How-To: Photographing Lightning

What is more electrifying (pun intended) for a landscape photographer than a chance to shoot a storm filled with lightning? 

A lot of adrenaline comes with photographing storms, and rightfully so. For starters, storms and lightning are unpredictable so there is a “thrill of the hunt” factor. It also can be a dangerous activity, as lightning is one of the most dangerous weather phenomenons on earth. 

Its fun! But, if you want to make it even more fun by knowing what you’re doing, there are additional things to consider when photographing lightning. 

Number one is staying safe. In addition to staying safe, there are gear needs to consider, as well as techniques to utilize in the field. Let’s break down each of these considerations one-by-one, starting with gear. 

Gear Needs
What gear do you NEED when photographing lightning storms? Here’s a list of things I’d not go without:

  • A DSLR, mirrorless, or any camera that lets you take control

When shooting lightning you must be able to take control of your camera and tell it what to do with regard to shutter speed, etc. A DSLR, mirrorless, etc allow for that whereas most point-and-shoots and cell phones do not (more on this later). 

  • Lenses with varying focal ranges

Lightning can be photographed using almost any focal length, but a wide angle zoom gives a good range of possibilities. You’ll want a nice variety of lens so that you can compose a great shot that includes the storm and hopefully lightning strikes. This is important – just because you capture an interesting sky filled with awesome clouds and a lightning bolt doesn’t excuse losing sight on overall composition. Take a look at the truly awesome images of lighting. Chances are those images were also carefully put together with regard to composition, as well. Make sure the lens you’re using allows for manual focus as you’ll be using that. 

  • A sturdy tripod 

With storms often come wind. And depending on how close you are, the wind can be pretty intense and/or gusty. A heavier, sturdier tripod will outperform a light tripod, so you’ll likely not want to utilize a lightweight travel tripod for photographing storms. You’ll also be shooting with longer exposure times which require complete stability to achieve the sharpness you’re looking for. 

  • Rain protection for your camera, lens & yourself

For safety sake you want to be shooting storms from a safe distance. Because of this you may find yourself on the outside looking in, so to speak. In that case you might be able to stay completely dry while photographing a cool storm. Sometimes you’ll have rain, and when you do you better protect your gear. All of your gear. Including yourself. A rainsleeve is simple, but effective, at keeping your gear safe. They are also inexpensive. Nice rain jackets can range in price, some being not at all inexpensive. 

  • An intervalometer or simple cable release

An intervalometer will allow you to set things up so your camera will do the work for you while keeping your finger off the trigger thus reducing camera shake. Same for the simple wired (or wireless) remote trigger.   

  • ND Filter(s)

ND6, ND8 or even an ND10 should get the job done.

  • Lots of batteries and memory

This particular photography adventure will use up a lot of both. Have your batteries charged, and have multiple batteries handy. I’m talking at least three, depending on how long you’re going to spend in the field. Memory cards fill quickly when you’re shooting exposures as often as you will be. Have a couple that are formatted and ready to go! 

  • Lightning Gadget (optional)

You could invest in a lightning trigger (Lighting Bug, or Pluto). These devices are designed to recognize a flash and instantly trigger your camera without any effort on your part after getting things set up. A lot of folks like these triggers and use them successfully. Some of these work better than others. 

Just Give Me the Settings!
We all want to know right away what the settings are going to be, right? Well, as with nearly everything in photography, the answer is “it depends,” so its impossible to provide a ‘base setting’ that will work in all circumstances. Details such as, whether you are shooting during the day, or at night are factors that will change everything with regard to settings. Let’s look at each: 

Daytime Storms
Shooting lightning storms during the day is likely the most challenging situation. 

Try the following to get started: 

As always, get your camera on a sturdy tripod. Turn off image stabilization on your lens, if you have that. Manually focus your lens to infinity. If you are using an intervalometer or a gadget lightning trigger (like a Lightning Bug), attach those. Get your ISO low, your White Balance on ‘Auto’ (if shooting in RAW-which you should be doing). During the day the challenge is certainly slowing that shutter speed, yet at the same time not blowing out your image, or a part of your image. Stop down to something like f/16, or f/20 even. Put an ND filter on, maybe something like an ND8 or ND10, depending on how bright things are. Remember, the longer your lens is open, the more chance of capturing a bolt. 

Now, what is the technique? There are a couple options. 

You can try to catch the lightning as it happens, which is extremely difficult. You might invest in a lightning trigger (as mentioned above), which will in theory trip your shutter when the device’s sensor catches a flash. 

My favorite way to shoot lightning during the day is this final option. Add an ND filter (like an ND8 or ND10), close down your aperture to something like f/18, set your ISO to its base (64, 100), then set your shutter speed as slow as you can and then shoot continuously. Using this method you’ll have a ton of images as you shoot, shoot, shoot with most of those shots not getting you anything. But, when you do!! 

Nighttime Events
Nighttime and the corresponding darkness makes things a shade easier, but also comes with some different considerations. 

Let’s look at a few steps for shooting lightning at night assuming that you are out where it is dark and not shooting across something like a cityscape. Some will be similar to shooting during the day. Like these first two steps: Setup your camera on a tripod. Attach your intervalometer or shutter release. Turn off any image stabilization your lens may have because you are on a tripod.

Ever tried focusing when its super dark? Its not easy for your camera’s autofocus to find anything. So, let’s do it manually, and focus to infinity. Keep you ISO as low as you can so that you don’t blowout your image when the lighting flashes.  

Ok, now what? Give me those settings!! 

But the variables! There are so many variables… 

Like, how close is the lightning? If you are shooting a storm that is close (remember safety first, when I say ‘close’ I mean ‘close, but still safe.’) If the bolts are close that means they are putting out more in the way of light which might lead you to needing to stop down your aperture. If its farther away, look to open things up a bit.  

Want more? How about this one. Are the clouds moving fast with a bunch of strikes that illuminate those clouds? If so, you’ll want a slightly faster shutter because slow exposures in this circumstance will produce ghosting in those clouds. 

Conclusion
Whether photographing during the day, or at night, when shooting lightning you may as well expect to take a bunch of images. Of the same thing. And since you have no control over the lightning or the storms that produce it, try to not allow it to be frustrating. You might go out and find that the perfect storm is just not in front of anything of interest. You also might go out, catch a great storm in a perfect spot and come home empty handed. That’s just the nature of the game, so to speak. Landscape photography is really good at teaching/forcing patience. 

While this article was a bit long, and has quite a bit of information within, the single most important thing to walk away with in the end is to never ever ever get so caught up in the thrill of photographing lightning that you find yourself neglecting your own safety. That always must come first because this activity certainly comes with risk if you aren’t careful, or willing to walk away when its time. Otherwise, have an electrifying time out there! 

Kenton Krueger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

 


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