Photographing Lightning

Shooting lightning is something that I tried for the first time the other night and I managed to get some pretty good shots of it. Getting shots of lightning isn’t quite as hard or tricky as you might think. After a bit, I was able to get decent strikes in every single shot that I took.

Since long exposures are required, make sure you have a good tripod with you. Set that up and attach a shutter release cable if you have one. You could also use a timer if you don’t have one. You want to minimize any shake. You will want to turn off IS on our lens if it has it since you’re using the tripod. And it should be a wider-angle capable lens. I used my 18-55 kit lens (which kind of sucks but is the widest lens I have at the moment).

Turn manual focusing on for your lens as well. The last thing you need is for you to go to take your shot and have the camera hunting for an autofocus position… because it’s so dark, it’s going to screw up any manual focusing that you’ve worked to get up to that point. Take the time to focus on the furthest discernible element in the shot. Use LiveView and zoom in and move the screen around until you find something to focus on… be it treetops backlit by some lightning, a street light, a building, whatever. Since it’s so dark (normally) you really want to make sure your photographs are as sharp as possible. You won’t really know how things are going until you get home and view them large… no sense in wasting an entire night taking soft photos of things.

Now, what I did was set the camera to ISO 100 and shutter priority… meaning I told the camera the amount of time to keep the shutter open & it handled the rest. I don’t have a great DSLR that allows for higher ISOs without a ton of noise… I keep my camera at ISO 100 99% of the time for the most detail and lowest possible noise.

I attached the shutter release cable and watched the sky. Some patterns developed… there would be some quick flashes followed by large strikes. Probably every ten to fifteen seconds. Yes, it was a monster lightning storm (thankfully without any local rain). I could see the direction that the storm front was slowly moving, so I knew how to slightly turn my tripod to keep up with the strikes.

Taking notice of trends in the weather made taking photos of it a lot easier in my opinion. I wasn’t pointing all over the place praying for a miracle to happen.

Anyway, I was pre-selecting exposure times. Normally around eight seconds was working well for me. I did need to adjust this as the storm moved on… as the intensity and timing would slowly vary.

You don’t want the time to be too short as you could miss strikes, but if it’s too long the sky will be washed out with light and you might not even see distinct strikes even though they were present during the shot. Think of the light being averaged over time when taking long exposures.

In my short experience that night, if I could manage to get a major strike near the end of my exposure time, it would turn out wonderfully. I took about 100 shots, 30 or so were good, the others the lightning looked weird in it’s formation, or I’d only get a sliver, etc. But I had fun and was able to capture some pretty amazing moments.

Now, you can also use BULB mode and use ƒ/11. That should give you a wide depth of field. When using BULB mode, take the shot holding the shutter open, and right after a strike, you can let it go. If you’ve held the button for a long time without a strike, it’s probably time to try another shot. Also, if lightning is coming once a minute, you’re going to have a tough time. A little luck will come into play there.

Just capturing lightning isn’t the whole thing though… although it’s cool. Capturing lightning is exciting, but you also want to see good composition in the shots. In my shots I tried to use a streetlamp to provide some foreground focus and a way to try and balance the pictures a little bit. I don’t think it was completely successful, but at least they weren’t shots of lightning above trashcans at the end of a driveway.

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