How to Photograph Lightning

Photographing lightning is a combination of luck and preparation. As well as chasing storms, it also involves some very careful set-ups and experimentation with timing, and beginners may find themselves frustrated, wet, and waiting outside in the cold for a long time. However, with these trusty tips and tricks, you’ll be photographing lightning in no time. 

Safety comes first

It goes without saying that photographing lightning is inherently dangerous. Nature is a fickle mistress, and the unpredictability of storms means that that a strike could occur at any time. It is imperative that photographers seek a good, safe location from which to begin photographing lightning.

Keep away from open areas, especially if you are nearby tall trees or bodies of water. A good rule of thumb is 50-60 feet. If you feel the hair on the back of your neck, the CDC recommends crouching in a ball-like position, head tucked and hands over your ears, so that you are down low with minimal contact with the ground. 

Equipment and settings

1. Tripod

When photographing lightning, a tripod is a must. You’ll be using long shutter speeds for capturing lightning, so going hand-held is very impractical (unless you have very, very, very steady hands!). 

2. Lens

Any lens will work when photographing lightning, and will each lend a unique viewpoint. Choose a wide angle lens if you’re looking for those wide, dramatic, sweeping landscape shots. A wide angle lens is also more forgiving when it comes to focus, so you’ll find it a bit easier to achieve success. Choosing a telephoto lens instead can also lead to great lightning shots—cropping in on the scene to afford more details and perhaps a more compelling shot. Of course, it requires a bit more luck! Using a zoom lens will give you more flexibility in choosing your framing. 

3. ISO

You’ll want to start shooting at you’re camera’s base, or lowest, ISO. For most cameras, that will be around 100-200. While it is dark outside during a storm, the lightning is a huge source of light, so we don’t want to create a large glare which obstructs the shape and form of the lightning. 

4. Shutter speed

You’ll be shooting at a long shutter speed for capturing lightning, as we’ve mentioned already. This can be as short as 1-3 seconds, if you want the rest of the sky to remain as dark as possible (although you don’t have as much wiggle room to get lucky with the lightning), or as long as 30 seconds. A longer shutter speed will also afford the chance of capturing multiple lightning strikes in one photo! 

5. Aperture

Depending on your location, you might opt for a mid-range aperture to include items in the foreground, or a slower (f/8+) aperture if your image is looking over-exposed. 

6. Bulb mode

Shooting on bulb mode allows you to really control the length of the shutter, as the camera will take the photo as long as you are depressing the shutter button. This means that you have to stay there with your finger on the shutter for a long time, but leaves out some of the chance when photographing lightning. This can also be done with a cable release, so you don’t have to worry about shaking the camera during an exposure, which brings us to our next point! 

Source: Unsplash

Other accessories

1. Cable release

Touching the camera to take a picture can always induce some camera shake, especially when you’re shooting at longer shutter speeds. Because of this, you might consider bringing a cable release to avoid touching the camera altogether. 

2. Lens cloth

When shooting lightning photography, the chances are pretty high that it’s going to be raining. Raindrops on the front of your camera lens can ruin even the best picture, so it’s best to be prepared! 

3. Flashlight

It will be dark in the middle of the rain storm, so a flashlight is always helpful when changing camera settings or fumbling for equipment in low visibility. However, you can also use a flashlight to paint the ground, trees, or other foreground objects, to bring a little more depth to your photograph. 

4. Smart camera trigger

If you want to take the guess work out of photographing lightning, then a Smart Camera Trigger will automatically take a photo as soon as any lightning strike occurs. This also allows you to seek shelter while letting your camera continue to fire. Of course, you won’t have the same control over composition if you leave the camera to do the work all on its own, but owning a Smart Trigger can be very useful to those who want to photograph lightning regularly. 

Source: Unsplash

Setting up the composition

Normally in photography, we tend to feature more land than sky, but when photographing lightning, it’s best to include as much sky as possible. After all, we never know where the lightning is going to strike, and we can always do some cropping in post-production. 

Make sure that you set focus before you begin, as the last thing you want is the camera calculating distance in that precious millisecond when the perfect lightning bolt strikes. 

Consider what else will be in the shot besides the sky. Is there an interesting feature in the land which would anchor us in the shot? Are there mountains in the distance? Consider all these possibilities and incorporate them into the shot, so they feel like an intentional element and not a mistake. This is a great time to pull out your flashlight! 

Source: Unsplash

Practice and patience

Like all aspects of photography, photographing lightning requires patience, practice, and experimentation. Don’t beat yourself up if your first attempt doesn’t produce exactly what you’re looking for. Try again, learn from each attempt, and before long you’ll be wowing everyone with your breath-taking lightning photography. Now get out there and get shooting! 

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