How to Photograph Lightning: The Ultimate Guide

The post How to Photograph Lightning: The Ultimate Guide appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mike Olbinski.

A guide to capturing amazing lightning photos

If someone told me I could only take pictures of one thing for the rest of my life, I’d think about it for a while and then choose lightning. Luckily, I live in reality and no one will ever say that to me, but it does emphasize how incredibly passionate I am about photographing this stuff.

I’m a storm chaser at heart, so I love everything about weather, and it would indeed be difficult if I couldn’t capture awesome dust storms, supercells, flash floods, and whatever else might happen out there. But lightning – I love lightning. And in this article, I’m going to share my hard-earned advice for capturing breathtaking lightning photos, including gear recommendations, camera settings, finding storms, and more.

Before I dive in, however, I want to emphasize the importance of safety. Lightning photography is dangerous, and I’ve had lightning strikes hit within 75 feet of me. Storm chasers get struck by lightning every year. Weigh the concerns, take plenty of precautions, and if you do decide to proceed, go into the field with your eyes open, knowing that you’re shooting at your own risk (and that there really, truly is a risk!).

Why is lightning photography so incredible?

A guide to lightning photography
Buckeye, Arizona
50mm | f/8 | ISO 100 | 20s

What is it about lightning that makes it such an incredible subject for photography? I’ve lived in Arizona my entire life, and I grew up loving our summer monsoon season. One of my early memories as a kid was sitting on our back porch with my dad and witnessing a bolt of lightning hit the field behind our house. I still remember being blinded for a few seconds. It was that close and that intense.

Arizona is a fantastic venue to capture lightning. We get a lot of high-based storms, which means you tend to see more of the strike. Our landscape is beautiful, from deserts and cacti to rolling grasslands and the Grand Canyon. I once met a guy in Tucson who was spending two whole weeks in Arizona solely to photograph lightning, and he was from Germany!

Anyway, trying to capture lightning is an adrenaline rush. It’s addicting. You can look at the back of your camera and know you just caught an epic bolt but still not be satisfied – or maybe that’s just me. It’s never enough. I want more. More and more!

A guide to lightning photography
Highway 347, Arizona
50mm | f/6.3 | 25s | ISO 200

Lightning is freaky. You want to get close, but not too close. The closer the better – sometimes. Suddenly, it gets quiet, you realize a storm just built up right over your head, and a strike from nowhere makes you double-check your shorts. When I photograph lightning, I’m usually out in the middle of nowhere, late at night. There is something crazy spooky about seeing an entire landscape get lit up in the blink of an eye.

Above all, what makes lightning fun to photograph is its uniqueness. No two bolts are the same, so you never know what you’ll end up with. Plus, if you’re all alone out there in the field, no one else will end up with the same image as you.

How to find lightning

If you’ve never tried lightning photography before, you might be surprised to learn that actually finding lightning is the hardest part of the process. You may worry about your settings and gear, but if you do it for a while, all that becomes second nature.

But finding the storms always remains a difficult task, even for an experienced photographer. You may live in a part of the United States, or even the world, where lightning doesn’t happen much, if at all. And even if lightning is a frequent event, you have to learn the patterns and watch the forecasts to be prepared.

The best way to find lightning here in the US is to bookmark the webpage of your local National Weather Service, which you can find right here. Their pages have links to radar maps where you can track the storms. If you want to get really intense, grab a copy of RadarScope (iOS or Android), which gives detailed radar data that you can access anytime you want.

If you don’t have much lightning in your area, I’ll be honest: Unless you’re willing to travel, it’s going to be hard to develop a lightning photography passion. You may want to invest in a storm-chasing tour or vacation somewhere like Arizona during the summer.

A guide to lightning photography
Buckeye, Arizona
50mm | f/10 | 8s | ISO 160

The ideal tools and gear for photographing lightning

Okay, these next few sections are what you probably care most about anyway, so let’s get to it. What equipment do you need to capture high-quality lightning photos?

The fact is, I started out with a little point-and-shoot camera that took three shots per second. I actually caught a crazy strike with it on my third or fourth time out, and that’s what really got me hooked. So you can definitely capture lighting with basic cameras if you want to depend on luck. There are even apps for lightning photography on your smartphone.

