How to Successfully and Safely Photograph Lightning

Light Across the Pasture

Well we finally got some lightning (and a little rain) over in this part of the state last night. Here is an image I took last night during the storm. One of my most favorite subjects in photography, lightning, always makes for a nice dramatic nature image. It is so hard to get it just right, and it is nature at its most glorious.

How to Successfully Photography Lightning

Safety – you don’t actually want to get struck. If you can be in a protected area, best to not be holding a tall metal tripod during a storm, you might as well go play golf at the same time.  I list this first because it is the most important thing to keep in mind.  When you feel the static charge in the air on your skin, time to head for cover, quickly.  Know which way the storm is moving so you can take action ahead of getting yourself in trouble.

If possible, try to photography lightning from inside a protected area like a house or a car.  This is almost always not possible, but when it is, it gives you a little extra edge to be able to stick around a little longer.  this image above was taken from inside my house on the second floor out of an opened window.  I was protected from the rain and could quickly take cover in the room if the lightning got to close.

Equipment Needed for Lightning Photography

Camera – you need a camera that can do an open shutter exposure. This is usually called a “bulb” setting, where you can depress the shutter release and leave it open for an undetermined amount of time.  This usually means an SLR camera body, film or digital, that you can control the manual setting and change the shutter to “b”.  This is needed just because you rarely are going to know the exact time lightning will strike, but you can probably catch it within a few seconds.  The flash of lightning only lasts a split second, so having an open shutter is pretty much a must unless you have a lightning trip device.

I have used many many camera bodies over the years.  Right now, I am using a Nikon D300 and a Nikon D700 digital SLR, but you can get a nice DSLR now like the Nikon D40, D60, or D80 that won’t cost you an arm and a leg (sorry I know there are also many good Canon bodies as well, I am just not familiar with them).  The point is, any digital SLR will do, even an older film SLR will work great.  I took many lightning images with my old Nikon N70 and N90s film bodies.  The image above was shot with a Nikon D100 which you can now buy used for around $200-$250.

Lenses – You can choose just about any lens and get some results.  I prefer to use something around a 50-70mm lens, wide enough to get a big enough area to actually have a chance to capture the lightning and tight enough to see the lightning when it occurs.  Use to wide an angle the lightning will look pretty small in the frame, use to close a zoom and you reduce your chances of capturing the lightning when it occurs.  If this is a particularly active electric storm, a zoom might work if you know right where to place the camera.  The lens I used for the image above was a consumer lens, a 24-120mm zoom (non VR) taken at the 24mm focal length.

Tripod – A sturdy tripod is pretty much a must.  Not a plastic one or flimsy video camera one, but a heavy metal tripod that you hate lugging around with you.  If you don’t have a sturdy tripod, you can use something like the hood of a car, a window frame or ledge, a rock or stump, anything you can set your camera on to take away the effects of hand holding a long exposure.  At one point I had a very nice carbon fiber tripod (which cost me about $1,500 USD) but it was sold when I didn’t get much use out of it, and I returned to using my old heavy metal Bogen (now also called Manfrotto) tripod (retails for about $200-$300) which works great.

A Remote Shutter Release – this is something that is also pretty much a needed item.  These are not expensive items if you already have a digital SLR camera body.  They attach to the camera on a port usually in the front of a modern DSLR.  I use a pretty fancy one called the Nikon MC-20 which costs about $60 now (I paid about $130 for mine years ago), but you don’t need one like that, any $5-$10 remote trigger device will work.

Know a Little About Weather, Storms, and Which Way They are Moving

You probably want to try to get the lightning that will show up prior to the rain. This is not always possible, but it is hard to photograph during the rain storm that follows a frontal line.  There are many times when you can see the lightning well before the storm arrives.  Once you start to see it, and you can determine which direction the storm is moving, try to position yourself (it that is possible at all) where you are ahead of the storm front and can pack everything away once it arrives.

You don’t have to be a weather expert, just try to look at the clouds, see which way they are moving and try to adjust your location and distance accordingly.

The Color and Brightness of Lightning – Lightning actually comes in a variety of colors.  Each photograph I have taken always comes out with a different color, because the intensity and actually the kelvin temperature of the lightning varies greatly from bolt to bolt when you are shooting.  The cloud to ground lightning and cloud to cloud lightning is most likely going to be your subject, so once you have taken the photo, review the color in your edit process and make adjustments to the proper color you want to achieve accordingly.

