Tips on how to take successful lightning pictures

Lightning tutorial
Photo by Corey Brown

Introduction

In this article I will try to cover the basic photography technique required to take good lightning pictures. You will very quickly notice that shooting light bolts pictures is not at all that difficult technically speaking.

Precautions

Shooting lightning can be dangerous for both you and your material if you are not careful.

Your safety

How to protect yourself? well I’d suggest you use your good sense you should be safe, if the storm is too strong maybe you’d be better at home. In other words, whatever you do stay safe

Equipment protection

Taking lightning pictures can be exciting but you paid money for that photography equipment of yours so the last thing you want is to have it ruined. You’d better try to shoot in a covered location i.e. parking, covered backyard etc… and, unless you have a good weather sealed camera, protect your camera with a good rain cover.camera rain covers can be found all over internet, stormjacket is a good example.

Equipment Selection

Camera Selection

Any camera with bulb mode will do here, but I’d advice you to get a digital one simply to cut on film cost since you shouldn’t expect a high keepers ratio in this kind of photography.

Lens Selection

Usually, and I am saying usually, wide angle lenses performs better in lightning photography because you can include more sky and, thus, increasing your chances of capturing a lightning bolt in your image.

Tripod

You will need a good sturdy tripod for this but, if you feel uncomfortable putting your $xxx tripod in such extreme weather get any cheap one heavy enough to resit wind.

Settings

Noise Reduction

If you have one of these digital cameras that allows long exposure noise reductionlike the Canon EOS 30D or the Canon EOS 400D for instance you’d better turn that off, because if your exposure time is long the time before you will be able to take another shot will also be equally long and you might be missing some great picture opportunities in the mean time.

ISO Settings

Set your camera to its lowest ISO speed. Since we are going to be using a tripod anyway then no need to boost the ISO speed, just set it to the lowest value possible because this will give you the cleanest picture your digital camera can give you.

Mirror Lockup and Timer

To minimize camera movements to the max you will want to enable the mirror lockup and, unless you have a cable release for your camera, enable the timer on your camera.

Shoot RAW

RAW is much more flexible in editing afterwards and it is not unusual that you will want to develop different versions of your shots with different white balance settings.

Aperture

While shooting lightning pictures you should keep the aperture between f/5.6 and f/8. Remember a lightning bolt is very short in time and very high in intensity (just like a flash) and you want it well recorded on that sensor of yours. Apertures faster than f/5.6 might over blown it and very small apertures (smaller than f/11 or so) might not give you the impact you are requesting, so better stay within these known aperture range. Smaller apertures (f/8 ~ f/11) will give you a longer exposure time thus more chance to capture multiple bolts on the same exposure.

Exposure

The exposure time will greatly depend on the light conditions in which you are shooting. If you are shooting at night you can use these tips on how to calculate long exposures to know the correct exposure, if you are trying to capture the lightning during daytime use your camera’s light meter to determine the right exposure.

Focus

Set your lens on Manual Focus and focus for infinity since it is most likely that the lightning will hit somewhere far from your lens.
N.B.: Some lenses can focus past infinity, so make sure your lens focus in on infinity

Composition

Here is a few ideas on how to compose your lighting shots

Skylines

The most interesting lightning shots out there are almost always not only sky shots, but includes a bit of land/sea/city in them. Try to follow the 1/3 ruleyou don’t have to stick to it, but it is a good idea if you don’t know what to do and also try to locate something interesting and easy to recognize in your lower 1/3 e.g. A high building, a light house etc…
Also pay attention that any object included in your frame should be located inside your depth of field range because you don’t want it to be out of focus.

Light bolts only

If most of successful lightning pictures includes some kind of landscape in them, there are pretty impressive pictures showing nothing but light bolts, if you want to try one of these try to point your camera up in the sky so that the light bolt will look like falling directly on you, rather than just shifting it a bit up the horizon.

Taking the shot

Secure your camera on the tripod, get the composition you want. Use what we have seen in this article to set both the f-stop and shutter speed. Take a few test shots to make sure that your picture is not overexposure and well in focus. Then all you will have to do is click that shutter button and hope you will catch a lightning in that frame. If you don’t well simply repeat the process.

Lightning tutorial
Photo by Nam Tran

Conclusion

It is simply amazing to notice how easy it is, technically speaking, and how hard it is, practically speaking, to take one of those great lightning pictures we often see on the net. Why? Well simply because it takes much more than just technique to take a good lightning picture, it takes time, patience and also determination to be added to the photography skills.

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