Lightning photography 101

Impressed by great lightning photos by our followers? Want to photograph lightning yourself? Here is a step-by-step tutorial on how to do it!

What you will need:

  • A camera with the option of making long exposures. Any interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or mirrorless) will have the option, many compact cameras and some phone cameras also have the option.
  • A remote trigger for the camera (or timer).
  • A tripod.
  • A thunderstorm. Preferably at night.

How to do it
Wait for a thunderstorm, preferably in the evening or during the night. Set up the camera on the tripod. First, avoid using Auto and preset scene modes. You need to be in control of the camera. Set the mode to long exposure. There are several ways about it and they may vary depending on your camera brand. One of these is M – Manual. Some cameras may have B – Bulb mode. This mode allows you to use a remote trigger to do exposures of any length. The other mode that is useful is the shutter priority mode (Tv or S). With this mode you can select the exposure time for your photo.

After you select the mode and prepare the camera, make sure the camera is level. Look through the viewfinder and make sure the horizon is level. Then focus the lens. The easiest way to do it is to set it to manual focus, and focus it on a distant light. Once you have focused, keep the lens in manual focus mode to avoid the camera refocusing. Set the aperture and ISO, depending on the distance to the thunderstorm – at a medium distance f/5.6 and ISO 400 will be a good starting point and then adjust if needed. And then, keep firing away and have fun!

Getting it wrong & getting it right
There are things that can go wrong and anyone who has photographed lightning has been there. Here are some lightningwrongs:

Aperture too wide and/or ISO too high! If the photo is overexposed it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to recover it in postprocessing.

Good exposure, fine lightning and just plain unlucky. One of many partial misses.

Lightning safety
Always remember – safety first! No point in getting injured or killed for a photo! If lightning is striking within several kilometers, you are in danger. Consider your actions. If you feel your hair rising or even feel or *hear* the static electricity – get out of there, immediately. There will be other thunderstorms.

Lightning photography tips
Some tips to get the most out of your lightning photos:

  • Find a spot that would otherwise also make for a good photo.
  • Check your ISO and aperture: as a storm approaches the lightning will be increasingly brighter. Adjust accordingly and frequently.
  • Check your focus every once in a while.
  • Choose a focal length (field of view, or zoom if you will) that frames the lightning nicely. No point in using a very wide field for lightning that is far away.
  • Use longer exposures to capture multiple lightning strikes.
  • For every lightning bolt you capture well, there will be 5 you capture only partially (part of them is outside of the field of view of the camera) and 10 will be somewhere else completely. Don’t worry about it. Point the camera in the direction with the most activity.
  • Have a backup battery. If you use Sony mirrorless, have backup batteries.
  • If you do not feel safe, *stop*. Pack your gear and leave. No point in getting hurt for a photo.

Oh yes. There is no optimal camera. Canon is fine. Nikon is just as fine. Pentax works well too. And Sony. And Fuji. And Phase One, if you have one.

Pick a good scene. A nice foreground and background will help create more dramatic photos!

Distant storms are also a fine target for lightning photography!

Daytime lightning photography
You have probably seen one of those spectacular photos of daytime lightning. Those photos look spectacular indeed! But, as it is exceedingly difficult (but not impossible) to trigger the camera fast enough when you see the lightning bolt, you will need an additional piece of equipment – a lightning trigger. It is quite an expensive piece of gear, but worth it if you want to capture daytime lightning.

You’re set. Lightning photography is lots of fun! We love it! And we love fine lightning photos! We would love to see your fine lightning shots – submit them to our Facebook Page or to the SWE Photography Contest. Have fun!