Techniques for Shooting Lightning: Exposure, Shutter, ISO, Aperture and White Balance

Technique – the most common way to photograph lightning is to use a shutter release. Open the shutter for a few seconds and wait until you see some light. Then close the shutter. Do this over and over and over and hope that you actually get a bolt in the photo. You will want to use a wide lens to get as much coverage of the sky as possible. Usually once you see some light it will blow out the image if you leave the shutter open any longer, so just a few bolts at a time unless it is really dark. The object would be to try and get several bolts in one exposure. This is not as easy as it sounds, but makes for a great shot. If you try this, think safety first, nothing else.

Exposure – as indicated above, you want to use your shutter release to open the exposure in a few second intervals at a time.  This will be different with each situation because the proximity to the storm, intensity, pollution, ambient light in the area, all effect the exposure.  If you are shooting just as the sun goes down or there is still some light in the sky, a shorter shutter speed (or higher aperture combination) will be needed to reduce the background visibility.  I like to try for anywhere around 3-30 seconds on my exposures.  30 seconds is usually a bit long especially if you are in a big city with a lot of ambient light, but test it out and see what works best.

Aperture – you should already know the correlation of aperture and exposure, so if you are going to want to use a long long shutter speed, use a large aperture like f/2.8-f/5.6 and if you want something around 3-7 seconds, I would choose to stop down a bit more to something like f/8-f/11.  It also depends on how far away the lightning is and how much light you need in the exposure.  Remember, lightning is VERY bright, so you will burn out the image quickly with just the lightning bolt if you aren’t careful.

ISO Speed – I am writing this assuming we are using a digital SLR camera body.  If you are using film, usually an ISO-100 speed film will work.  I have used Fuji Velvia 50 with lightning photography before and did get some good results as well.  For digital SLR cameras, we manually set the ISO speed which is the third factor in determining exposure.  I like to use the ISO-200 setting to get the highest resolution I can get.  But you can use anything from ISO-100 to ISO-800 or more depending on the proximity of the lightning and your exposure settings.  The closer the lightning, the lower the ISO speed I would use.

White Balance – white balance on cameras today is something a little more tricky.  I almost always use the auto white balance setting just because no other pre-set or kelvin setting seems to work because each lightning bolt or strike is different.  I have used the cloudy or shade white balance and had good results with it, but I never know what I am going to get, and the auto setting isn’t any better than anything else.  It is getting better with the newer digital SLR camera bodies, but for lightning is still isn’t quite there yet.  If you are shooting your images in RAW file formats you can always look at each white balance setting in post process editing and see which one you like best.  If you don’t do any post process editing, that is fine to, the results you can get from the straight jpg file will usually look great too.

Image Data Specifics

I decided to just go ahead and copy the exact camera settings from the image above.  I love seeing data from different shots, so listed below is a copy of the exact settings I used to take the image above.  Keep in mind, all situations are going to be different and no two lightning shots are going to work with the exact settings below.  You will have to adjust everything for your situation, but you can see what I used in this image.

File Info 1
File:    alabama-lightning-photography.jpg
Date Created:    9/8/2008 6:47:14 AM
Date Modified:    9/8/2008 6:47:14 AM
File Size:    118 KB
Image Size:    900 x 593
File Info 2
Date Shot:    5/8/2008 21:41:10.9
Image Quality:
Camera Info
Device:    Nikon D100
Focal Length:    24mm
Focus Mode:
VR: n/a
Exposure
Aperture:    F/5.6
Shutter Speed:    3.8s
Exposure Mode:    Manual
Exposure Comp.:    -0.3EV
Metering:    Matrix
ISO Sensitivity: 200
Flash
Flash Sync Mode:
Image Settings
White Balance: auto
Long Exposure NR:
GPS
Latitude:
Longitude:
Altitude:
Heading:
UTC:

This image was one that turned out ok. I took probably 100 within about 10 minutes that did not. It is not an exact science by any means.

Have Fun and Don’t Get Frustrated

This is almost impossible with photography sometimes.  Don’t get frustrated with your results.  After all, photography is supposed to be fun (I think) so try to have a good time, stay safe, and shoot a lot of frames.  If you are shooting with a digital SLR you have the luxury of just shooting away and deleting files later.  I may shoot 200-300 frames before actually capturing one image.  I may shoot for an hour and not get anything.  This isn’t a flower that you have in front of you, it is something very unpredictable, so just have some patience and try again and again to get something you like.  The first lightning images I took were scarce tiny little blips of light in the sky, to which my wife said, “what is that?”.  So just keep trying and you will get some good results.

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