How to Photograph Lightning can be challenging and very unpredictable. So if your a beginner, and don’t capture the perfect lightning shot the first time. Try not to get discouraged, it takes practice and there’s always next time. Even the best photographers miss those bolts running across the sky.
First things first, always keep in mind your safety. Lightning can strike as far away as 6 to 10 miles from the storm.
So that means when your storm chasing and wanting to photograph it. Keep at least 6 to 10 or more miles away from the storm.
It’s best if you can photograph lightning under a covered area. So your protected from a strike or a sudden down pour of rain. If your out in the open with no shelter, make sure to keep away from any tall trees or poles at least 50 ft. Lightning is over 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit and heats up the air along its path causing it to expand rapidly. So if it hits something it’s looking for another way out, and you don’t want to be in it’s that path way!
- A sturdy tripod – That can hold your camera still and secure, especially if there’s a lot of wind. Any shake, will cause blurry photos. You’ll also be taking long exposures, 1-3 seconds or more.
- Digital SLR Camera
- Lens – (this will be your personal choice. Most photographers like to use a wide angle zoom lens. Such as a 28-150mm). But, I have found that my kit lens or my 50mm has worked just as well. Just make sure your lens has a switch on it to put it into manual focus mode.
- Water proof camera cover.
- Remote Release/Cable – you want to avoid pressing the shutter button on the camera itself. Because the vibration will cause blurry photos.
- Small flash light.
When checking for storms in my area, I will usually check with at last three different weather sources. I’ve had one source say it will storm in an hour, while the next says in a few minutes. If you want to know exactly were the lightning strikes are, check out LightningMaps.org. You’ll want to get as accurate as you can when the storm is coming. So you can scope out the best spot and get your gear set up. That’s easy to get to and leave quickly if the weather turns really bad. If you want to know how far the lightning is from you. watch for a flash then count the number of seconds until you hear thunder. For every 5 seconds the storm is one mile away. Divide the number of seconds you count by 5 to get the number of miles.
It’s best if you can photograph lightning under a covered area. So your protected from a strike or a sudden down pour of rain.
If your shooting were you don’t have access to a covered building. Avoid standing near trees, poles, or anything else that could possibly attract lightning to you. You’ll also want keep a water proof cover or plastic bag handy. Just in case it starts raining, you don’t want your expensive camera and lens getting wet.
When photographing lightning, it’s best if the storm is moving from left to right or right to left away from you. This keeps the storm in front of you and moving away instead of to you, and you’ll get the best photos.
How to Photograph Lightning
- Set up your camera on a sturdy tripod, then attach your cable release.
- Use a zoom lens and set it to manual focus and then focus to infinity, on the distant horizon. If your lens doesn’t have the infinity marking on your lens. You can learn here, how to find were your infinity is on your specific lens. Take a test shot and make sure your picture looks sharp. If I’m photographing the lightning at night, and in a very dark area. I take my very bright LED flashlight and point it out in the distance at something, then focus my lens on it and lock it in. When it’s light enough, there are times that I use my back button focus for focusing. You can learn about back button focusing here. I use the back button focusing with most of my photography, it takes some getting used to. But, once you’ve got it down, I think you’ll like it as well.
- ISO: Once I’ve found my focus, I set my ISO to it’s lowest setting. On my Nikon it’s 100.
- Camera Mode: in full manual, in bulb.
- Shutter Speed: This will be by trial and error as each lightning strike is different. Some say to hold down your cable remote from 5-30 seconds. I personally prefer anywhere from 1-3 seconds. The reason is, when the lightning bolts, it could be very bright with several bolts at the same time and you are more than likely to get a blown out photo. With shooting from 1-3 seconds, It’s not so bright and at the end of 3 seconds I’ve caught enough of the lightning.
- Aperture: to f/5.6. If your photos are to bright use a darker aperture of f/8, f/11 even up to f/16.
- White Balance: When photographing the storms I like to change my white balance to the cooler side. It gives my night lightning photos an interesting look to them.
- After a few shots make sure to look at your photos on the back of your LCD screen. Making sure they are in focus and if you need to adjust your f/stop up or down.
- Tips: If the storm your photographing doesn’t have a lot lightning in it, I like to use the thunder count rule of thumb. This helps me to know about when the next bolt is about to happen. Then I’ll start holding my remote down for 3 seconds, release it and do it again. If the lightning is intense then you’ll be able to just keep shooting from 1-3 second inter voles.
- In my area, the storms are unusually above cloud lightning. But I still like photographing it because you can get some very interesting light and cloud formations.
So if you’ve never ventured out into photographing lightning, you may want to give it try. Just remember safety first! Never ever take a lightning storm for granted. It may seem far enough away, but your tripod can still attacked it to you.
Have fun and be safe out there!