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How To Photograph Lightning... The Easy Way!

Before I even start this topic, let me say this….

STORMS AND LIGHTNING ARE VERY DANGEROUS!!!!!

The first thing to consider when photographing lightning is your own safety. NO PHOTOGRAPH, even if it's the best lightning photograph ever, is worth risking your life.

Lightning storms are both predictable and unpredictable at the very same time.  We know that there will be lighting… "predictable".  But we don't know where or when it will be… "UNpredictable". 

Lightning can occur well in front of what you perceive as the main storm cell.  For every person that I have heard describe a tornado as "like a freight train", I have heard another say "the lightning came out of nowhere!".  

I teach my kids this very simple rule…. "When you hear thunder, get under".  It really is as simple as that.  If you are close enough to hear a storm, then you are close enough to be at threat from a lightning strike, so it is at this point that you should seek shelter.... and "shelter" is NOT a tree!!  Hide under a tree during a lightning storm and you might as well paint a target for the lighting on your head.

So find yourself shelter under a solid structure (pref. with walls) or inside your car. Do not touch any metal components and most certainly don't extend tripods though windows or sunroofs. Naturally this can make shooting a little difficult, but hey…. if you miss the shot this time around, at least you are alive to try again next storm. 

OK, now that we have taken steps to ensure our safety..... 

We can see the storm's approach and lightning is active but it's not yet dark. This presents a difficult challenge, as our reaction time (plus the camera's) is far too slow to catch the strike. You can get lucky, but generaly if you wait to see a strike, it is over before you can open the shutter.

This is where Lightning Triggers are invaluable, as they sense the strike and trip the camera's shutter at (and I will apologise for this pun in advance) "lightning speed". Good lightning Triggers can cost several hundred dollars however, so they are not for everyone.

Without a trigger, the photographer's best chance of capturing lightning comes from maximising the length of time the camera shutter stays open. This is why capturing daytime lightning is far more difficult, as we have no choice but to expose for the daytime light using a much shorter exposure.

Storms in the early evening and night however, make things easy… real easy!  During darkness we need not worry to much about our ambient exposure, as the lighting itself will be become our primary light source. So we can use much longer shutter speeds to maximise our chance of capturing a strike.

The Technique

  • Mount the camera on a sturdy tripod and pick an area of sky that seems to be most active.
  • Manually focus on the point of interest in the "composed" shot, this may be be a tree, the horizon line or even just the clouds themselves. The point is to compose and focus in such a way, that the active lightning falls within this same area of focus.  Manual focus is a must, as it will stop the auto focus from hunting in the darkness.
  • Set the f-number to f5.6 is the lightning is a little distant or weak, or f8 if you are getting those big close strikes (based on ISO100)  This gives me some reasonable depth of field, plus it exposes lightning well.  Close the lens down too far and the lighting will be dull, open the lens up too far and the lighting becomes a big fury bolt with little definition. Many people think thise are HUGE strikes, but in reality they are simply regular strikes over-exposed.
  • Manually set the exposure time to the longest possible, without overexposing other elements within the image. 30 seconds works well in very dark environments and provides an excellent chance for lightning to happen while the shutter is open. (If you need shorter, exposures as low as 10 secs still gives a reasonable chance of lightning if the storm is active.)
  • Using a remote to avoid shake or bumping and trip the shutter.

I will pause and mention "Mirror LockUp" here.  Some may like to use it to help cut down camera shake, but personally I don't see the point, as it's a dark scene anyway and the small vibration will have little effect on such a long exposure. Plus Mirror LockUp adds time between shots and increases the chance of missing lightning.

  • Wait and hope that a strike happens in the field of view.

I would suggest that you keep your image review times to a minimum, as this too adds to the chance of missing new lightning strikes.

  • Continue tripping the shutter for as long as the lightning remains active within your composition area.

If you are super-dooper lazy like me, you can use a timer remote (intervalometer) and set it to just keeping talking exposures until the card is full.  My favourite lightning image was shot like this, while I was inside watching TV.

What if the storm is really active and there is more than one strike in the 30 seconds?

Then you are lucky!!  Multiple strikes add drama and excitement, plus clouds that are lit from within become secondary subjects within the image.  However, if you feel that there is too much going on in the 30 seconds, then a simple trick is to cover your lens with your hand.  This effectively ends the exposure and allows the remaining expsure time to complete without interference.

Now before I go, I have to stress again.... LIGHTNING AND STORMS ARE DANGEROUS!

Please be sensible and do not put yourself at risk.

btw: "No Earth" is my favourite lightning image to date and is the image shot by my intervalometer while I was inside watching TV....  What a clever little intervalometer he is!

No Earth - Lightning

 

Cheers, Russell.

 

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