But if you want to eliminate as much luck as possible and capture mind-blowing, jaw-dropping images that are full of crisp details and can be printed and hung on your wall, you’ll likely want to upgrade your tools. You don’t have to go crazy, though. Here’s the basic list of what you need:

  • A DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lens capabilities. At the very least, you’ll need a camera that lets you control the length of your exposure.
  • Lenses! You’ll want to cover a variety of wide-to-standard focal lengths, and you can do this with a single zoom lens, although I’m personally a fan of primes.
  • A tripod (the sturdier the better!).
  • A wireless shutter release or intervalometer.

Those are really the essentials, and if you have all the items listed above, you’re ready to take some great photos.

And if you’re worried that your gear is too basic or too cheap, you genuinely do not need the most expensive equipment. Basic DSLRs and entry-level APS-C mirrorless cameras are a good starting point. My first camera for photographing lightning was the point-and-shoot model I mentioned above, and my first upgrade was a 12 MP Canon Rebel XSi.

A guide to lightning photography
Mammoth, Arizona
f/6.3 | 25s | ISO 200

That said, a full-frame sensor is better for photographing lightning – it gives a better dynamic range as well as a (usually) higher megapixel count. I knew I wanted to go full frame eventually, and after around a year, I upgraded from the XSi to one of Canon’s full-frame 5D models.

As far as lenses go, for lightning photography, you’ll want to cover the wider focal lengths as well as more standard lengths such as 50mm. Telephoto lenses can be useful, too, depending on what you’re after. These are the lenses that I carry on a storm chase:

Your tripod just needs to be sturdy and heavy-duty. When you are shooting during a thunderstorm, there will usually be a lot of wind. I’ve had tripods get blown right over by a strong gust of wind, and even milder wind can cause camera shake if the tripod isn’t sturdy.

I haven’t spent as much on tripods as on camera gear and time-lapse tools, but I use Manfrotto legs and heads. If you can afford it, invest in a tripod that has independent legs and a steady base that will allow you to shoot with a wider stance.

Finally, you will need some kind of external shutter release. This can be anything from your basic wired cable release all the way up to a wireless intervalometer.

I personally like the wireless intervalometers because you can control your camera from inside the car, where you are safer than standing outside during a lightning storm. I also love the wireless ones because the cabled intervalometers can get tangled in your tripod legs if you are packing up in a hurry.

What about lightning sensors?

Another useful tool for lightning photography is a lightning sensor and trigger. The brilliance of one of these triggers is that it senses the flash of lightning and automatically fires the shutter on your camera. You can comfortably put it on your camera, day or night, then sit back in your car and let the device do all the work.

A guide to lightning photography
Taken with a lightning trigger in Scott City, Kansas.
33mm | f/16 | 2s | ISO 100

The tough part about lightning sensors is finding one that is reliable. I’ve had three different ones, and I had to buy one of the most expensive models (The Lightning Trigger® IV) before I found one that worked well enough for my purposes. I’ve had a few of the $100-200 variety, and I’m afraid to report that they don’t always trigger from a flash of lightning. (That’s kind of the point, right?) To me, if you can save up for a good trigger, then do it; it’s much better than spending $100 several times in search of one that does the job.

More importantly, however, should you use a lightning sensor to photograph lightning?

Here’s my opinion: Lightning sensors are good during the day, but they become less useful the darker it gets. Most serious lightning photographers like to use a trigger because it helps when shooting daytime lightning, and it also saves the camera shutter. When you’re photographing lightning during the day, you could either take a ton of photos in a row and hope to get lucky, or you could use a trigger. A trigger works for daytime lightning photography. Great invention.

A guide to lightning photography
Taken with a lightning trigger in Red Rock, Arizona.
17mm | f/8 | 1/160s | ISO 400

There is also an argument that a lightning trigger can save your shutter at night, too. But whenever I’m out shooting lightning, there is enough flashing going on that my trigger keeps firing over and over anyway. And the anatomy of a lightning bolt is such that there are parts of it that could be missed if you wait for a trigger to fire your shutter. I’d much rather increase my odds of capturing the entire lightning bolt by doing 15-25 one-second exposures over and over.

