Lightning is one of the most amazing subjects that any photographer can try taking pictures of. They’re unpredictable, dazzling, and extremely addicting for many. Aside from being able to capture electrifying results, chasing lightning storms serves as a unique and fulfilling challenge for intrepid photographers.
But unlike other forms of challenging niches, this kind of extreme weather photography presents real danger for the shooter. You’ll want to get close to achieve spectacular bolts, but not too close. At the same time, the unpredictability of when and how the bolts will strike makes it quite difficult even for experienced shooters to capture. Then again, it’s exactly why they do it—you’ll never know what you’ll end up capturing as no two lightning shots are the same.
There are many creative ways to photograph lightning. If you’re one of the many people who want to try it for the first time or simply wish to improve your results, we’ll provide you with information regarding the gear you will need as well as the steps that you can take to properly capture stunning lightning images.
Essential Gear for Lightning Photography
In this section, we’ll mention specific tools and camera equipment that you’ll need to capture one of the most unpredictable forces of nature. Some of these are admittedly expensive but are crucial for making lightning photography convenient and for achieving the best results.
You can capture lighting with basically any camera, even with a smartphone equipped with an app that allows the use of slower shutter speeds. However, you will be relying on luck to achieve great photos. So if you want to capture really jaw-dropping images, you have to invest on an upgraded camera, like a DSLR or mirrorless camera that allows you to shoot in manual exposure mode.
Any basic DSLR or mirrorless camera will do, but if you have time to look and the money to spend, go for the model that produces the lowest noise possible.
You can use your camera’s kit lens to get started, but you must consider getting a fast lens to increase your chances of taking tack sharp images of lightning bolts. This means getting high-quality lenses with at least a wide aperture of f/2.8. Getting lenses with varying focal ranges also provides ease in capturing bolts striking from different distances.
If you want to invest in a single piece of glass (or three), we highly suggest getting something like the NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, and NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which can be all you really need to capture wide angle views as well as zoomed in perspectives of different types of lightning without sacrificing your depth of field.
Stability is crucial to capturing sharp images, especially when shooting in low-light situations. And when shooting in extreme weather conditions, you’ll be dealing with some wind issues that will make it extra hard to keep your camera steady.
If you can afford it, invest in a sturdy and durable tripod with independent legs and extra steady base. This will allow you to shoot with a wider stance and keep your gear from getting blown over by strong gusts of wind.
You’ll find that a tripod is not enough to keep your camera steady, especially when positioned inside a cramped car. In case you have to shoot indoors, using a heavy duty window mount will help you produce clearer and sharper images by keep your camera steady and as close to the glass window as possible. They work by providing a firm grip on the glass with one big or several small suction cups, even with a heavy camera attached on to it.
Aside from a good tripod, a remote or wireless shutter release is a must-have for slow shutter photography. This device allows you to trigger the shutter without actually having to hold the camera and press the shutter button yourself, thus eliminating camera shake and enabling you to position yourself away from the camera.
Better yet, get a wireless intervalometer that can control how often, how long and how many shots are taken. Going without wires is a huge convenience as cabled ones don’t allow you to really distance yourself from the camera, especially when you have to shoot from inside a vehicle. Plus, the wires can get tangled in your tripod legs. Trust us, it happens!
Lightning Sensor and Trigger
This one-of-a-kind device is widely used by many lightning storm chasers. What’s amazing about it is that it senses the flash of lightning and automatically tells the camera to fire the shutter. Once it is connected via your camera’s hot shoe mount and 10-pin connector port, it allows you to let your camera gear do all the work while you stay indoors or inside a vehicle during the shoot.
Many lightning photographers use triggers during the day as it helps save the shutter and keeps them from having to take a ton of photos out of luck. Based on experience, they become less sensitive as the sun sets, so you’ll need a high-quality and reliable lightning sensor and trigger that you won’t want to replace after just a couple of uses.
