One of the questions that most people ask me in Ask David is how to capture lightning strikes. It seems impossible, doesn’t it? If lightning strikes so fast, how do photographers get it onto their cameras? I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s a lot easier than you think. You only need a bit of knowledge, and you’ll be good to go.
One key to taking pictures of lightning is to have a camera that allows you to take bulb exposures. A bulb exposure is a photograph where you get to decide how long you want to keep your shutter open. Usually you (or your camera) decide this beforehand with the shutter speed setting, but in bulb mode, you decide when you want to close the shutter by pressing the shutter button a second time.
Not every digital camera has a bulb mode. If you have a point-and-shoot, you might be out of luck. ALmost all Nikon DSLR and Canon DSLRs. Those of you with point-and-shoot cameras can still take lightning pictures without using bulb mode, but you will have a little less control. I’ll show you how it is possible later on in this tutorial.
How To Setup Your Camera To Capture A Lightning Strike
It helps to think of your camera like it’s a catcher’s mitt. You’re just trying to keep your shutter open long enough to “catch” the lightning. Once the lightning strike has occurred, you can close the shutter and keep your picture.
The savvy ones may have guessed that you will be taking most of your lightning photos at night. That’s because there is no other light source to crowd out the lightning strikes you will be capturing. You will need to hold the shutter open for at least 5 seconds in most cases. If you were to do this in the middle of the day, the entire photo would be white.
Lightning photography can also work during the twilight and early morning hours. There is always a small chance you’ll get the shot, but your window of time for capturing it is much much smaller. Instead of having 15 seconds to get your photo, you’ll have 1/15 of a second to capture it. Otherwise your camera's sensors are overwhelmed with the amount of light and your resulting image is full of white.
Take a Tripod And Camera Cover
It isn’t even a choice, really. You need the tripod in order to keep everything else in the image from blurring. If it looks like it's going to rain, you'll also need a plastic bag to cover everything except your camera’s lens.
Most lightning photographers prefer to wait until a storm has passed before attempting to photograph lightning. It doesn’t matter if you are covering your camera with a raincoat, you’re going to do some damage if you’re in the middle of a downpour. Besides, it's very dangerous to be outside holding an electricity conducting tripod with lightning overhead.
Camera Settings Needed
The idea is to leave the shutter open for long enough to capture a lightning strike, but not long enough that too much light creeps into your camera and the whole image looks white. When you are setup, take a few test shots first (even without capturing a lightning bolt) and work out how long you can leave the shutter open without ruining the photo. This is usually between 5 and 30 seconds depending on the amount of ambient light around.
Let's say you have worked out your shutter speed is 30 seconds. The idea is to point your camera towards the lightning and keep the shutter open until you see a strike, or the 30 seconds shutter time has elapsed. Then close the shutter. I immediately start a new photo by opening the shutter once more and starting the 30 second count again.
There are certain while balance settings that tend to work better for photographing lightning. It doesn’t matter if you are using a digital SLR or a point-and-shoot, fluorescent white balance is your mode of choice. It gives the sky a purplish short of tinge that makes your lightning photography much more colorful and interesting.
I always follow every shot that 'captures' a strike with a quick review on my LCD screen. If the framing isn’t quite right, I adjust my camera. A lot of professionals prefer to look through the viewfinder while doing this. If they see a strike to the left, they move the camera a little closer the left. With enough subtle adjustments, you’ll get it right.
Camera Settings for your Point and Shoot Camera
Some point and shoot cameras allow you to access manual mode. From manual mode, choose an aperture of F8. If your camera supports bulb mode, use that. Otherwise, use a shutter speed between 5 seconds and 30 seconds. You won’t be able to hold the shutter open as long as you want (like bulb mode), but it should enough time to allow you to capture the next lightning strike.
Camera Settings for your Digital SLR
Once you are setup, you will want to set your aperture to F8 and use manual focus to get the shot. Twist your focus ring to infinity, point your camera where you believe the lightning will strike, and then press the shutter.
If you are in bulb mode (as suggested earlier), the shutter will open and stay open. Some digital SLR cameras have a time limit for this. Some Nikons, for example, only allows me to keep the shutter open for 30 seconds. After that, it forces the shutter closed.
Once lightning strikes, close the shutter to complete the photo.
[Thanks to Grant Murphy for the great example lighting images]
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