How to Photograph Lightning

Peggy Farren 2014-08-06

by Geoff Thomas

Summertime in Southwest Florida means a few things: Heat, humidy, mosquitoes galore, and a landscape photographer’s dream- STORMS! And with storms, there comes lightning!! How much more drama and emotion in a landscape image can you have than one that includes a bolt of lightning? Read along as I give you some tips & tricks to help shoot some of your own lightning photos.

Disclaimer: I am not a storm spotter or chaser by any means- if it’s happening near me, I shoot it! There are also MANY other ways to shoot lightning, this is just what works for me. Also, I would like to point out that safety is a big concern when doing this type of photography! PLEASE don’t put yourself in any kind of danger just to get a good shot! Follow your ‘gut’! If it doesn't feel right, don’t do it! Better to be alive for sure!

This tutorial is based for photographing lightning at night; there is a whole other set of steps & things to do when trying to capture lightning during the day. It’s best to start out with the ‘shows’ at night and learn and grow from there.

Let’s start with the gear you need to shoot lightning. There really are only two pieces of equipment that are necessary- a camera and a tripod (or some other means of keeping your camera still & steady). Yep, that’s it! I would also recommend a remote shutter release, but it’s not a necessity (more on that later).

The minimum your camera needs to be able to do is to be able to set the shutter speed manually. You will need to have your shutter open for multiple seconds at a time to capture lightning. Also, if your camera has a manual mode- this is the time to use it! Here is the basic recipe and walk through I use to photograph lightning (from a DSLR standpoint).

Attach your widest lens. Attach your camera to the tripod. Turn your camera on and make a few setting changes: Move your control dial to “M” (manual) mode. Set your ISO to the lowest setting (ISO 100 or ISO 200 work best) and set your aperture (f-stop) to f 8.0.

Zoom your lens all the way out (wide), then set your composition based on your surroundings and where the lightning is flashing and lock the tripod down.lightning photography

Now, we must focus our lens. The easiest way I find to do this is to remove your camera from the tripod first. Then, find a light source that is the approximate distance to what you want in your composition to be in focus- use your camera’s autofocus to lock on that light (a streetlamp for example) by pressing your shutter button halfway. Once the focus is locked, switch your lens to manual focus (manual focus on your lens is not the same as manual mode on your camera) and reattach the camera to your tripod. Or you can always focus manually to infinity (the most common focus distance) if you’re comfortable with doing so. You’re now ready to start shooting!

With the camera in “M” mode- I rotate the wheel on my camera to change the shutter speed to BULB. This allows the shutter to stay open until you manually close it (if your camera doesn't have the BULB mode feature - don’t fret, we’ll talk more later about what you can do to get around this).

I open the shutter via my wireless remote (again, more tips to follow if you don’t have one) and wait. When a visible strike occurs, I close the shutter via the remote. If a strike doesn’t occur where I’m composed in 15-30 seconds, I close the shutter then immediately start a new exposure. Because lightning is so bright, if you leave your shutter open any longer than that, the ambient light will be too washed out for a decent photograph, and the bolt will make the foreground or clouds way too bright. Repeat opening & closing the shutter via the steps above through the whole show. Check your LCD often- to make sure your composition and exposure are good. Make any ISO, aperture, composition, or focus adjustments as necessary. Keep clicking away! lightning- 4093- edit- web

If you don’t have a remote release, here are a few tips/tricks to help you. Set your shutter speed to 30 seconds- and set your in-camera self-timer to 2 seconds (or the lowest yours has). With your camera on the tripod, depress the shutter- in a few seconds your camera will start the exposure. If no visible bolts appear during that time, depress the shutter and do another (and another and another). If one does strike, use something to cover the front element on your lens to ‘stop’ the exposure until the set shutter speed runs out. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, a dark piece of paper, a card, a hat- just anything that will block more light from hitting your sensor. That way an errant flash or bolt will not overexpose your shot. Granted, you may miss a bolt or two doing it this way, but if you can successfully capture a few, I’d say it’s worth it!

From a beginner’s standpoint, shooting lightning occurring in the sky might be the easiest and safest bet. You can focus on infinity and not have to worry about composition/ foreground elements in focus; and I’m SURE you’ll be able to catch a bolt or two. When you do, your heart will be racing and you’ll be quite proud of yourself! As well you should be! I still get those feelings every time I capture some good strikes! lightning photograph
photograph lightning over water

Editing your lightning images is a whole other topic, and if there is enough interest, I would be willing to make a post about it as well. But for now, if you want to shoot lightning, work on getting the images captured first (you’ll have a LOT of ‘non-keepers’ to delete, and that’s fine; I delete 10-20+ for every one ‘keeper’ that I get).

Geoff Thomas is a Fort Myers, Florida area based landscape, nature, and portrait photographer with 25+ years photography and 15+ years of Photoshop/editing/design experience. http://gtdezines.com/

Note from Peggy: Geoff has promised to follow this up with an article on how he processes these images. Stay tuned!!

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