Taking pictures of lightning is not nearly as hard as you may think. In fact, it’s actually quite simple assuming you’re taking pictures at night. If you’re shooting during daylight hours, you’ll either need lightning quick reflexes (pun intended) or some expensive shutter trigger hardware. At night, the entire scene is dark, or nearly dark, which allows you to keep the shutter open for long periods of time without over-exposing. When a lighting strike occurs, it acts as a natural flash capturing the scene. The same cannot be done when it’s light outside.
The great thing is, you don’t need a high end fancy camera to take lightning pictures. The only options you must have on your camera are listed below:
- “Bulb” setting for long exposures times
- The ability to turn off auto-focus
- Manual control over F-Stop
Other necessary equipment:
- A sturdy tripod
- Cable release or some sort of remote shutter control
- Good lens rag (micro fiber) to remove water and dust
The lower the ISO setting, the less noise you’ll see on the image. Although lightning is short-lived, it’s not really “moving”. So you don’t need a fast ISO. I prefer ISO 100, because it typically produces the best results with digital cameras.
Auto-focus won’t work in the dark. So you’ll have to use manual focus and set the lens to infinity, which can be tricky. You can’t just use the “∞” setting on the lens or rotate the focus ring to the maximum setting. You’ll need to find some distant object that is bright enough to see in the camera viewfinder or on the display, then manually adjust the focus. I use Live View mode on my Canon camera, digitally zoom in on a distant street light, moon or even a star, and adjust the focus.
Aperture and Focal Length
This next part is the technical part and takes time to figure out. There’s a balance between aperture and focal length and if you don’t have them set right, the lightning will either be unimpressive looking, or too bright. As a starting point, I have found with my camera (Canon 6D) that a focal length of 35mm and an F-Stop of about F8 works well. At about 5.6, the lightning is usually overexposed. At F11, the lightning starts to look more like a line and not that impressive. There’s no magic combination, but these settings would be a good starting point.
The exposure time won’t matter because it should be pretty dark out. Simply hold down the cable release button and wait … which could be as long as a couple minutes. Three to five flashes of lightning that flood the sky with light do little to expose the image. If a lightning strike occurs within your frame of reference (what you see when looking through the camera), then release the cable lock. If you happen to catch a lightning strike within a few second of pressing the cable release button, keep the button depressed a while longer to allow the other flashed to light up the surrounding scenery and clouds.
Study the storm to see where the lightning is coming from. Set your camera up and look though the lens to observe a few lightning strikes. Adjust the zoom accordingly. If possible, you want about 20% of the frame to show the ground, and the remaining 80% of the frame to capture the sky. I like to capture the lightning bolt exiting the cloud as it really adds a lot of power to the photograph.
Location, Location, Location
Make sure there aren’t too many headlights from cars, street lamps, or buildings within the shot. If the lights are off in the distance you should be fine and they won’t wash out your exposure. However, if you have a street light right above or in front of you, or cars are coming right at you, then you will want to find another angle from which to photograph the storm.
Be careful where you set up shop. You don’t want to be in an open field, under a tree, or on top of a building. You also don’t want to be right next to the road as cars may have a difficult time seeing you in the dark and can also throw up pebbles which can leave a nice welt (Yeah, I learned the hard way … but it was a great spot!). Just use common sense and don’t put yourself in danger. You don’t have to be right under the storm to capture a great shot, nor would you want to. The rain would cause all sorts of problems.
Trying to lineup the storm with a foreground subject is tough, but that’s part of the fun! It takes practice, but in time, you’ll start to get a feel for where to set up.
Let’s Do It!
Ok, so you’ve got all your stuff and your ready to go. Here’s a quick rundown of how to take pictures of lightning:
- Mount the camera on a tripod
- Point it towards the storm
- Attach the cable release
- Set the camera to the “Bulb” setting
- Make sure the lens in on manual focus, and adjust the focus to infinity
- Study the storm and guesstimate where most of the lightning is occurring
- Adjust the focal length and aperture
- Push the cable release button … and wait
Take note of where you point the camera. What I mean is, while looking through the lens, take note of objects on the far left and far right. Then find those points while not looking through the camera. That way when a lightning bolt strikes, you will immediately know if your camera “saw” it as well. When you push the shutter button, you will no longer be able to see through the camera lens and without the reference points, it’ll be tough to determine if you got the shot. If a lightning strike occurs within your field of view, release the shutter cable button.
There’s a lot of adjusting you need to do when taking pictures of lightning. The storm will move and one part will become more active while another dies down. And remember, don’t be afraid to take very long exposure times. You do not need to release the cable every time a lightning bolt flashes. The large flashes that fill the sky do very little to expose the image. So keep the shutter open until a lightning strike hits directly in front of you camera view.
It can be frustrating at first, but don’t be afraid to experiment! And be thankful you aren’t shooting with print film!