How To Photograph Lightning
If you’re interested in lightning photography, this guide will help you capture the perfect image of that split-second when lightning strikes!
If you live in an area where lightning strikes frequently, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.
If, like me, you need to wait until the next storm to brew, reading these tips on how to photograph lightning will mean you’ll be prepared.
Shooting lightning may sound impossible… but with a little preparation, it really isn’t so complicated.
As long as you’re comfortable with basic photography concepts and camera settings such as shutter speed and manual focus, you should be fine.
Investing in the right equipment to photograph lightning is also advisable, so I’ve included a section on that below too.
Let’s dive right into the tips.
Summary: How to Photograph Lightning
Set your camera to manual exposure/manual focus and white balance on auto. Set the shutter to BULB, aperture to f/5.6 and ISO to anywhere between 100-400. When lightning strikes, close the shutter and check your LCD. If the lightning is too bright, reduce your ISO. If it’s too dim, increase it.
5 Tips for Photographing Lightning
1. Finding a Storm
If you want to learn how to photograph lightning, you first need to be able to find it. Get to know the area where you will be shooting; some locations have lightning storms all the time and others occur on only the rarest occasion.
There are also plenty of resources that you can use to find a storm. Check online for storm trackers near you.
Once you’ve found a storm, or even if you happen across one at the right moment, set up your equipment and get ready to take amazing photos!
Storms can be very dangerous, so be sure to check any warnings. You should also keep your distance from the storm to keep yourself and your gear safe.
2. Nailing Your Camera Settings
There a few things to consider when you’re adjusting your settings in preparation for photographing lightning.
You should be reasonably comfortable with manual settings for this. Lightning storms and lightning bolts change so often that you will most likely need to be continuously tweaking your settings.
You can set your white balance to auto.
We recommend starting with an ISO of 200-300. This is fairly low, so don’t be afraid to set it higher as long as you are aware of your camera’s capabilities.
You’ll want to be sure that you can expose a scene properly without sacrificing the quality of the image. If your camera produces noise after an ISO higher than 1600, for example, try to avoid anything above that.
Start with an aperture of f/5 or f/5.6. Again, this is a general starting point, so feel free to change this based on what works best for your equipment and the type of lightning.
Faster lenses can be set to wider apertures, like f/1.2 or f/1.8, but keep in mind that this will make focussing more difficult.
Manual focus is crucial for lightning pictures.
Oftentimes, storms produce very dark skies and cameras are not able to focus automatically in those conditions. Also, lightning often strikes in different places, and even the fastest cameras will not be able to autofocus in time for you to take your photos.
To get a rough guideline of where to set your focus, get a friend to shine a flashlight in the direction of the storm. Then, try to focus on the end of the beam, as far away as possible.
The settings for your shutter speed will vary depending on what type of image you want to take. For a single, sharp bolt, start with a 1/4 second shutter speed.
Observe the lightning storm and try to determine what your settings need to be to capture the brightest bolts. There are also different types of lightning, which needs to be taken into account when changing your shutter speed,
If you want an image that shows multiple strikes in the same frame, play around with longer exposure. Just don’t forget to tweak your other settings to avoid an overexposed photograph.
You can experiment a lot with long exposures to find your desired effect.
Every situation is different, so use your best judgement for the situation and don’t worry too much about consistent settings. It’s most important to figure out how to expose your scene properly.
In time, you will start to get a grasp of what settings are needed depending on variants such as the lighting conditions, the brightness of the strikes, and the equipment you’re using.
When you have a good grasp on how to balance your settings, you can start to play around a lot more and begin to get more creative, unique shots.
3. Staying Safe
Shooting lightning is dangerous.
There is one rule that most storm chasers, photographers, and videographers use to keep themselves safe: If you can hear thunder, you are at risk of getting struck by lightning.
Since you should be shooting out of the rain anyway, this is another helpful tip to keep you a safe distance from the heart of the storm.
Another way you can keep yourself safe is by investing in a lightning trigger like this one for Nikon, or this one for Canon. This lets you stay in your vehicle, which is considerably safer than staying outside.
This is especially important for storms that produce a lot of close-to-ground lightning strikes, which put you at a higher risk.
Let a friend know where you’re headed. The buddy system is another way to keep yourself safe.
You can also use online resources, like storm trackers, to stay aware of the direction of the storm and how fast it’s moving. That way, you can predict if and when you need to pack up and leave.
The most important safety tip is to stay informed to make your safety a priority above all else. Do your research and take whatever precautions necessary to keep your gear and yourself safe.
4. Shooting in Different Weather Conditions
With lightning comes rain, more often than not.
