Probably one of the most common questions we get at Light Stalking is how to photograph lightning and get those spectacular shots you see in magazines. But 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 shoot lightning properly can lead to some incredible landscape photography!
Camera 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 as part of your quest:
- camera capable of letting you set the shutter speed manually (usually you’ll need to use the B setting for shutter speed so a Mirroless or DSLR is probably what you will need).
- cable or remote shutter release
- sturdy tripod (the heavier the better as wind can move it around)
- if you're a film shooter, 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! Each place you're likely to be shooting from will be different from the last, so take shelter as best you can – there is no easy solution for storm photographers.
Waiting For Ideal Weather Conditions
The fact that you have to wait for a thunderstorm is quite obvious, but not every thunderstorm is necessarily ideal for lightning photography. You sort of have to make a judgment call on this, but here are some advantageous atmospheric conditions to be on the lookout for:
- Supercell or rotating thunderstorms.
- Thunderstorms that form in advance of an approaching cold front. These storms often produce lightning strikes every couple of seconds.
- Local isolated thunderstorms.
To find out what's the best time for shooting thunderstorms, you can consult one of the weather forecasting sites listed below:
- Wunderground – This amazing website with over 250K members provides localized weather forecasts which include storms.
- Accuweather – One of the most popular forecasting sites today is certainly Accuweather. It gives detailed weather predictions across the world.
- Windy – Originally designed for surfers, this website is highly useful and it allows you to see real-time graphics of various weather phenomena.
- LightningMaps – This website is designed specifically for lightning enthusiasts. You just need to zoom in on your preferred location and check where the lightning bolts are!
The Technique for Photographing Lightning
The Simple Explanation
In a perfect scenario, learning the technique and settings for how to photograph 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. This is obviously a lot easier in situations where there is a lot of lightning and you can try multiple times.
If you really want to get things right, then it's probably a good idea for you to study the ways that landscape photographers assure themselves of getting sharp images – while you probably won't be able to match the sharpness of a landscape taken in perfect conditions due to the usual stormy nature of lightning photography, the general technique will still serve you well (just be aware that your aperture settings might need to be different depending on the intensity of the lightning strikes which we will talk about below).
While it is not necessary to do any more than above, there are also a lot of devices on the market that can detect lightning and fire the shutter of the camera at the ideal time. While not specifically necessary, these types of devices can make life easier for a lightning photographer. There is no real need to get them, but they are useful.
Choosing The Correct Aperture For Lightning Photos
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.
|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|
Generally speaking, f/11 does the trick in most cases. With this aperture you can get good depth of field and sharpness while keeping a reasonable (not too long) shutter speed. You can certainly shoot at f/16 but, depending on the conditions, but that could be asking for a very long a shutter speed and you may end up with an overexposed image. Likewise, you can try an aperture of f/8, but you might not get the optimal amount of depth of field.
Shutter Speed And ISO For Lightning Photography
The assumption is that you will be attempting your lightning photography after dark; if this is true, then you will need long shutter speeds. How long? It depends, which is why it’s best to use the camera’s “bulb mode” so you can have more control over how long the shutter stays open. If you want to set a specific shutter speed, however, try between 15 and 30 seconds.
When it comes to ISO, keeping it low (ISO 100 or even ISO 50) will minimize the noise in long exposures.
How to Photograph Lightning With Good Composition
When you are intent on photographing one component of a scene, it is very easy to get caught up in just that one thing. It's easy to forget that lightning is simply one aspect of your overall composition.
What this means is that you need to be thinking of the overall scene of your photography. Look at the images on this page for example – the most effective ones would have been reasonable shots even without the lightning. It is imperative that you think of the components of a good composition in order to achieve the most effect lightning images. Check out our article on 7 composition tips for landscape photography to give you a start on that.
Storms are dangerous things and when learning how to photograph lightning it is important to remember than safety is far more important than any photograph. 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.
A few of the tips from their fact sheet include:
- Lightning is likely to strike the tallest objects in a given area—you should not be the tallest object.
- Avoid isolated tall trees, hilltops, utility poles, cell phone towers, cranes, large equipment, ladders, scaffolding, or rooftops.
- Don't go to open areas, such as fields. Never lie flat on the ground.
- Retreat to dense areas of smaller trees that are surrounded by larger trees, or retreat to low-lying areas (e.g., valleys, ditches) but watch for flooding.
- Avoid water, and immediately get out of and away from bodies of water (e.g., pools, lakes).
Outdoor photography is all about finding the light, finding the composition and being patient. It is one of the ultimate tests of a photographer, but adding lightning to an image takes things to a whole new level with the amount of patience required.
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.
Wrapping It Up
Before we proceed to post-production, we want to make sure that you memorized all the important steps when it comes to taking photos of lightning.
Here's a brief recap of all you need to know:
How To Photograph Lightning – In Easy Steps
- Secure your camera to your tripod
It’s vital that you are using a sturdy tripod, as any movement (you may have to deal with strong winds) will cause the image to be blurry.
- Set your camera to bulb mode
It is typically indicated by a “B” on the mode dial.
- Dial in your exposure settings
You need to understand what aperture, ISO and shutter speed to use – check out the aperture table we provided!
- Mind the composition
Check to make sure you’re happy with the framing and composition of your pending shot.
- Be careful with focusing
Focus on something in the distance or focus to infinity; in either case, manual focusing is going to work best.
- Get ready
Open the shutter using the remote shutter release.
- Be patient
Wait for a lightning strike (or multiple strikes) to occur within the frame of your shot.
- Release the shutter
Alternatively, you can use your camera’s continuous drive mode and hope that a few lightning strikes occur during shooting.
Post-Production Of Lightning Photography
It is recommended to shoot in raw so that you can more easily develop your images. Virtually all of what you do in editing will be a matter of personal taste, but you may want to pay particular attention to basic editing.
Make sure to adjust contrast, white balance and black level!
- Contrast – It will most likely need a moderate boost.
- White Balance/Color Temperature – Cooler/bluer images have more of an “electric” feel. Feel free to experiment with color temperature – it doesn't have to be correct.
- Black Level – Increase black level to boost overall saturation while also further darkening existing black areas to draw even more attention to the lightning.
You can stack multiple images in post-processing if you want to get an amazing scene with many lightning bolts! But prior to doing this you need to capture a series of images with identical compositions, containing different lightning strikes.
You can do this in Photoshop quite easily – you just need to select the images you want to use, import them as layers and then change the blend mode of every image to “Lighten”. This useful blend mode makes the parts of each layer that are lighter than the below layers visible and that’s exactly what we need. It might not work perfectly for every set of images, but it’s a good method to start from.
The next time a thunderstorm breaks out, snatch up your gear and get out there. Some incredible images await for sure! The tips and tricks outlined in this article aren’t set in stone, but are a very useful template. Try them out and feel free to customize them in your favor.