How to Photograph Lightning

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So, you are a regular Explora reader and you recently mastered fireworks photography. Now, the fireworks shows are done and you are hooked on photographing dazzling light, so you decide you want to photograph the lightning that comes with summer storms. Well, again, you have come to the right place!

Before we get started, there are two points I’d like to make:

  1. Lightning is incredibly awesome, fun to photograph, and surprisingly easy to photograph.
  2. Lightning is incredibly dangerous.

Before we get started, let's talk about pointer #2 for a minute...

Lightning kills around 2,000 people a year around the world. This makes it one of the world's most dangerous weather phenomena. So, before you grab your metal tripod and head outside in the face of a storm to take photos, do some homework and use liberal amounts of common sense. For lightning safety tips, go to the NOAA Lightning Safety website and study up.

Now let's talk about #1...

Some awesome and "cool" lightning facts:

  1. About 100 times per second, a lightning bolt strikes somewhere on the earth. That is 8,640,000 strikes per day.
  2. A lightning bolt can reach up to 50,000F (27,760C). That is more than 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun―that same sun that is so hot it warms the earth from 93 million miles away. Cool, right?

Note: There is a lot of reading to be done on lightning, and some of it is incredibly interesting. I am here to talk about photography and not the "anatomy" of a lightning strike; so, in the interest of saving time, I will not get overly scientific here, but feel free to do your own research into this incredible phenomenon.

So, know that lightning is even more awesome and dangerous than you thought; you want to safely go out to capture it with your camera.

As was the case with fireworks photography, there are many different methods that successful lightning photographers employ to capture lightning. And, in the case of lightning, there are lightning-specific gadgets you can add to your camera bag to help you out as well. So, not only are there different ways to get the shot, there are different mousetraps, too.

As you are about to see, the techniques employed for getting good lightning photos are similar to the way you capture fireworks photography, but the biggest difference with lightning is that the photographer has absolutely no idea when and where it will strike―lightning is completely random.

Setup

Again, as for fireworks, an SLR, DSLR, or mirrorless camera is likely to be the best tool for the job. A point-and-shoot camera that has a "manual" mode and minimal shutter delay can also be used. Some mobile apps even exist to help you get lightning photos with your smartphone or tablet, too.

Lightning can be photographed during the day or night, but some gear can help you get the shot you want in any lighting conditions.

  1. A camera support. Note that I did not say "tripod." Generally, with lightning photography, you aren't holding the camera to your eye waiting for a strike; you will set up the camera on a support and hope to capture a strike in the field of view of your lens. For lightning, you can always use your trusty tripod (especially if shooting at night), but to maximize your flexibility, a bean bag or car-window mount might be great options. The car-window mount gives you the added benefit of being inside a vehicle while the storm approaches.
  2. A cable release. Important for reducing camera shake―especially when doing long exposures.
  3. A spare battery. The Law of Murphy says you will miss the best strikes after your camera battery dies!
  4. A pocket full of memory cards. You might be taking a lot of photos of no lightning in-between strikes. Be prepared to delete photos, or pop in another card.
  5. A flashlight, if it is dark outside.
  6. A SAFETY PLAN. As I said before, lightning is dangerous. If it is getting too close for comfort, you need to have a plan in place to take shelter indoors or in a vehicle to protect yourself. Lightning storms are often harbingers of heavy rain and even damaging hail. Do NOT get stuck outside as the tallest thing in a wide-open space holding onto a metal tripod!

The Frame

Storms come from different directions on different days. Keep an eye on the weather to "get ahead" of the storm. There are a number of weather and lightning-tracking websites available on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. There are even some dedicated lightning tracking apps like Lightning Finder and Spark that show up-to-the-minute maps of strike activity.

" The Law of Murphy says you will miss the best strikes after your camera battery dies!"

Fact: Lightning is in the sky, so a wide-angle lens is going to get you the most coverage and maximize your chance of getting a strike in your frame.

Before the storm comes, spend some time at home looking at lightning photos on the Internet. My guess is that the images you are most drawn to are those with not only amazing strikes, but those images that are composed with some sort of interesting landscape elements. A photo capturing the most spectacular lightning strike will likely not be a great photo if there is a construction site, shopping mall, half of a speeding car, or something else awkwardly crowding the frame. From what I have seen, expansive landscapes/waterscapes with big-cloud storms and cityscapes seem to work well as compositional elements for lightning photos. If you want to photograph a strike, no worries. But, if you want to make your photograph stand out as an artistic piece capturing one of nature's most dynamic and dramatic forces, think about the entire photograph, not just the lightning.