Whenever possible, you should try to stay out of the rain and areas with heavy moisture. Not only will this help protect your gear, it will also make your imgaes much clearer.
Don’t let weather stop you!
Winter thunderstorms and blizzards can produce lightning, which is a phenomenon called “thundersnow”. This is a rare occurrence, but if you have the opportunity, it’s a great way to capture a unique weather occurrence that a lot of people will not have ever seen before.
The dangers of thundersnow include freezing temperatures and low visibility, so for this particular situation, a lightning trigger and a warm vehicle are strongly recommended (as are warm clothes!). You should also keep a close eye on the storm, so you don’t get caught in it.
Being prepared for any situation is the best thing to do. You will have the freedom to shoot in any conditions, at any time, with a high chance of photographing beautiful bolts of lightning.
5. Photographing Lightning Strikes
There are three primary types of lightning: cloud-to-ground (the most commonly known type), cloud-to-air, and cloud-to-cloud.
Cloud-to-air and cloud-to-cloud have the most lightning strikes, so these will give you the most chances to shoot.
There are also three distinct factors when shooting lightning.
Intensity is in reference to the brightness of the bolt. In situations where lightning strikes multiple times at once, you should adjust your settings in accordance with the brightest one – it’s easier to brighten a darker exposure.
Usually, you will not be able to recover blown-out highlights in post-production.
Pattern is another variable. Some storms produce one, distinctive strike at a time, while others can create multiple flashes in a single second.
The third is colour. Lightning is usually white, but it is also possible for it to be yellow, green, or even purple or blue, which can make for some very unique photographs.
You can also adjust your framing and lenses to achieve different effects.
Wider landscape shots are ideal for long exposures with multiple strikes. Don’t be afraid to crop your images later.
Once you’ve made your observations and the necessary adjustments to your gear and settings, you’re ready to start shooting.
Make sure your tripod is set in a wide stance and your camera and lens are firmly in place.
Change your settings, and you’re ready to start. Keep in mind that not all storms happen at night, so if you are shooting at twilight or even during the day, the skies will be brighter and you will need to alter your settings.
To photograph a single lightning bolt strike, you will need to be fast. Press your release button as soon as you see lightning, and hold it down for a few flashes.
Using a fast lens and continuous shooting mode will significantly raise your chances of getting a good, clear shot.
If you’re using a lightning trigger, it will take the picture for you. No matter how you’re shooting, check your previews frequently to maintain proper exposures and sharp focus.
If you want to try your hand at long exposures to capture multiple strikes in one frame, you will need to change your shutter speed so that your shutter remains open for a longer period of time. That way numerous flashes will be captured in the same frame.
This will let more light into your shot, brightening your exposure, so remember to adjust your other settings. Play around with this as much as possible to get used to it.
Long exposures can take time to get used to if you’ve never done it before, but once you have a grasp on the idea, you can experiment with it to get really interesting and unique pictures.
Long exposure also opens up your photography opportunities to subjects like star trails and other night photography subjects.
The more you practice, the more instinctual it will become for you to change settings to get the result you want, which ultimately will make you a better lightning photographer.
Choosing Gear For Photographing Lightning
Every lightning storm and strike can be different, so it’s important to have the right gear so you can get that perfect shot.
We recommend using a digital camera like a DSLR because you can immediately check the image you just took and then adjust your settings accordingly.
Being able to look at the image right away will help you get a feel for what settings make for a nicely exposed image, and you’ll soon be able to instinctually know which settings you need for the image you want. You’ll be able to act faster every time you go out to shoot, which will free up more shooting time.
We suggest looking into DSLR bodies optimized for low-light or night photography. Of course, lightning storms can happen at any time of day, but it’s a good idea to have a camera that works well in low-light conditions so you can shoot anytime you get the chance.
Aim for cameras with a wide dynamic range, that do not produce much noise at higher ISOs, and that do well in dim light situations. This will help you take the best quality lightning photos.
The Nikon D810 is a versatile camera choice for this type of photography and is well known for its ability to retain detail in low-light conditions.
One of its best features is ideal for capturing lightning strikes. With this model, you have the ability to shoot continuously at 5 frames-per-second for as long as you choose, or until your memory card is full – whichever comes first.
This feature gives you the freedom to decide how long your shooting bursts are, which gives you a better chance of capturing multiple awesome pictures.
Another fantastic camera for lightning photography is the Canon 5D Mark IV. This camera can shoot at up to 7 frames-per-second and boasts an impressive 61 AF points.
The Canon 5D Mark IV surpasses all its predecessors in its ISO capabilities and produces high quality, detailed images even up to an ISO of 1600. That’s an amazing feature for all low-light and lightning photographers, beginner or not.
