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How to Photograph Lightning

Posted on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 5:00 PM MST

Photographing lightning can be challenging, but is very rewarding. You can try to aim the camera at the sky and push the button when you see the lightning flash, but in 4 years of photographing lightning, I have been successful at that method a grand total of once. The human reaction time is simply not fast enough.

Even when using an easier technique, the success rate is still very small. I'll usually shoot around 100 photos on a typical lightning shoot, and on a good day will wind up with only 5 or so shots worth keeping. The silver lining, however, is that when you do finally have success, the results will be stunning.

Left: Lightning over St. Petersburg, FL in 2010
Right: Lightning over Norman, OK in 2011

So just how do you do it? You need several things:

  1. An SLR camera where you can control the shutter speed
  2. A tripod
  3. A clear, unobstructed view of the sky
  4. Dark Outside/Night Time
  5. Minimal Ambient Light

When choosing a location, you must keep safety in mind. Do not try to set up in the middle of an open field in the middle of nowhere - you are asking to be struck by lightning. The best spots to shoot are near buildings, or in/near your car. I would avoid setting up near or under trees, since they explode when struck by lightning. I have been fortunate enough to do most of my lightning photography from the comfort of my own home (a backyard/porch is an excellent place to shoot lightning).

Once you have chosen your location, it's time to set up the camera. First you will want to set the shutter speed to Manual, which is called "Bulb Mode" on most SLR cameras. This mode gives you the most control over the shutter, but you can also set the shutter speed to a specific time if you want (I actually often do this, mainly just because I often have ambient lighting to deal with). I usually leave the shutter open between 5 and 20 seconds, and will go as high as 30 seconds if there is very little ambient light. You also have to set the focus to "Infinity." If you donít know how to do that, you will need to consult your camera's user guide. The picture here is of my camera setup that I use to shoot lightning...nice and simple.

Now you are ready for the fun part: taking the pictures. The concept is pretty simple: point the camera at the sky, open the shutter, and let the picture take itself. The actual lightning flash itself will provide all of the light you need for a great photograph. A wide-angle lens will give you much more coverage of the sky, but will result in degraded resolution of any lightning you get. I usually use either my 55-200 mm lens or my 70-300 mm lens, zoomed all the way out.

There are a few framing tips to make a great lightning shot. You will want the ground at the very bottom of the frame, and if you can get a few small trees or shrubs in the foreground or a tree line in a background, it will add some depth to the photo. Any object you put in the frame will just show up as a silhouette, but you want them to be small enough they don't dominate the frame. If you are in a mountainous area, the relief of the mountain range will usually give the same effect.

Look at the two pictures on the first page. The photo on the left was taken looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, and the one on the right was taken with some silhouetted trees in the foreground. Notice how the field and the tree line give the shot a lot more depth than the flat water.

As far as positioning relative to the storm goes, you want to be in a place where it's not raining. I have had the most success out in front of the leading edge of the storm, but have captured good lightning shots on the backside of the storm as well. The only thing to keep in mind is that if you are out in front of the storm you will need to be near a place where you can quickly and easily take shelter from the rain and lightning. You are almost guaranteed to get rained on and will often get lightning strikes fairly close by, unless you can stay well out in front of the storm. Unlike chasing and documenting tornadoes, you will usually find yourself much more up close and personal with the storm while trying to shoot lightning, especially if you are shooting from a building.

Finally, keep the camera aimed at the spot where you see the most lightning. It does take a bit of luck to get a lightning bolt in the viewfinder while the shutter is open, so you will want to maximize the time the shutter is open (after you close the shutter, open it right back up!). Keeping the shutter open for long periods of time drains the battery very quickly, so make sure you have an extra battery handy. Don't bump or jar the camera either, or your pictures will come out blurry. If you have a remote, use that to open and close the shutter.

Please keep safety in mind while you are out shooting lightning!! Lightning is one of the most deadly weather phenomena out there. You will be out shooting at night, which can be very dangerous for storm chasing/spotting, especially if conditions support severe storms. You will not be able to see tornadoes and large hail coming! Always have a way to get real-time weather updates, statements, warnings, etc. If you don't feel comfortable out chasing lightning after dark, don't do it. Shoot from a building instead. That's what I usually try to do. Good luck in your lightning photography endeavors, and don't hesitate to post questions to my Facebook or Twitter pages if you have any.


Posted In: Education

Tagged: Photography, Lightning