How to Photograph Lightning (With Awesome Examples)

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I'm Rob, the editor of Light Stalking. I try to keep this ship on course.

Photographing lightning can be a damn tricky thing to attempt. Besides the obvious safety concerns, the photographic variables are difficult to overcome and the conditions don’t usually make for easy shooting. Even so, as the shots below show, good preparation and knowledge of how to photograph lightning properly can lead to some incredible photography!

sky is crackingphoto © 2006 G Meyer | more info (via: Wylio)

West Texas Lightning Stormphoto © 2005 Jeff Kramer | more info (via: Wylio)

temporale in montagnaphoto © 2009 greo77 | more info (via: Wylio)

Equipment for Photographing Lightning

It’s important to get your setup right and this is something you have a little while to think about (unlike the actual process of shooting lightning which can be quite adrenalin-filled). Here’s some of the stuff you will need:

  • camera capable of letting you set the shutter speed manually (usually you’ll need to use the B setting for shutter speed so an SLR or some DSLRs are probably what you will need).
  • cable or remote release
  • tripod
  • ISO 100 film or equivalent digital setting (ISO 200 is also acceptable and even preferable for certain situations explained below)

A quick thing to remember is that it is likely that you will be in a spot where you and your equipment are getting rained on! I always carry a poncho in my camera kit for such occasions, but have also been known to take along a very hefty umbrella for when things get really nasty. To be honest, I have never found the perfect solution for shooting in the wind and rain so if you have some advice, leave it in the comments!

Ruixatphoto © 2008 gilles chiroleu | more info (via: Wylio)

The Technique for Photographing Lightning

The Simple Explanation

In a perfect scenario, photographing lightning at night should be quite simple.

Just make sure the camera is on a tripod and you have a cable or remote shutter release. Set the focus to infinity, the ISO to 100 or 200 (on DSLRs) and choose the aperture accordant to the intensity of the lightning. Then open the shutter until the lightning goes off and then shut it just after you get a flash of lightning.

Lightning on the Columbia Riverphoto © 2007 Ian Boggs | more info (via: Wylio)

The Real Life Explanation

In real life things are almost never as simple as that. You will probably have to deal with light pollution or you might even be trying to incorporate city elements like the shot above. If the clouds are moving (and they likely are) and you leave your lens open too long, you’re going to end up with blurred clouds. These situations call for a slightly different approach that is difficult to generalize about.

Tormenta / Stormphoto © 2007 Vero Villa | more info (via: Wylio)

How to Choose the Correct Aperture

This is going to take a little bit of judgement on your part and largely relies on how intense the lightning is and how far away it is. This table is a guide to what you’ll probably need to shoot at. It is not set in stone. The top row refers to the brightness of the lightning and the first column refers to how far away the lightning is.

Blinding Average Dull
Close Lightning ISO 100 @ f/16-22 ISO 100 @ f/5.6-11 ISO 100 @ f/5.6
Mid-distance ISO 100 @ f/11 ISO 100 @ f/5.6 ISO 200 @ f/4-5.6
Distant Lightning ISO 200 @ f/4 ISO 200 @ f/2.8 ISO 200 @ f/2.8
Note: Unless you are a hard core storm chaser, most of the time you are going to be photographing distant lightning so you will probably need a wide aperture.

Thunderphoto © 2010 Alex Alvisi | more info (via: Wylio)

Storm Safety

Storms are dangerous things. Photographing lightning might sound exciting, but it’s also quite dangerous. Remember that if a storm is nearby and you are on a hill, on top of a building, near a tree, in an open field, on the phone or near a power pole or fence, then you are already in danger. Be sensible. Check out this lightning safety page before you do anything and when you have finished reading it, read this one too.

Lightning in Copenhagenphoto © 2010 Henrik Thorn | more info (via: Wylio)

Patience

It takes a lot of practice to get a good shot of lightning. Be patient. Expect that most of your shots won’t work out. But remember that when one does work out it will be worth the wait.

More Lightning Photography Resources

25 thoughts on “How to Photograph Lightning (With Awesome Examples)

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  2. drec

    I’ve made a clear Perspex Unit to house my camera and have a remote with 100 Mt range so I can shoot from safety this coming season. The test will be how stable it’ll be in strong winds. If it works, I’ll return and show some images of the set-up.

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  10. Michael

    If you are getting wet, you are in the wrong spot to shoot the storm, because you are in it. You need to be in front, behind, or adjacent to the storm to shoot the lightning. Next most essential tool to the camera itself is a laptop / iPhone / iPad with a weather radar feed to see where the storm is moving!

  11. Daniel

    “Be patient. Expect that most of your shots won’t work out.”

    You can say that again! Last time I did lightning shots, I took 700 and got 2 good ones!

  12. Funny_Bunny_Mel

    In response to your question about avoiding wind and rain, I recently shot lightning from my car. Setting up the tripod with such odd feet was its own challenge, but not having more than a window cracked just enough fo the lense to worry about when things got really heavy was a blessing.

  13. Pete

    I use a window mount (like you’d put a spotting scope on) for my camera when I’m out chasing storms. It allows me to remain in the safety and comfort of my truck and out of the rain. I also devised a camera cover using a large kitty litter bag and doing some plastic welding–much better than spending $30 on someone else’s plastic bag.

    Here are a few examples of my results: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36775022@N00/sets/72157627052278374/

  14. Sherry

    I did an internship with a videographer who parked and setup in carwash (quarter-style) to take weather shots. Worked out beautifully and we never even got damp.

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