Not every lightning storm happens at night. But if you’ve ever tried to photograph lightning, chances are you waited until a storm came by after sunset. It’s easier to photograph lightning after the sun goes down, because you can simply point your camera at the storm, open up your shutter, and leave it open until you’ve captured a strike or two. During the day, you don’t really have that luxury.
Except that you do, with the right equipment and the right know-how. Here’s how.
First let’s go over some of the most important rules of lightning photography. Did your mom ever warn you about going out in a lightning storm? Almost certainly. And her fears were not unfounded, although lightning strikes on humans are a lot less common than she probably thought they were. But you don’t want to end up being that one guy who got struck by lightning because he didn’t think it could ever happen to him, so you do need to take some basic precautions.
First, make sure you are shooting from a safe place. This could just be some distance away from the storm. If you’re not sure how far away the storm is, you can use that old fashioned technique that works just as well today as it did a couple of centuries ago: count. Sound doesn’t travel as fast as light, so when you see the lightning strike, count. You can judge the rough distance between yourself and the lightning by dividing the number of seconds between lightning and thunder by five. So if, for example, you counted 10 seconds between lightning and thunder, the storm is roughly two miles away.
This is a very rough estimate, of course, but generally speaking you probably don’t want to be out in the open once the lightning gets to within a mile or so of your location. After that, seek shelter. And by shelter, I don’t mean that lone tree sitting out in the middle of a field, which will certainly protect you from the rain—but not so much from the lightning itself. That shed out there in the field isn’t going to offer much protection, either. You’re going to be safest inside a habitable building—a great lightning-shooting location is on the indoor side of an open window or sliding glass door. Or if you’re out and about when that storm comes along, you can shoot from inside your car.
Remember that you’ll also need to take reasonable precautions to protect your camera—with thunder often comes rain or hail, so if you do happen to be in a location where there is some risk of bad weather reaching your camera, make sure you have a padded camera bag on hand that you can put the camera into in case of a icy deluge, and put your camera in a rain sleeve to protect it from the wetter variety of precipitation.
What you need
An essential element of photographing lightning is a camera that lets you take manual control over your shutter speed. For daytime lightning shots you won’t need BULB mode, so don’t worry if your camera doesn’t have that setting (BULB mode is the setting that lets you control both when the shutter opens and when it closes, which allows you to achieve shutter speeds greater than the usual maximum of 30 seconds). But you will need speeds of about 10 seconds or more, so make sure that your camera has that ability built into it. If not, borrow a friend’s camera the next time lightning and thunder is in the forecast.
Slow shutter speeds, of course, mean tripods, and remember that tripods generally go hand in hand with remote/cable releases. Once you have your camera mounted on a tripod you will need a way to remotely release the shutter, because at very slow shutter speeds the simple act of touching your camera can be enough to induce camera shake. If you’re the sort of person who just can’t ever seem to find that remote/cable release, don’t worry—you can also use your camera’s self-timer function. Just set it up to count down from about five seconds and that should be enough time for any shutter-button-touching shake to subside so you can get a clear image.
It’s also extremely likely that you’re going to need a neutral density filter. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, this is a very simple device that you screw on to the end of your lens, just like a UV filter or a polarizer. Except the neutral density filter simply acts like a pair of sunglasses for your camera—it blocks out a certain amount of light (usually measured in stops), which allows you to keep the shutter open for longer periods of time. I like variable ND filters because they allow you to adjust the amount of light-stopping power you need, but generally speaking (and depending on just how much light there is in the scene) you’ll probably benefit from an ND filter that blocks out more than just one or two stops.
Another nice-to-have is an extra battery, although lightning storms are generally pretty brief and you may not find yourself needing to change batteries. Do keep in mind, though, that long exposures tend to be battery hogs, and some cameras have better battery life than others. If you find that all those long exposures are eating your battery it can be really nice to have an extra one on hand so you don’t end up missing the last few minutes of the storm.
daytime lightning by Flickr user ejoui15
How to do it
Fortunately, you’re not often going to see lightning on a sunny day (and if you did it wouldn’t show up well in the sky anyway), so you’re going to have the advantage of low(ish) light during any lightning storm.
But as a general rule, you’re going to want to use a mid-range aperture as well as a low ISO, which will hopefully permit longer shutter speeds. Smaller apertures above f/11 don’t tend to work as well, because they won’t capture the intensity of that brief lightning strike.
Your ISO, on the other hand, should be set at whatever its lowest value is. There aren’t going to be any image quality issues at low ISOs, and you’ll need to go pretty low in order to achieve the slow shutter speed that you need during the day.
Now it’s possible that even after making those adjustments to ISO and aperture that you’re still not able to slow your shutter speed down enough to get good shots of lightning. You really want to be aiming for speeds of about five to 10 seconds—not because you need those speeds to capture the flash from start to finish, but because you need those speeds to maximize the chances that a flash will actually occur while the shutter is open. So if, say, you’re only able to slow down to about two seconds and you’re doing a lot of swearing because you keep missing the best strikes, try adding that neutral density filter to your lens.
The good news is that during the day you don’t need to worry so much about having enough light to capture the secondary elements in the frame, such as the clouds, buildings and other scenery—your meter is going to do a pretty good job of telling you how long the shutter needs to be open to get a good exposure of the non-lightning details.
When to shoot
Lightning strikes happen fast, and there’s no way you’re going to capture one that you sat there and waited for. In other words, if you wait to release the shutter when you actually see the strike, it will be gone by the time you hit that button. Instead, you should aim for continuously shooting. I suppose you could call this spray and pray, in a way, but it’s really a much more deliberate version of that often-maligned technique. Because you need to maximize your chances of having the shutter already open when a strike happens, it’s best to just keep taking photos, one after another, until after the storm passes. You’re going to waste a lot of frames this way, but consider the lightning photographers of old who actually had to spend money every time they shot a blank frame (film wasn’t free). Some cameras can actually be set up to just keep taking photos—if yours is one of those, just sit back and watch the show and let the camera do all the work.
A final tip
If your camera can shoot in Raw, I highly recommend switching to this format for lightning shots. The Raw format is going to give you a lot more leeway to make corrections for things like white balance in post processing, though one drawback is that Raw can also slow down the actual picture taking process in camera.
Remember that you can also merge images in post processing later, which can be a fun way to create an image that’s full of lightning strikes, rather than just single strikes. Since you’re going to be using a tripod, this is going to be easy—those other elements in the frame such as the horizon, buildings or mountains will all be in the same part of the scene so that everything will line up between one image and another.
I love shooting lightning, and I think you will too, especially after you discover that it’s not as difficult as you always assumed it would be. Really, it’s just a matter of having the right equipment, a safe location, and the willingness to keep hitting that shutter button over and over until you land the lucky shot. So now that you’re all excited about shooting lightning during the day, make sure you’re checking the forecast daily. Don’t let yourself get caught without a camera when that long-awaited storm finally arrives.
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