Therefore, I use a trigger during the day, but once the sun goes down and I can start getting two- or three-second exposures, I take off the trigger and use the intervalometer. But that’s just me!

A guide to lightning photography
Part of a time-lapse series in Tucson, AZ.
14mm | f/16 | 2s | ISO 50

During the day, since I love to do time-lapse photography, I’ll actually get lucky enough to capture bolts without a trigger. Taking shots every one or two seconds allows you to record a sweet time-lapse and hopefully snag a few lightning strikes along the way. This has happened to me countless times. I’ve even captured a few lightning shots with a long interval on the time-lapse. If you’re at all interested in time-lapse shooting, give it a try!

Choosing the ideal camera settings for lightning photography

People ask me all the time: “What are good settings for photographing lightning?” The answer is that it varies, just like anything else in photography. But I do have some good guidelines to get you started.

For daytime lightning, you want to do your best to slow down the exposure as much as possible; this will give you the best chance of capturing a full lightning bolt. Since you’ll be dealing with brighter conditions, this might involve shooting at f/16-f/22, and possibly also with a neutral density filter. I personally don’t like ND filters for this kind of photography – when I’ve used them in the past, they tend to wash out the lightning a little – but it’s something to at least try. You might slap an ND filter on, increase the ISO to 200, and hope that helps the bolt show up a bit more intensely.

Daytime lightning is tough regardless. The best results are usually when it’s really dark with heavy clouds. The strikes are going to show up a lot better against a dark background.

A guide to lightning photography
Camp Verde, Arizona
23mm | f/18 | 6s | ISO 100

Nighttime is a whole different ballgame. There are lots of things that can alter your settings. Are you in the city? In complete and utter darkness? Is there a full moon? Are the bolts coming in fast and furious, or are they spaced minutes apart? Is the lightning only a few miles away, or is it 25 or more miles away?

Here are some situations and common settings to use as the sky darkens on a night out chasing storms:

  • Dusk/sunset: f/10-f/16, 2-10 seconds, ISO 200. You might raise your ISO even more because the sky still has some light in it and you want the lightning to really stand out.
  • Blue hour: As it gets darker, you should open up your aperture and maybe slow down your shutter speed.
  • Once it gets dark, your ISO becomes more important. The lightning flash against a dark sky means you don’t need as high of an ISO or you risk blowing out your bolt.
  • After dark in the city: A narrower aperture yields better results with city lights – they create aesthetically pleasing starbursts – so you might be shooting at f/10-f/16 even after dark. The shutter speed would depend on how bright the lights are. Same with the ISO. Usually in the city, I like 10-15 second exposures.
  • After dark, away from light: You’ll want to use wider apertures, typically around f/5.6-f/8. You’ll want to drop your ISO to 100 to make sure you don’t end up with blown-out shots. If it’s really dark, you may want longer exposures around 20-30 seconds.
  • After dark but with lots of ambient light (e.g., when the moon is full): Consider using shorter exposures to reduce motion in the clouds.
  • Close lightning: Use a narrower aperture and a low ISO.
  • Distant lightning: Use a higher ISO so the bolts show up better.

The bottom line is that none of this is set in stone. You have to get out there and practice to learn the best settings for you and what you like.

A guide to lightning photography
Wickenburg, Arizona
16mm | f/11 | 10s | ISO 200

As you head out to photograph lightning for the first time, here are a few tips and elements to watch for:

  • Don’t blow out your lightning. Sometimes bolts are so bright that there is nothing you can do about it. But when you realize the strikes are so intense that you are blowing stuff out, narrow your aperture or drop the ISO.
  • Don’t let your lightning be too dark. This is the other side of the coin. If your aperture is too narrow and your ISO too low, that distant lightning may not be so bright and vivid. It will require a lot of post-production and might result in excess noise if you have to increase the exposure to make it look good. You are also probably not going to render detail in a lot of the surrounding clouds and landscapes unless the bolt is very bright. Therefore, make sure you have a good exposure so you get details in the clouds and landscape if you can.
  • Don’t forget about cloud ghosting. If you are taking really long exposures for lightning (25 seconds or longer), you risk seeing ghosting in your clouds as they get illuminated by different strikes over the course of your shot. This is generally something you want to avoid!

