Lightning Photography Basics

So you saw several images of lightning strikes and you want to capture one yourself but can’t seem to be quick enough to do it? Lightning photography is a tricky business. It requires lots of patience, lightning shielded area, DSLR, tripod and light trigger (optional). And you should know from the start that if you are trying to press the shutter button when you see the lightning strike you will never get it. That is where the abilities of the DSLR cameras come handy.

In order to capture lightning, you need to have the shutter open before the lightning strikes, or during the strike. There are three ways of doing that: shoot million photos and hope for the best, use long exposures, or use light trigger.

Lightning photography
Lightning over Willen Lake by Brian Tomlinson

First option isn’t good since you might never get it. Second option, and most convenient on the other hand, gives you much bigger chances to get the shot. Since you will have the shutter open for 30 seconds at a time, and closed for a fraction of the second, chances are pretty good that you will capture a lightning strike during one of the several images. Third option would be a light trigger, which is pretty much self explanatory – it triggers the shutter when it detects a jolt of light.

Now before you do all of that you need to make sure that you aren’t a target for the lightning. Use an area that is shielded from lightning strikes, because the camera on a tripod stands for a good anchor for the lightning to strike, especially if the tripod is made from metal. Once you are out of harms way, stand for a while and observe. See in which direction the lightning strikes the most in order to know where to aim at.

Lightning photography
Lightning striking Horseshoe Bend on Seedskadee NWR by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Once you have figured out the direction set your camera in that direction, close down the F/stop until you get proper exposure on 30 second shutter time and start shooting. If you have built in timelapse mode on your camera, set it that way, so you don’t have to press the shutter every time, or you can use an intervalometer for the same purpose.

With light trigger on the other hand you will probably need an ND filter as well (if you don’t want to close down the aperture) since lightning strikes are quite bright and if the lens lets in too much light it will overexpose the image.

Lightning photography
Lightning over the Olympic Park – from up on Highgate Hill by Craig Morey

Lightning photography is quite fun, but capturing a lightning strike solely is quite cliche. You can combine the lightning strike with some interesting landscapes or architecture to make it more punchy and more powerful. Keep in mind that the lightning has the same color temperature as flash (since it is pretty much the same thing) and generates quite hard shadows, so be prepared for that.

Finally, when there is lightning, there is usually rain and wind, so make sure you account for that. Weather sealing on your body and lens will do you much good here, unless you can find shelter to shoot from.


About Dzvonko Petrovski

Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and is not afraid to share the knowledge about it.

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