Steps for Capturing Lightning in Your Photos
Once you have your gear ready, you can start the hunt for your subjects and capture them on camera. These steps require a lot of patience and determination, but we’ll help you by providing a lot of helpful tips to make the journey easier for you and increase your chances of acquiring winning shots.
Find the Storm
Many storm chasers would agree that the hardest part about lightning photography is finding where the next storm is. There are parts of the world where lightning storms don’t happen much or at all. When you do find an area where lightning does happen, you will still have to watch forecasts and learn its patterns.
Fortunately, lightning occurs during every season. Even winter storms can produce lightning and thundersnow, so you won’t have to wait too long before the next one hits. All you have to do is look for the nearest storm location.
The best way to find them is to check out weather sites and apps, such as the webpage of your local National Weather Service on NOAA.gov. Bookmark it and regularly check for radars where you can track the storms. Or, you can download the RadarScope app on your iOS or Android device and check it for thunderstorms while on the go. You can also check out the Weather Alert USA app on iOS and WeatherTAP for your desktop.
It’s possible to not have lightning anywhere near your area, so you may want to plan and invest in a storm chasing tour in lightning-prone areas like Arizona during the summer.
Schedule the Shoot
You’re in the area and ready to shoot, but you’ll still need to know the exact time when you have to be in position with your gear. It can be anytime during the day as thunderstorms can also happen while it’s still bright out.
For scattered storms that happen throughout the day, choose to shoot a little before dark. Consider shooting at sunset or even at twilight when the sky is not pitch black to allow yourself to also capture photos with color and added style. Also schedule your shoot ahead of the storm and away from heavy rainfall to avoid moisture and precipitation from softening your lightning images.
Take Your Position
Let’s face it, positioning yourself close or right smack in the middle of the action increases your chances of getting hit by lightning. You’ll want to hide indoors or in a car, especially if it’s your first time shooting a thunderstorm. The rule is: If you can hear it, you can get struck by lightning.
If that doesn’t scare you, good, because the thrill only makes it all the more fun and rewarding! All you have to do is hide inside a hard-topped vehicle or house, and maybe check the National Weather Service for lightning safety tips.
Set Up Your Camera
Depending on the situation, you can set up your camera inside a car or house with you or leave it outside and control it wirelessly. You may need additional gear to keep your camera stable inside a car, as well as the window mount to keep your camera as close to the windows as possible for optimum view and clarity.
Use the wide angle for overhead cloud-to-cloud bolts, one with varying focal range (like a 24-70mm) for cloud-to-ground bolts, and the telephoto for intra-cloud lightnings. You’ll definitely need to do a quick study of the patterns beforehand in order to choose the right lens for the situation.
Your camera settings obviously depend on the time of day, your distance, and severity of the storm. Daytime lightning usually calls for a slow shutter speed to match an aperture of f/16-f/22 and ISO 200. If it’s bright out, consider using an ND filter to block more of the light out.
Nighttime lightning can present a variety of different shooting situations. You can start by setting your shutter to BULB to control the length of exposure yourself, the aperture to f/5.6, and the ISO to 400. The closer the bolts, the narrower your aperture and lower your ISO levels should be to control the brightness—and the opposite to help faraway bolts show up better in your images. Below are a few suggested settings for specific types of nighttime shooting situations:
Here are a few suggestions for each:
- For dusk or sunset, try exposing for 2 to 10 seconds, closing your aperture slightly to f/10 to f/16, and going for ISO 200. Crank up your ISO while there’s still light in the sky if you want the lightning to stand out.
- During the blue hour, use wide apertures and a faster shutter speed to match.
- Once it’s dark out, keep your ISO low to avoid blowing out your lightning bolt.
- For city shots after dark, use a narrow aperture of about f/10 to f16 to keep the city lights sharp. Experiment with your shutter speed and ISO, like 10 to 15 second exposures, depending on how bright the lights are.
