How to Photograph Lightning?

A few days ago a smallish thunderstorm hit our city. While enjoying the strong cool wind on my face and chilling out on a welcome change of weather, after a prolonged hot and humid spell, I was observing the flashes of lightning in the sky.

While I was trying to explain why lightning happens, to a five-year-old something ­struck me. No, it wasn’t the lightning (thankfully), but the thought of jotting down a few pointers on how to capture nature’s fury in all its splendor.

Ride the Lightning by Owen
Ride the Lightning by Owen

Shutter speed

Lightning happens as you know in a flash so ideally too long a shutter speed is not warranted, except in the case when lightning is happening in regular frequency and you might want to keep the shutter speed slightly long so that you can capture a lot of action in a single frame.

ISO

Lightning by Dmitry Kalinin
Lightning by Dmitry Kalinin
ISO should be down to 100 or anything less if your camera is capable of it. Anything above 400 and you are going to get too much brightness which would be a hassle to dial down in post-production.

Additionally, everyone loves a pitch black night sky in the background with expansive flashes of lightning streaking across it. In order to achieve that pitch black sky ISO should be low.

Aperture

Aperture should depend on your focal length.

Ideally, you should be shooting with a wide angle lens. That will allow you to cover a wider section of the sky and with that, your chances of capturing some breathtaking lightning display will increase as well.

The wider the focal length, the smaller the aperture that you should go for. Start with a ballpark figure of f/6.3. That should allow you to have a sharp image with the associated convenience of being able to use a slower shutter speed too.

Focusing

Lightning over the lake by Brian Tomlinson
Lightning over the lake by Brian Tomlinson

Manual focusing, always. There is absolutely no way that your camera can lock focus automatically because, well, there is nothing to lock focus on to!

So, if your lens has a focusing distance indicator switch it to infinity and of course switch to manual focusing while you do so.

Tripod

You’ll need a tripod!

Without a tripod, it will be difficult to hold the camera steady for the four seconds, six seconds or even longer exposure that you are going to use.

I tried once to shoot by keeping the camera on a ledge but it seriously limited my composition options. I couldn’t point the camera in the direction I wanted as there was no way to support it. A camera bag, or better a bean bag, would come in handy in situations where you are unprepared but don’t want to miss out on the opportunity while you are there.

A tripod with a contraption/hook to hold a bag or something to hold some rocks would be nice because that will ensure that your camera is not knocked about by the strong winds.

Lightning strikes by John Fowler
Lightning strikes by John Fowler

Image quality

Always shoot in RAW as it records the information in a loss-less uncompressed and unprocessed format allowing you to post-process the information later on. With JPEG images you don’t have too much of liberty. Anything you do to JPEG image you are going to lose information and degrade the quality.

Related Post: RAW Vs. JPEG and why you should shoot in RAW

Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR)

LENR is a very useful tool and one that you need to turn on before embarking on your night sojourn. It directly reduces noise in your exposures when you shoot with long shutter speeds. In long exposures, the sensor gets warm quicker than in normal exposures increasing the chances of ‘hot pixels’ to produce white specs in the image.

LENR uses two exposures of equal length, the first one which you trigger to capture the scene and the second one that the camera triggers right after the first exposure and with the shutter curtain drawn in, to compare the hot pixels in the image and remove them. This reduces the white specs in the image as well as the fog like peripheral spots.

LENR will, however, extend the actual time taken for your images to be captured. So if you are making four-second exposures, one exposure will take you eight seconds to make. This will extend the gap between when you fire one exposure and then when you are able to fire again. It is worth it? Absolutely. LENR is the best way to eliminate noise from your long exposure images.

Remote shutter release

Buy yourself a remote shutter release. These are small, inexpensive tools that allow you to remote trigger the shutter release mechanism. This is an absolutely precision-control device that eliminates the need to touch your camera in order to initiate an exposure and thereby reduce the chance that the camera is knocked about in the process.

Though this is not an absolute necessity a remote shutter release is handy and has applications in a wide variety of other situations.

Patience

Lightning Reflexes by Andreas Øverland
Lightning Reflexes by Andreas Øverland

Patience is the key when it comes to nature and wildlife photography and capturing lightning photos isn’t any different. Patience alone will ensure that you walk away with at least a couple of keepers from your effort.

Many people come out frustrated by their lightning capture efforts. They simply don’t know which direction to point their camera to. At other times the action happens so quickly that it is over even before they can press the shutter release. Some of it does depend on luck, no doubt. But some of it also depends on careful planning and intuition.

Always point your camera in the direction that the clouds are rolling in. Always stay slightly out of the zone so that you can point your camera in one direction only and don’t have to hunt around. If it is a thunderstorm it will also prevent your camera from getting wet when you are out of its way.

Post processing

I am a photographer, not a digital artist so my whole post-processing regime is strictly minimalist. I would adjust the white balance, exposure, contrast and maybe work with a couple of other sliders. I will most definitely do lens profile correction, remove chromatic aberrations. But that’s about it.

Related Post: Pro Editing Tips for Lightroom

I almost never do local adjustments. 95% of my post processing work is handled in Lightroom or Camera RAW and the only reason that I use Photoshop is so that I can watermark my images. (What can I say, digital copyrights is one of those less appreciated concepts and I have to protect my work).

Having said that I do use Photoshop to do blending, focus stacking or when I am making HDR and other fancy stuff. But those are not every day.

My way is certainly not the only way and you are free to use whatever approach you may feel like. My only suggestion is never to use your post-processing workflow to fundamentally alter your images so that you become a digital artist more than a photographer. Try to get the shot as much as possible in camera.

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