How to Photograph Lightning

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Photographs of lightning aren't particularly difficult to take. It's mostly a matter of being prepared to get a good image when lightning appears.

My friend Christina Lawrie is much better at photographing lightning than I am. Here's how she does it.





Preparation

The problem with many lightning photographs is that although the lightning itself is interesting, what's illuminated on the ground is not. It's too late to start thinking about composition when a storm is imminent. Part of what sets Christina's images apart is that she has planned where to set up her camera before a storm arrives.

Christina lives at the edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area. She has better access to good scenery than most of us do. When she's driving around in her area, she looks for places that would provide a good setting for a lightning photograph. She makes notes in a small notebook that she keeps with her. Because storms in the Southwest tend to be very localized, it's important to have more than one good location in mind.

When choosing potential settings, Christina looks for an interesting foreground. She also looks for features that would be appealing when silhouetted against a lightning strike in the background. 

During storm season, Christina keeps an eye on the weather forecasts, both short-term and long-term. If storms are likely, she keeps an eye on the sky and on the weather radar. She keeps her camera, tripod and rain gear readily available, so that she can get going in a hurry when a storm is near.

Exposure

When setting up for a lightning shot, Christina turns off the auto-focus feature. It won't work well—if at all—in the darkness. She manually focuses the lens on infinity, and leaves it there.

Photographing a storm consists of taking long exposures and hoping that lightning will strike while the shutter is open. Christina keeps doing that until there's no more lightning, or until safety becomes a concern. She typically shoots at f/8 for fifteen to thirty seconds, with the camera set at ISO 100. Obviously, a tripod is essential for such images. If a storm is active, she may get more than one lightning strike during a single exposure. The next photograph was exposed for twenty seconds, during which she captured three different lightning strikes.

Christina turns off the in-camera feature that reduces noise during long exposures. The primary reason is that her camera is out of action while the feature is operating, and she doesn't want to miss any lightning strikes. She will deal with noise later in Photoshop. Shooting at ISO 100 tends to minimize noise, as well as facilitating the long exposures that are necessary.

It should go without saying that safety comes first. Lightning can kill. No photograph is worth dying for. Christina pays close attention to the direction in which a storm is moving, and makes sure that she is not in its path.

Part of what's fun about photographing lightning is its unpredictability. Recently, Christina was out photographing one storm that turned out to be a dud. On her way home, though, another storm appeared from nowhere and produced this remarkable image:

 As you can see, there's no great mystery about photographing lightning. It takes a little know-how, some preparation, persistence, and the right weather. It also helps to be as talented a photographer as Christina is. Her photographs of lightning are striking—sorry, I couldn't resist—but so is much of her other work. You can see it here

Don Peters' photographs can be seen here.