- For isolated areas after dark, use wider apertures of about f/5.6 to f/8 and drop your ISO to 100. If it’s too dark, try exposing for about 20 to 30 seconds.
- When shooting during a full moon with lots of ambient light, shorten your exposures to reduce the appearance of movement in the clouds.
Whatever time of day you decide to shoot, it may be best to also set your white balance to Auto, or shoot in RAW to preserve the maximum image quality and make it easier to tweak the white balance (and other image exposure settings) with ease in post.
Bonus Tip: Use a narrower aperture to increase your chances of capturing a sharp bolt, even when it lands a few miles away from your focus point.
Another secret to capturing sharp bolts is to set your focus to manual. Instead of setting it to infinity, try to first autofocus on distant city lights or the moon. If there aren’t any or enough lights to focus on, use the Live View to zoom in on a single light on the horizon and manually focus on it. If all else fails, have a companion walk at least 100 feet away from your camera with a flashlight and focus on the it.
Compose Your Shot
If you want to capture an image that will wow your viewers, you’ll need to spend a little more time and effort in carefully composing your shot. This depends on your personal taste, as well as the pattern of the lightning bolts. You’ll likely be focused on the sky, as it is where most of the action will be, but there may also be times when you have to zoom out for cloud-to-ground bolts.
We suggest framing your image with as little distracting elements as possible. Or, you can also choose to include an interesting element that can give relevance and perspective to your shot, such as buildings or a nearby tree.
Wait and Shoot
Nothing is more exciting than your first attempt. With your desired camera settings dialed in, you can either allow your lightning trigger to take the first shot or you can manually trigger the shutter with your wireless intervalometer.
View each image and adjust your settings accordingly until you get a fairly exposed bolt. If it is brighter than expected, lower your ISO levels. If it’s a little too dark for your taste, choose a higher ISO level.
For sharper lightning photos, go for the shorter shutter speeds—unless you’re going for multiple bolts in one exposure. But for isolated strikes, consider setting it to as fast as 1/4 seconds and adjust from there.
Stack Your Photos
If you want to amp up your results, you can try stacking your photos to produce a single image with multiple bolts.
First, you’ll need to make sure that your camera is completely steady to be able to line them up perfectly during post processing. Take a series of photos and then layer them on top of one another in Photoshop. You can combine 2 images to as much as 200+ files to create a spectacular image.
Of course, you can always pre-edit and fine tune the results on Camera Raw. You can also use programs like StarTrails that will help you stack your image files automatically.
Create a Time Lapse
Another way that you can present your lightning images is to create an amazing time lapse out of it. Like with stacking, you’ll only need to take a series of photos that you can stitch together later on using a good app or program. This is normally done with a stationary camera, but moving cinematic time lapses are now possible with high-tech and modern motion control gear attached to your existing camera equipment.
For lightning time lapses, take shots every one or two seconds and hope to get a few good lightning strikes. You’ll need around 360 photos to have 12 seconds of footage (including fade in and fade out) shown at 30 frames per second.
These pointers may not be aligned with your own methods, but that’s okay. Photography, in general, is about finding out what works best for you after trying out and following a few basic tips and guidelines. But the best pieces of advice that any photographer can give you is to practice, practice, and practice.
Actually being out there alone can make you realize that nothing can ever be set in stone. You may find that your fixed settings don’t work and realize that you’re better off taking a few practice shots beforehand. In this case, use your stored knowledge and experience in technical photography and you should do just fine.
Lightning photography can also teach you may things aside from photography skills and concepts. You’ll learn patience and determination, as well as develop a newfound appreciation and respect for the beauty (and dangers) of nature.
Before you plan your storm chase, remember to put your safety at the top of the priority list. There are ways to capture lightning without having to put your life in great danger. Take the necessary precautions and work within your limits, and we’re sure you’ll still be able to take home phenomenal images. As long as you’re in one piece, there will always be opportunities to capture more and better lightning images.