How to photograph lightning

The equipment and settings you need to capture nature's own light show.

  • Get the right camera: To take photos of lightning you need to have the right camera and the right accessories. A digital SLR is recommended, along with a wide angled lens. The reason you need a digital SLR is because it lets you more easily change the camera’s focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings on the fly; it will also let you use bulb mode. Bulb mode is essential for lightning photography as it allows you to hold the shutter open for as long as you need, rather than being limited by a set time. Without bulb mode, you will have to use the slowest shutter time in your camera, which can vary from eight seconds to 60 seconds. Compact cameras without manual settings are not useful for lightning shots. The shots you see in the upcoming slides were taken with a Nikon D80 digital SLR and a Nikkor 18-135mm lens.
  • Focus: Autofocus just doesn't cut in the dark when trying to shoot objects that aren't even there yet! Manually focus your lens to infinity. That is, pick out the most distant object and make sure it is in focus. Lightning bolts will then also appear in relatively good focus. This shot was taken with the camera’s auto focus and you can see that the bolts — not to mention the entire foreground — just don’t look crisp. Of course, there are other problems with this shot, including noticeable lens distortion and a colour cast, but in our defence, we had to race to set it up and had to guess in which direction to leave the camera pointed; the bolts were all over the place that night! This was taken at f/8, ISO 100, and we kept the shutter open for 20 seconds.
  • Jackpot: In this shot we used a slightly smaller aperture of f/22, an ISO speed of 200, and we kept the shutter open for 128.5 seconds. All three bolts appeared at the same time, and we closed the shutter as soon as they disappeared. This is our best shot of lightning to date.
  • Watching nature's lightshow can be a breathtaking experience — capturing it on camera is even more special. But in order to do so, you need to have the right camera, the right shooting location, the right camera settings, and the right post-processing technique. It takes a lot of patience (and luck) and plenty of patience in order to capture brilliant lightning bolts, but it can be one of the most rewarding types of photography

  • Post- processing: Use your photo editing software to adjust the levels of your lightning shots. Bring the black point in a little (marked in the blue square) to give your photos more contrast and darken any foreground elements. Resist the temptation to brighten your photos, as this will make the bolts look thicker and can also introduce more noticeable purple fringing. Sharpening should also be overlooked as it can cause bolts to lose their smoothness and introduce noise. If your shots have a colour cast, try removing it by setting the white point on the lightning bolt itself.
  • Cropping: Sometimes, no matter how well you think you have framed your shot, the bolts will only appear in a particular area of the frame, leaving plenty of room either side. Crop your images so that the viewer only sees what you want them to see — the lightning. This is especially true if there are foreground lights and blurry trees that don’t provide any context for the bolt. Hopefully, the tips we’ve provided in this slideshow will come in handy the next time a storm passes near your neck of the woods.
  • Get the right accessories: The other bit of equipment that you need is a tripod. Get yourself a heavy tripod so as to minimise shake from the wind. A light aluminium tripod, such as the Velbon CX 440 is prone to shaking when there is wind — especially if its neck is extended all the way — and on a long exposure this will lead to blurry shots.
  • Exposure: There is no hard and fast rule on the settings you need to use when shooting lightning, but in general, you need a slow ISO speed, a small aperture and a long shutter time. Use an aperture that is small (say f/22), especially if the lightning bolts are huge and bright and light up the sky. Distant bolts that are not as bright need to be shot with a wider aperture value (say f/8.0), otherwise they might get lost in the background. Use a slow ISO speed. ISO 100 and ISO 200 should be the values your camera is set to; anything above this could overexpose your shots and also introduce plenty of noise. The shot above is an example of an over-exposed lightning shot in which the bolt is completely drowned out by the intensity of the light. In this shot we used an aperture of f/8, an ISO speed of 200 and we kept the shutter open for 38.5 seconds.
  • Frame the shot: If you see an area that has been hit with lots of lightning strikes, point your camera in that direction. It is best to use a wide angle lens in order to capture a large area, but once you establish that the majority of strikes have occurred in a particular area, then you can frame that area more concisely by zooming in a little to get rid of unnecessary foreground lights and obstacles. Foreground objects such as roofs and television antennas can make for more interesting compositions.
  • Give yourself a chance: The long shutter time (bulb mode) is required because you don’t know when the lightning will strike. Depending on whether there are light sources already in the picture (street lights, for example), this will affect the aperture that you choose. If the scene is mostly black, leaving the shutter open for ages won’t lead to an overly bright image. This shot was taken with an advanced compact camera (the Panasonic DMC-FZ20) with an ISO speed of 100, an aperture of f/5.6, and a shutter speed of six seconds. It took many attempts to finally capture a bolt with such a short shutter time and many opportunities were missed in between shots.
  • Find a location: It is not safe to photograph lightning out in the open, especially if the lightning is close by; you will also probably get your gear wet and catch a cold. Don’t risk it. Instead, shoot from a balcony or veranda if you can, as you will be out of the wind and the rain. Alternatively, try shooting from inside your house — especially if you live high up — but make sure there are no lights in the room that will cause window reflections. The above shot was taken behind a window. Because the window wasn’t clean, the shot looks dull and dirty, but otherwise the camera captured the dramatic night time sky as it was illuminated.
  • Remote control: An optional accessory for your digital SLR camera, but a very handy one, is a remote control for the shutter release. These remotes cost about $30 and allow you to use the bulb mode of the camera without having to physically hold down the shutter button (and therefore shaking the camera). With a remote control shutter button, you press it once to open the shutter, leave it open for as long as you need, and then press it again to close it. The remote also comes in handy for all types of night photography and for self-portraits.
  • When overexposure works in your favour: Sometimes, an overexposed shot can give you a dramatic effect. In this picture, we used an aperture of f/19, an ISO speed of 200 and a shutter speed of 68.6 seconds. The bolt was so intense it ended up looking a tornado. We would like to say we planned it, but the bolt was so bright it caught us by surprise — and almost blinded us. We had to use a smaller aperture for the next shot.
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