some cases. The actual shutter time used will depend on your camera and its ability to handle noise.  See “Know Your Camera” above.

7. Editing. At times you may take some shots where the storm wasn’t as spectacular as you had hoped.  You have taken a few decent images but they but they are not individually impressive.  If you used a tripod and didn’t moved your camera at all during the shoot, you can superimpose any number of pictures over the top of each other during editing.  Take 2 or more individual photos and “stack” them in your photo editing software, making one incredibly dramatic photo.

Daylight lightning shot over farm lands8. Photographing Lightning During the Day.  Much of what I have said above applies to daylight lightning with a few exceptions.  Because there is more natural light a smaller aperture is required (bigger f-stop) and a slower ISO. You could also attach a filter to the front of the lens which further reduces the effect of the natural light (I suggest a medium density filter), also limit the length of exposure time to a maximum of 10 seconds – in most cases less will be better.

Experiment.  For your first daylight attempt try starting with a 5.0 second shutter, ISO 100 and an f/18.00 and work around that.

Some Words of Encouragement

There may be times when you are a little disappointed with your results but persevere because, although it is a little tricky to master photographing lightning, the rewards are well worth the extra effort. With a little preparation and practice, whatever photos you take will be far superior to anything anyone else is creating.

If, like me, patience is not your strong point and you want to fast track the learning curve, consider taking a good online photography course. 

This course is run by professional photographer Jarod Polin who is both entertaining and very competent.  The course involves him taking you by the hand and showing you exactly what he does. Packed with hours of detailed (and easy to follow) video instruction this is one very easy way to kickstart your Digital SLR knowledge. 

Now you know how to photograph lightning, both at night and during the day, I sincerely hope you will be  encouraged to get out there and capture the dramatic beauty of nature’s raw power.



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    • Lawrence
      3 years ago

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