This is where you need a bit of luck to enter the fray.

You do not control where and when the storm comes. Nor can you always reach the best vantage point. Remember to stay safe and play the cards you have been dealt. Today might not be the storm for the best photos. My guess is that some of the most successful lightning images are often the result of more luck than skill.

Camera Settings

With fireworks photography, one of the keys is to remain flexible with your camera settings and, if you are not getting the shot you want, change things up. With lightning, the same thing applies, however, fireworks are scheduled. Lightning is not. That last strike you overexposed might be the last one of the storm. That is simply the nature of photographing random and unscheduled events. So, before you head out, have a safety plan, prepare yourself for failure, and hope for success.

  1. Focus. Unlike fireworks, the camera will likely not have time to focus on a lightning strike and then get an image. The trick here is to set the lens or camera to focus at the infinity position so that everything past a certain distance is in focus. See the linked article for a discussion on infinity focus.
  2. White Balance. "Auto" should be fine, but there is a popular opinion that the "cooler" WB settings give the scene a "blue cast" that works well with lightning. It is a matter of personal preference, of course. Also, something else to consider: there are some striking black-and-white lightning photographs that can be captured.
  3. Noise Reduction. Leave it off for your night shots and keep the shutter speeds short enough to not worry about noise buildup.
  4. Flash. Off. Nature is going to pop its awesome flash.
  5. ISO. Set it low. Feel free to leave it at your camera's native ISO setting. For nighttime shots you will be working from a camera support and not trying to squeeze a handheld shot off. For daytime, you don't need higher ISO. Use 100 or 200.
  6. Mode. This is going to be dependent on the technique you are using. I will discuss this in the next section.
  7. Aperture. Variable. If you are being smart and safe, the lightning bolt will not be hitting the ground anywhere near your camera, and depth of field will not be an overriding issue. Your aperture setting will likely be near the middle of the range, but you may change it up depending on the conditions or the technique you are using.
  8. Shutter Speed. This also depends on your technique. Stay tuned...

Technique #1: The Bulb / Long-Exposure Method

This technique is similar to that used for fireworks and, because you may be leaving your shutter open for an extended time, it works best for low-light/nighttime lightning photography. Basically, you place your camera on a support and use one hand to activate the cable release to open the shutter and use the other hand to cross your fingers while you hope for a great lightning strike in the distance.

"Lightning happens fast, but often a return strike lingers in the sky for much more than an instant."

After the lightning strike, close the shutter. Exposure done.

Depending on the pace of the action, you might want to check your LCD to see how the image looked. Do you need to recompose? Was it overexposed as you were waiting too long for the bolt from the clouds? You may need to adjust your aperture if you felt that too much light came into the frame over a short period, or open your aperture if you failed to capture some of the landscape. This is where it pays to be flexible. Also, try to note how long your shutter was open, either by mentally counting seconds, using a watch, or by looking at the last image's metadata on your LCD.

For instance, if you waited 30 seconds for a lightning strike and found the entire image was overexposed, you might want to close the aperture a bit to make sure the next 30-second exposure is better. Or, leave the aperture alone and shorten the exposure. No lightning? Release the shutter and immediately open it back up for the next shot. Remember, lightning is not scheduled, so do not be rigid with your exposures.

One of my favorite lightning photos, "Road," by renowned storm landscape photographer Mitch Dobrowner, was taken using this method. Mitch says, "I do nothing special [for lightning] except compose for it, based on how/where a storm may be 'electrified', and then shoot in sequence via time exposures (between 2 seconds and 10 seconds). Then, I just cross my fingers and (sometimes) pray..... "

Before I move on with more lightning stuff, let’s analyze Dobrowner's image for a moment. I am sure you have probably seen dramatic images of a more prolific lightning strike, but what Dobrowner has done here has successfully combined a striking composition (the road) and incredible lighting (the linear sun break before the horizon) into an image that would likely be successful without a lightning bolt. The lightning's cameo appearance to the left of the road does an incredible job of balancing the dissymmetry of the trees to the right of the road and, therefore, keeps the otherwise symmetrical image in balance. The image is a wonderful landscape photograph and works particularly well because it is a whole image; not just a photo of a bolt of lightning.