It’s crucial to have a camera that works well in darker conditions because, more often than not, lightning storms have dark skies.
If your budget is a little lower, but you still want a good camera that supports your lightning photo adventures, consider getting Nikon’s D750. This camera is a fantastic option if you are looking for a lower-priced model.
Despite being released in 2014, you should be able to shoot comfortably up to an impressive ISO of 1600 with this model. The Nikon D750 can also shoot up to 6.5 fps, which is extremely important.
Lightning strikes fast! You need a camera that can keep up, and the D750 can do that.
No matter your skill level or budget, there are many amazing choices that will help you capture high-quality lightning images. A lightning bolt strikes fast and the conditions can be unpredictable, so it’s necessary to have the gear that accommodates all of those variables.
For lightning photography, try to find the fastest possible lenses. A fast lens, or “fast glass”, is crucial for lightning images.
This type of lens has a wide aperture so it can let in a lot more light and create the same exposure at quicker shutter speeds, which in turn allows for more flexibility when shooting lightning storms. Since you can let in more light with these lenses, you can get high-quality images without as much potential for noise.
Noise occurs when you have a high ISO, which we’ll get to in the next tip.
Fast glass is well worth the price tag, and it’s definitely worth it when photographing lightning. You want the ability to let in as much light as possible.
The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 is an amazing lens for long exposures and landscape shots, while lenses such as the Canon 50mm f/1.2 are faster and more versatile. 50mm lenses are wonderful lenses that work well in a lot of different scenarios, so it’s a good standard lens to have in your camera bag.
Prime lenses are amazing, but it’s also important to have at least one high-quality zoom lens. The Canon 17-40mm f/4.0 may not be as fast as some of the others, but for its cost, it is a great lens to bring with you for lightning shooting.
Another important piece of equipment you definitely need to invest in is a solid tripod.
Storms create harsh weather conditions, so you want to be sure that your equipment will stay in place at all times. A strong enough gust of wind can knock over some of the lighter models, and that could be enough to severely damage your equipment.
When it comes to brand names, we suggest looking into Manfrotto as they create some of the best value carbon fiber tripods on the market.
The most important part of a tripod is its sturdy, heavy nature, and a lot of lightning photographers trust this brand to support their equipment and keep their cameras firmly in place during even the windiest of storms.
Look into the models that can be set in a wide stance to better support your gear. The wider the stance, the stronger the base, and the harder it is for your camera to fall.
Tripods are especially important for long exposures, since even the slightest amount of camera shake can ruin the image. With a good, solid tripod, you should be able to trust that it will support heavier lenses and any length of exposure.
If you’re interested in lightning photography, we suggest you look into getting a remote shutter release. This will let you take a picture without actually touching your camera, which will reduce camera shake and ultimately give you a crisper image.
A remote shutter release will also allow you to stay in the safety of your vehicle while your camera remains set up outside.
There are a variety of shutter releases to choose from, but if you’re looking for something that’s more cutting edge and related to this niche of photography, you may want to consider a Lightning Activated Shutter Release, or LASR.
Some lightning triggers can detect lightning from up to 25 miles away and will take a photo automatically when they see the flash of light, like the Lightning Bug for Nikon, or for Canon.
Since lightning sometimes strikes once, too fast for you to catch, the fact that this trigger can take the picture for you while you observe from a distance will help you capture even more pictures.
This technology makes this type of photography easier and safer. It’s a win-win situation and well worth the investment.
Your camera gear is a huge factor in how your lightning photos will turn out. Luckily, there are so many great options in a range of prices out there that can help you to elevate your lightning photography.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best shutter speed for lightning?
The best shutter speed when you’re going to photograph lightning depends on what kind of shot you want. Start between 1/15 and 1/4 of a second, and adjust from there.
How do I take pictures of lightning with my iPhone?
Use a tripod! After you’ve set up your tripod, use Burst Mode by pressing and holding the shutter button as soon as you see the first flash, and holding it for a few seconds to really ensure you got the shot.
How do you focus on lightning?
Get a friend to help you with this. Have them shine a flashlight into the direction you’ll be shooting and try to set your focus at the end of the beam – remember to use manual focus!
Shooting lightning is both risky and challenging. But that’s also what makes it so rewarding when you do nail the shot!
If you’re interested in capturing the fierce beauty of mother nature as she crackles lightning bolts across the night sky, do be aware that it will take the right equipment and perhaps a bit of patience and persistence.
Just remember when shooting in a thunderstorm to pay attention to some lightning safety tips so that you and your gear get to the end of the shoot unscathed.
Hopefully these tips will help you in your journey. Best of luck!
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