Lightning is truly astonishing. The flashes of electricity escaping the sky spark fear and awe within. As a photographer, capturing lighting can be an incredible experience. In this article, we share everything you need to know on how to photograph lightning. From gear to camera settings and composition, this article will leave you fully prepared to take on the challenge of capturing lightning.
- A lens or two
- A camera (and a back-up if you need one)
- A selection of clear memory cards
- A camera battery (and some spares)
- A sturdy tripod
- Neutral density filters
- Lightning triggers
Believe it or not, the lens you choose for your lightning photography isn’t actually a major factor in getting stunning shots. It simply boils down to personal preference. Do you want a more landscape style shot with a wide field-of-view? If so, then a wide-angle lens is probably best. If you want tighter or more intimate shots, pick a lens with a longer focal length.
One factor you might want to consider is the type of weather that typically occurs during lightning. Usually, it gets very wet. So in order to preserve your gear, pick a lens that’s weather sealed.
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As was discussed above, weather sealing should be a major factor in picking your lens. But the same is true for the camera body. You’re going to want something that won’t get damaged in bad weather. Aside from that, the camera you use is up to you!
If you’re looking to shoot at night, go for a camera that will perform well in low-light.
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It’s always best to have more memory cards than less. You should pack more than you anticipate using and make sure they’re preformatted so you don’t have to spend time out in the field formatting your cards. If your camera has dual card slots, utilize them!
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Shooting in a time-lapse sequence means you need a lot of power. The camera shutter will continuously open and reset, and the image will be recorded. A lot of battery will be consumed. If you can turn off the rear LCD screen, you should. That saves power. If you also switch to manual focusing, the focusing motors no longer engage, and that saves some power too. But even with these measures, you’re still going to want to pack spare batteries to ensure that your camera has enough power to last the duration of the shoot.
A tripod is a vital part in this photography venture to get the best long exposure shots. You’re going to want a sturdy tripod and it would be best to opt for a carbon fibre model over an aluminum option. This choice, while not perfect, should create a safer shooting experience. When using a tripod to shoot lightning, you should keep a safe distance away.
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Neutral Density Filter
You might not expect a Neutral Density filter to be on our list of items you need to capture stunning lighting photography. But believe it or not, this is an essential component and one that is often overlooked by photographers.
Normally we don’t associate neutral density filters with photographing lightning. But an ND filter can be very useful in these circumstances. It not only cuts down on that ambient light, but it also allows you to open up your lens and shoot with a wide-open aperture as well as a long shutter speed.
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The intervalometer is a very neat tool. They are used to trigger the shutter release mechanism remotely but at a set time interval. In that sense, they are also a type of remote shutter release. The main difference between an intervalometer and a remote shutter release is the fixed interval shutter release function. The need to have an intervalometer has been discussed at length later.
Some semi-pro and pro-cameras come with a built-in intervalometer. This is basically software operated. The built-in intervalometers do the exact same job as an external intervalometer.
Probably the only tool that we consider to be too fancy for photographers are the lightning triggers. Lightning triggers, as the name suggests, trigger the camera shutter release as soon as there is a bolt of lightning. But the real problem is not that, but to set it up. It takes careful testing and fine-tuning before you can calibrate the settings to perfection.
That said if you are into interesting photography challenges like high-speed photography etc. this tool will be useful for you. There are lightning triggers that respond to other external stimuli: light, sound, lasers, and so on. So, these lightning triggers can be useful in other situations as well.
How to Photograph Lightning with the Perfect Settings
Your shutter speed will depend on a number of factors. One of them is definitely how you want the final shot to appear. I mean do you want to have multiple lightning strikes in one frame? Or do you want just one dramatic lightning strike in the frame?
Technically, you can always stack multiple frames and produce a composite image. One single frame filled with multiple lightning strikes appears stunning. This technique is useful when lighting strikes are very staggered and not too dramatic. You can create one single frame and produce an image that appears stunning.
Another reason you might want to stack is to reduce noise. Keeping the shutter open for a long time increases the chances of capturing multiple lightning strikes. But at the same time, it also increases digital noise. Because the individual pixels become too hot.
The second approach would be to shoot a single dramatic lightning strike along with a stunning backdrop. A single lightning strike requires careful composition. Once your composition is right, you have nothing else to do but wait and hope there is a perfect lightning strike.
I have seen the best of lightning strikes happen just when I am reviewing the images on the rear LCD screen! So much so that I have stopped reviewing my images in a shoot. Only checking them for the correct settings when setting up gear.
Handling Ambient Light
Another important parameter is ambient light. If it is too bright then a longer shutter speed will most certainly overexpose your frames. And you will not be able to produce anything meaningful. Ideally, if the ambient light is a bit brighter than usual, say you are photographing in the afternoon or even early evening, a long exposure is difficult to achieve. That is unless you use a neutral density filter.
With that goal in mind leave the shutter open for as long as it is necessary to capture at least one lightning strike. Start off with anything between one second and 2 seconds as your base exposure.
Focusing: Manual vs Auto
Dependent on the lighting you’re shooting in, you’ll want to decide whether to shoot in manual or auto. If its dark, you’re going to want to opt for manual focus mode because your camera won’t be able to find a focus point in the dark.