I mentioned Murphy's Law earlier. It comes into play here, as well. I can almost guarantee that if you decided to reduce your aperture after that first exposure, the next bolt of lightning will happen within moments of you opening the shutter and you will be left with an underexposed landscape!

I can tell also tell you, from experience, that the absolute best lightning strikes happen when you are reviewing images on your LCD or making adjustments to the camera! Thanks, Murph!

Technique #2: The Wild West Method

How quick is your shutter finger? Lightning happens fast, but often a return strike lingers in the sky for much more than an instant. A lot of great lightning shots have been made by photographers letting the initial strike serve as the catalyst for opening the shutter. To do this you will need 1) fast reflexes and, 2) a camera with very little shutter lag. Today's point-and-shoot cameras have minimal shutter lag, but "fast shutter lag" used to be the sole realm of SLR and rangefinder cameras.

So, set up your camera on a support and select "bulb" as your shutter speed. Have the cable release under your itchy shutter finger, take a deep breath, and as soon as you see a flash, press the button! When the strike ends, release the shutter.

Check out the photo or keep your eyes on the sky and get ready to fire another shot.

Technique #3: The Gadget Method

If you think that using technology is cheating, you might want to stick to the first two techniques. If you believe in better living through tech, a lightning trigger might just be the think for you. B&H sells some great lightning triggers from Vello, AEO, MK Controls, Nero, and Ubertronix. These devices mount on your camera's hot shoe or tripod connect to the camera via a cable (make sure you get the correct version for your camera), and feature sophisticated electronic triggers that tell your camera to take a photo when they detect lightning.

Some triggers, like the Vello Freewave Stryker, are multi-purpose, meaning that they're not just for lighting. The Freewave Stryker can trigger your camera using motion detectors or sound detectors for photographic projects where the storms are not rolling in.

Some of the triggers detect an emission of infrared light that precedes a lightning strike and others are multi-use―triggered not only by lightning , but they also have modes for motion, laser light, sound, and other external inputs. Once triggered, they can automatically activate your camera's shutter in a fraction of a millisecond. These triggers often detect lightning during both day and nighttime.

Lightning photography expert and storm chaser Roger Hill is a fan of using lightning triggers during the day, but prefers to use the bulb method for his nighttime shots. For the lightning triggers to work, he says, "You have to have a return stroke from a lightning bolt to capture it, as a lightning strike is VERY fast, so fast even the trigger cannot detect a single stroke."

Final Thoughts

In summary, there are a few things to remember before you go out and try to catch lightning in a camera:

  1. Lightning is random. It is not scheduled. It comes and goes as it pleases. Be prepared to come away empty-handed when trying to photograph it but do not be discouraged. With more than 8 million lightning strikes every day on the planet, it is likely you will have more opportunities.
  2. LIGHTNING IS DANGEROUS. Yes, I already said that―several times. There is a reason for my redundancy. The bottom line is that we are talking about taking photos of something that can kill or severely injure you. Be safe. Be smart. Use common sense. Have quick access to shelter. If you are pointing your camera straight up to capture lightning, you should find yourself photographing a ceiling or the overhead of your car because you were smart enough to go inside several minutes before the storm got close.

So, have fun, good luck, get some great shots, but, most importantly, BE SAFE!

Add new comment

This is good stuff

Thank you, Chris!  I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Great Advice. Thank you for the article.

Thanks for reading, James. And thank you for the compliment!

Excellent information, especially the safety points!

Thank you, Richard! Stay safe out there!

Thank you for the excellent article and tips. shooting lightning is an energetic challenge that can obviously yield some beautiful photographs. I have graduated from the "wild west" photographer to now a photograher leaning toward the bulb ****. I know I need to save up for a lens with a wider aperture setting but.... thats another story.......

Hi Jim! Thanks for your comments!

If you are looking for a larger-aperture lens for lightning photography, do not be afraid to find an older manual focus used lens for the task. As you are likely shooting lightning at great distances (hopefully!), you might find that an older MF lens with a hard-stop at infinity is a great benefit and that grabbing a used example fits better into your budget!

Stay safe out there!