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How to photograph lightning – Lightning photography 101

Love great lightning photos? Want to make it into a superb lightning photo yourself? We have put all of our experience in this step-by-step tutorial that will help you get the most out of your lightning photography!

What you will need

 

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

The great thing about lightning photography is that you do not need professional photo equipment to get great photos of lightning. In fact, just about any DSLR or mirrorless camera made in the last 15 years will do fine.

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 on the lens. The easiest way to do it is to set it to manual focus and focus it on a distant light.

Most cameras have Live View – use this feature to obtain precise focus. 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, ISO 200 and f/5.6 will probably be a good starting point.

There is still quite a way to a great lightning photo – so here are some tips, tricks & shortcuts!

Lightning photography tips

You can use the table below for general settings. Keep in mind that lightning bolts may vary significantly in their strength and consequently in their brightness. While a smaller bolt at a certain distance may be properly exposed, a big bolt at the same distance will be overexposed. Also, the brightness of lightning, particularly at larger distances will depend greatly on the amount of haze in the air; a very hazy airmass will dim the lightning, making it less bright, so a wider aperture or higher ISO will be needed.

 


 

General ISO and aperture settings for photographing lightning at various distances. We assume ISO 100 is the base (lowest) setting on your camera; most do, some cameras have a base ISO 200. You will need to close the aperture by an additional stop to get the same exposure (e.g. f/5.6 -> f/8, f/11 -> f/16, …).

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

  • Find a spot that would otherwise also make for a good photo. A good, interesting scene. Avoid scenes cluttered with trees or objects that will obscure lightning.
  • 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. Zoom in on your photos, check if they are still in sharp focus. If not, refocus.
  • 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, but –
  • Be aware that you may get unusual effects by exposing moving clouds by two or more flashes. If clouds move fast, stop your exposure after the first lightning flash.
  • 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 backup batteries. And sufficient space on your memory card(s). You will be making many photos.
  • If you do not feel safe, *stop*. Pack your gear and leave. No point in getting hurt for a photo.

And, for all gearheads out there: there is no optimal camera. Canon is fine. Nikon is just as fine. Sony works well too. And Fuji. And Pentax. And any other camera. Even film still works too.



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!

There are more ways of getting it wrong, than getting it right. So here are a few more tricks on how to get it right.

Getting it wrong and getting it right

 
There are things that can go wrong and anyone who has photographed lightning has been there. Here are some lightning wrongs:

Aperture too wide and/or ISO too high! Unexpected (!!) close range (~500 m) lightning bolt. ISO 200, f/7.1. Completely blown out. If the photo is so badly overexposed it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to recover it in post-processing.

Adjusted aperture, closed from f/7.1 to f/13. ISO 200. The next lightning bolt at approximately the same distance is properly exposed.

Aperture too wide and/or ISO too high! This often happens if you aim to capture storm structure and raise ISO and open the aperture.

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

Another tip: keep your optics and sensor clean. Particularly as you close the aperture, dust on the rear lens element and in particular on the sensor becomes very apparent – in the form of smaller or larger dark specks scattered across the photo.

Of course, any camera that is being used will slowly accumulate dirt on the sensor. You will need to get your sensor cleaned from time to time. Do not worry about it too much though, you can easily remove dust in post-processing.

Get your focus right.

 
This is extremely important. There is no point in rushing and getting a soft focus: any time you have gained by rushing it will be wasted in soft, out-of-focus photos. Even if you are late, if there is lightning already ongoing, take your time to get the focus right.

This has become more and more evident with higher megapixel sensors and no anti-aliasing filter in some cameras. Even entry-level cameras now have ~25-megapixel sensors and higher-end cameras are around 50 megapixels. They are unforgiving about focus! Get your focus right.

Lightning photography – 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. Always keep close to a shelter or your car and retreat inside when the situation becomes unsafe!

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.

A thought or two about photography gear

There is no optimal camera for lightning photography. All modern cameras are great for capturing lightning – there may be differences in pixel count/resolution, some difference in noise and dynamic range and certainly, if you ask on photography forums, you will get brand fanboy ‘advice’ – but any recent interchangeable lens camera will do great. Even less recent cameras will do fine: photos in this article were made with the most modern cameras as well as cameras that first came out in 2004.

Learn how to get the best photos with your current camera, before upgrading to a new camera to improve your photos. Before getting a new camera, get a good tripod. If your camera body (and lens) is not weather-sealed, get or make a rain cover.

Shoot!

You’re set. Good luck! And remember, if you do not get a great photo of lightning on your first try – don’t worry about it. All those great lightning photos on the internet: nobody got them on their first try. It takes perseverance, a good lightning storm, proper settings, a good scene, and not just a little luck. Keep trying and you will get a great photo soon. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself!

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!

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