How to Take Pictures of Lightning

How to take pictures of lightningTaking 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. The reason being, at night the entire scene is dark, or nearly dark which allows you to keep the shutter open for long periods of time without exposing the sensor or film. When a lighting strike occurs, it acts as a natural flash exposing 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. The only options you must have on your SLR (single lens reflex) camera are listed below:

    • “Bulb” setting for long exposures times
    • The ability to turn off auto-focus
    • Manual control over F-Stop

Some point-and-shoot type cameras may work, but it’s much easier when you have the ability to adjust the above settings.

I’ve found that I mostly take pictures of lightning using a focal length between 20mm to 50mm. Therefore, I find a variable focal length lens desirable, but not needed. Other desirable equipment pieces are:

    • A tripod is absolutely necessary
    • Cable release or some sort of remote shutter control
    • Good lens rag (micro fiber) to remove water and dust

I’m going to assume everyone has a digital camera these days. If you are still shooting film, you probably know all that I’m about to talk about.

ISO Setting

The lower the ISO setting, the less noise you’ll see on the image. Although lightning is fast, it’s not “moving” per say. So you don’t need a fast ISO. I prefer 100. There’s really not much more to the ISO setting. It used to make a difference on print film, but not so much anymore.

Aperture and Focal Length

This next part is the technical part, which isn’t that difficult, but takes time to figure out. There’s a balance between aperture and focal length and if you don’t have them set right your pictures will be too dark or washed out. 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 washes out the exposure. At F11, the lightning itself doesn’t look all that impressive because it looks too thin.

Exposure Times

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 scenery to show up as well.

Reference Frame

Study the storm for a bit to see where the lightning is coming from. Set your camera up and look though the lens for a bit to gauge how much you need to zoom in or zoom out. 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. Just my opinion, though.

Location, Location, Location

How to take pictures of lightningMake sure there aren’t too many headlights from cars, street lamps, or buildings where you’re photographing from. 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.

Trying to lineup the storm with a foreground subject is tough, but that’s part of the fun!

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:

    • Set 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 (auto focus and image stabilization should be turned off)
    • Set the focus to infinity
    • Study the storm for a few minutes to see where the most lightning is occurring
    • Set 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. The reason being, when you push the shutter button, you will no longer be able to see through the camera lens. If a lightning bolt hits 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 occur within the cloud and 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!

1 Comment

  1. gr8hifi

    VERY late to commenting on this, but did want to drop a thank you for writing up an excellent how-to.

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