by Guest Contributor Laurie Yuenger
I love lightning. It is just so powerful and amazing to watch. Capturing it in camera can seem tricky, but with these tips photographing lightning is fun and easy!
Your camera – While you don’t need a fancy camera having one that allows you to shoot in manual is ideal. I prefer using a digital camera for these because I take lots of shots and I don’t want to waste film.
Tripod – This is pretty much a must. It doesn’t need to be fancy but you do need to be able to secure your camera to prevent camera shake during your long exposures.
Remote trigger – not necessary but very helpful.
Rain cover/protection for your camera – While I normally only photograph lightning in the distance before the rainstorm reaches there is generally at least some sprinkles sooner or later. Another trick I use is to back my van up to the location of choice and open the trunk, using the popped up trunk as cover for the camera.
Lens cloth – to clean off those rain drops!
Lightning is dangerous. It’s not worth killing yourself for any photograph. Lightning can strike without rain. This is one of the reasons I use a remote trigger – it means I can set the camera up and back into a protected area.
The right storm:
Not all storms are equal. Some storms the lightning is very sporadic, in this situation it’s still possible to get some great shots, it will just take more patience, or at least more luck.
I find nighttime storms the easiest, as you can use a longer shutter speed, and finding the light balance of your two subjects (ambient daylight and the lightning) is easier at night too.
Other storms have lightning that rolls around inside the clouds (often referred to as sheet lightning or heat lightning). In my experience these storms don’t usually photograph well.
Capturing those brief flashes of light isn’t about having a fast trigger finger – in fact, the lightning flashes so fast that even hitting the trigger at the first hint of lightning will likely result in missing the lightning all together, or only capturing the main bolt without the branches.
1. Set up your camera on your tripod, with your remote trigger (if you have one).
2. Set your exposure – I can’t give you the perfect setting for all situations (as with all photography), however here are some basic guidelines:
a. Shutter speed – I usually start at 30 seconds (for daytime you will likely need to use a faster SS, such as 15 seconds). You can also use a bulb setting. Longer shutter speeds allow for a better chance to get a bolt of lightning in each frame.
b. Aperture – narrower is better, as it allows for a wider depth of field, especially if you have subjects in the foreground. This also means less incoming light so you can achieve slower shutter speeds.
c. ISO – I usually start at 400 ISO, and bump it or lower it as needed for proper exposure, or based off the lightning. I have found that at 800 ISO or higher it starts to blow the detail of the lightning too much… but each storm is different!
d. Underexpose a stop – The lightning flash will act as a super-sized strobe and add additional light to the scene.
e. Adjust as needed for your situation! Have fun and experiment!
3. Set the focus to your desired point. If you are just photographing lightning then set your focus to infinity. For scenes with buildings/landscapes focus on the subject in the frame (and make sure to use composition to add more strength to your image). Now switch the focus mode to manual, and be careful not to bump the lens!
Wide angles will give you the best chances of capturing lightning strike (or more than one) each time – but with zooming in (or using a longer lens) you may be able to capture one up close, showing more detail.
For extra sharp images it is a good idea to use your camera’s mirror lock up feature (to prevent the camera shake from the mirror flipping up to reveal the shutter). Because storms can be windy, consider adding a weight (such as a sandbag) to your tripod to keep it steadier.
Lightning by itself can make for some breath taking photos – but consider adding some foreground interest. While I’ve photographed lightning from home (through windows or from the garage) I often scout areas as I drive around in normal weather and return for storms. These foreground elements help to tell a story, or show the size and power of the lightning and can increase the dramatic feel to your image.
I love churches because of the symbolism (the power of God) and power lines (the raw power of the lightning vs the man made power). Trees in fields, city skylines, barns, water (such as lakes) or even a row of houses make for great subjects to add to your lightning photographs, so do some exploring and be creative.
The most important part (after safety of course) is to have fun!!
About the Author: While Laurie grew up in California (where she received her first lessons in photography from her father) she has enjoyed her adult life traveling around the US and the UK as a military wife. A tomboy at heart she is usually sporting a ponytail and jeans. She has been a professional photographer for over 7 years, photographing children, families and weddings, but her love is the challenge of photographing babies and toddlers. She also enjoys photographing the local landscapes as they travel, as well as natures fine details (macro). Her family is currently stationed at Scott AFB Illinois where she has a studio called Pixel This in nearby Swansea. Laurie is also the creator of “Dear XYZ“, a customer relations book specifically for photographers.