If you try using auto-focus, your camera will spend time hunting for a point to focus on, losing crucial milliseconds when you could be capturing some stunning lightning shots.
Once you’ve found an ideal focal point, you’re going to want to lock focus so you don’t lose your point of focus.
ISO would be the balancing parameter. After you have entered the aperture, shutter speed, and considered the brightness of the scene. The best option would be to set your ISO to the lowest number possible. That is usually ISO 100 on most cameras. This will prevent you from unnecessarily increasing the exposure and producing heavy noise in your images.
As long as you are shooting in RAW it doesn’t really matter what white balance you use. Even if there is a mixed lighting scenario it doesn’t make any difference. Mixed lighting refers to lights of different color temperatures. This happens mostly when you are photographing lightning from your window or terrace. The city lights are of varying color temperatures. But that does not pose a significant problem.
But if you do want to dial something in try 5500 degrees Kelvin. That’s the equivalent of daylight and that is what will keep your white balance in 90% of the time unless you are shooting in different lighting and need to dial in a different white balance.
I talked about the intervalometer above. These are basically tools to fire your camera at a fixed interval. Most medium- to high-end cameras come with a built-in Intervalometer. They basically do the same thing: fire the shutter release continuously at a fixed interval. This eliminates the need to touch your camera every time you need to take a shot. And they are super necessary when you need to fire a time-lapse sequence.
You must be wondering – Why do I need to fire my camera in time-lapse mode? The reason is you don’t know when the lightning is going to strike. But if you wait to fire your camera until the precise moment when they do your frames are always going to be after the lightning has struck. To avoid a scenario where you end up with hundreds of pictures of the blank grey sky it is better to set the camera to fire itself off at a set interval.
That said, this is only going to work if you know the general direction the storm cell is moving in from as well as heading i.e., you know which direction to point your camera.
Manual mode is the most common mode of shooting lightning. And if you practice enough, with a little bit of luck you can capture some stunningly beautiful images by manually triggering the shutter release. Shutter speed can be controlled in this situation depending on the ambient light and the activity in front. For example, if the exposures are too dark you could push the exposure up a bit by keeping the shutter open for the next shot. If the exposure is too bright you could shorten the shutter cycle. Even when using manual shutter release, we recommend using a remote control trigger so you do not cause camera shake.
Things to Keep in Mind
While the technical stuff on how to photograph lightning isn’t much, what’s important is maintaining key safety aspects. By that I mean, ensuring that you are not directly in the path of an oncoming storm and you reduce the risk of being struck by lightning.
Okay, now that you have a pretty decent idea about how to photograph lightning the next step is to go out and capture some actual lightning shots. But there is a small problem. How exactly do you determine when and where lightning is going to strike? Well, there are plenty of tools to find that out. You can use one of the many weather apps to figure out where the next lightning storm is going to hit so that you can find out a potential storm cell to chase. But even this is not 100% accurate. A more precise approach calls for real-time data on an active lightning map. And this is where sites and apps like Blitzortung.com come in handy. These apps and trackers record cloud to ground lightning strikes with varying degrees of accuracy and show them with a slight delay on a map. This map is referred to as a Lightning Map.
Lightningmaps.org offers you a real-time lightning map of the USA and some other continents. This is powered by an open-source network of homemade sensors. The plans of which are available online but you need to make the sensor yourself. The existing network of sensors, however, does a very good job.
The information is extremely reliable and you can use this information to track and trace lightning in the whole of North America, wherever you might be. Though the best way to track lightning data with Blitzortung is to zoom into an area of interest and have the sound on to alert you whenever there is an approaching storm with lightning discharges.
You can also download their App from the Google Play Store: Blitzortung Android App
Lightning Alarm Weatherplaza
Another similar app is Lightning Alarm Weatherplaza. This app can show you the intensity of thunderstorms and the possibility of lightning strikes in your vicinity. The forecast is pretty accurate and comes in around 2 hours in advance. A message alert is also sent out if a lightning storm is impending. That message alert comes in 15 mins in advance. That should give you enough time to get out of sight or in this case run after a gathering storm cell. The lighting map and data comes in handy for storm chasers and lightning photography enthusiasts.
You can get this app on the Google Play Store.
Now that you know how to track lightning and with it, the storm cells that produce the lighting here is what you need to decide on. Should you go after the larger storm cells or the smaller ones?
Well the larger ones are spread across a much larger area. If they change directions they can be much quicker and therefore are very difficult to outrun.
So, if you are using something like 14-24mm you probably would want to chase the larger cells. But if you are just starting out and using a zoom lens to capture lightning you should start off with smaller storm cells.
The lightning is a bit more concentrated in these smaller cells and it is definitely a lot easier to chase and get around.
This how to photograph lightning guide would be incomplete without a word on safety.
Safety is paramount. You should never risk your life and limb for a picture. Lightning is one of the most powerful forces of nature. Every year several people die due to lightning strikes. With a metallic tripod stand that can act as a lightning rod, it is never a wise idea to be standing right in the middle of an oncoming lightning storm. So keep your eyes open, know what direction the storm is moving into, and know the limits to ensure your own safety.