Electrifying Lightning Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Electrifying Lightning Photography

by David Peterson 1 comment

There are very few photographic subjects like lightning. Lightning is unpredictable, appears only for a split second and is best captured by pointing your camera at an empty piece of sky and hoping something happens. A good lightning image cannot fail to impress a viewer, though, who will probably think you got that image by engaging in some thrilling, dangerous storm chasing, maybe even in a torrential downpour while riding in an open-topped jeep across a rocky field. Yes, on the coolness scale there isn't much that rivals a good lightning photo, except maybe a tornado.

Light Cover by Flickr user Big Fat Baby

Shh, don't tell anyone that it really isn't that thrilling or even necessarily dangerous to photograph lightning, as long as you take precautions (without precautions, of course, that danger level rises quite a bit). In fact you can take great lightening photos without even getting wet.

First let's talk about safety

So yes, if you're going to stand in a big open field during a lightning storm with your camera, you are doing something dangerous. Your mother probably told you it's a bad idea to be the tallest thing in a field during a lightning storm, and she was right. But you probably don't want to be the second tallest thing, either, so don't try to take lightning photos in exposed places. Just don't. If there is thunder there is always some danger of being struck by lightning, so please take this word of caution seriously. Stay out of the danger zone and try to make sure that the storm in question is moving away from you rather than towards you

Instead of taking a chance on becoming the next Ben Franklin, Frankenstein's monster or The Flash, (all of whom got their superpowers from lightening, except of course for Ben Franklin who was not in fact supernatural), you can get all of your lightning shots from inside a parked car. Just make sure it's a car with a metal roof. To pull this off you will need to use a window clamp to keep your camera steady and a rainsleeve to keep it dry. Shooting from a vehicle has the added benefit of allowing you to move to the best location for photographing any particular storm.

Colorful Sonoran Desert Storm by Flickr user Striking Photography

Equipment for Lightning Shots

I already mentioned the window clamp and the rainsleeve, two essential pieces of equipment for this kind of photography. As for the camera itself, you will need something with a bulb setting, which means a good-quality DSLR. You will also need a remote release. And it's a good idea to use the widest lens you own (small mm number), since the wider the lens the greater the chance that lightning will actually appear in the frame.

It's easiest to get lightning photos at night. If you're shooting a thunderstorm during the day, you'll need a special piece of equipment called a lightning trigger, which will run somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 to $300. A lightning trigger will release your shutter when it detects lightning in the sky, thus eliminating the need for long exposures, which are problematic during daylight hours.

Lightning Tree Silhouette by Flickr user Striking Photography

How to find lightning

The first thing you need to do is find some good locations. Do this before there is actually a storm. Look for areas with an interesting but not overly distracting horizon, and something in the foreground to help provide context, such as a building or an interesting tree. Obviously, avoid places where there is a lot of clutter blocking the sky - you don't want the lightning, when it finally happens, to appear behind a stand of trees where you can't photograph it.

Unless you have your own personal weather station, you will need to rely on local weather predictions to find your thunder storms. After you find them, you'll have to be able to predict how they will move (which is something you'll figure out with practice, since storms tend to follow the same paths in the same areas). And since thunderstorms are often brief, its best to try to anticipate them and arrive at your shooting location before the storm begins. This is of course going to result in some disappointment, since weather forecasters are notoriously bad at specifics. But persevere and eventually you will be in the right place at the right time.

What about camera settings?

Scrap your auto-focus and focus your lens manually, to infinity. Get as much of the sky as you can into the frame, without losing your foreground elements or the horizon. Set your f-stop to something in the middle, ideally around f/5.6 or f/8. Keep your ISO pretty low, too if you can - somewhere between 200 and 400. If your camera doesn't create a lot of noise at higher ISOs, you can go as high as 800 if the lightning isn't particularly bright.

Start with a 20 second exposure. If you have a lightning trigger, you can get away with a shorter exposure, but otherwise you will need to have that long exposure to maximize your chances of catching the lightning strike as it happens. Make sure you keep very still while the shutter is open, because the car you're sitting in can be a little wobbly. Other than that, photographing lightning is a bit of a gamble. You don't really know how bright any one strike is going to be, so it's hard to guess at the correct exposure. Great lightning photos often depend on luck as much as on skill.
Post processing

Summer lightning storm over Sofia by Flickr user Boby Dimitrov

You can do some very cool things in post-processing, the coolest of which is probably the ability to combine shots into one image that includes multiple strikes. If you're going to do this, make sure you shoot multiple frames in the exact same location, without moving your camera or vehicle.

Lightning is one of those "wow" subjects, but it does take a lot of trial, error and luck to get it right. Make sure you bring along your patience any time you go out to shoot lightning, and try not to be too disappointed if nature changes its mind and abruptly ends a storm before you have a chance to get a good shot. Just keep your camera ready and keep checking the weather - another storm will come along, and when you do finally get that "wow" photo it will be worth all the effort.

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  1. Linda Bonskowski says:

    Great article! I've always wondered how on earth people do it. Now all I have to do is find a window clamp. LOL

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.