How to focus when photographing lightning

I could have included focusing in the above section, but I find it so important that I wanted to put extra emphasis on it. The biggest, most common mistake I see in lightning photography is out-of-focus images (a close second is blown-out lightning). It seems that focusing is the toughest thing to learn how to do correctly.

I include myself in that! I sometimes get excited about lightning images only to get home and realize they were out of focus. We all mess this up.

A guide to lightning photography
Phoenix, Arizona
26mm | f/8 | 15s | ISO 200

I think the biggest reason for focusing problems is that often we rely on the infinity focus setting on our lenses. While some lenses have a hard stop for infinity (and I am definitely not well-versed in many lenses other than Canon), most of them don’t. And even if it does have a hard stop, is that actually perfect?

Here’s how I recommend you focus when shooting lightning:

  • Autofocus on distant city lights if you can. I find this to be the most reliable way to capture tack-sharp lightning photos at night. If the moon is out, you can also focus on it.
  • If there aren’t enough lights to focus on, then focusing via Live View is your next best method. Using Live View, zoom in on the screen to anything you can see, even if it’s a single light on the horizon. Then focus on it manually.
  • If all else fails and you can’t find any good point of focus, use your lens’s infinity marker. But once you get a lightning strike on camera, check to see if it’s in focus. If it’s not, then adjust!

Remember, the wider your aperture, the tougher it’ll be to get the focus right. If you’re using an ultra-wide aperture and a longer lens, you need to be careful! For example, you could focus on lights that are several hundred feet in the distance – but if the bolt lands five miles away, it might be slightly soft. A narrower aperture really does help with this issue.

Once, when I was shooting, it was so completely dark that I chose to focus on an incoming truck’s lights down the road. Turns out, the lightning 10 miles away was out of focus. I cried – a little.

A guide to lightning photography
Casa Grande, Arizona
50mm | f/9 | 25s | ISO 125

Another technique, which I’ve never tried myself, is that when you find that perfect infinity spot at, say, f/8-f/10, put a little scratch on your lens with an X-Acto knife, or a thin line with a paint pen, and just line it up whenever you need it.

Last but definitely not least: If you don’t have back-button focus set up on your camera, then you will need to set your lens to manual focus. You don’t want to go through all the work of focusing on distant lights with Live View, only to take your first shot and have your camera try and focus in the dark!

Practice, stay safe, and have fun!

All my advice is based on my own experience photographing lightning. You may find different opinions and thoughts elsewhere, or you might even have your own methods. That’s okay! Figuring out what’s best for you is how photography works!

The most important advice I can give you, though, is to practice. You may not have much lightning where you are, so perhaps plan a trip somewhere (like Arizona) where you can spend a few weeks just shooting lightning every chance you get.

A guide to lightning photography
Highway 90 near Whetstone, Arizona
50mm | f/5.6 | 25s | ISO 100

Like anything in life, practice makes you better. You can read this article and have a good idea of what to do, but being out there in the moment is a different story. I’ve done this enough that I can pull up to a spot and pretty much know my settings before I pull the camera out of the bag. But there are still times when I’m not quite sure and need to take a few practice shots. Not all situations are the same, so you will slowly learn the right settings for each scene.

Finally, I want to reiterate my warning at the beginning of this article: Please stay safe! I’ve had lightning strikes hit within 75 feet of me. Yikes! It’s scary for sure. Do this knowing that the closer you get, the more risk you run of getting hit. Storm chasers do get struck by lightning every year. It’s a real danger.

But have fun. There is nothing like capturing an amazing strike on camera. I wish you the best of luck!

The post How to Photograph Lightning: The Ultimate Guide appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mike Olbinski.

The post How to Photograph Lightning: The Ultimate Guide appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mike Olbinski. If someone told me I could only take pictures of one thing for the rest of my life, I’d think about it for a while and then choose lightning. Luckily, I live in reality…

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