Taking Pictures of Lightning

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Taking pictures of lightning is not nearly as hard as you may think. In fact, it’s actually quite simple assuming you’re taking pictures at night. If you’re shooting during daylight hours, you’ll either need lightning quick reflexes (pun intended) or some expensive shutter trigger hardware.

The reason being, at night the entire scene is dark, or nearly dark which allows you to keep the shutter open for long periods of time without exposing the sensor or film. This greatly increases your chances of catching a lightning strike during the long exposure. When a lighting strike does occur, it acts as a natural flash exposing the scene. The same technique cannot be done when it’s light outside because you cannot expose for longer periods of time.

The great thing is, you don’t need a high end fancy camera. The only options you must have on your SLR (single lens reflex) camera are the “Bulb” setting, the ability to turn off auto-focus, and manual control over F-Stop.

The other accessories you'll need are a sturdy tripod, shutter cable release, and a microfiber towel to wipe any water off the lens.

ISO Setting

The lower the ISO setting, the less noise you’ll see on the image. Although lightning is fast, it’s not “moving” per say. So you don’t need a fast ISO. I prefer 100. There’s really not much more to the ISO setting. It used to make a difference on print film, but not so much anymore.

Aperture and Focal Length

This next part is the technical part, which isn’t that difficult, but takes time to figure out. There’s a balance between aperture and focal length and if you don’t have them set right your pictures will be too dark or washed out. I’ve found that I mostly take pictures of lightning using a focal length between 20 mm to 50 mm. A variable focal length lens is desirable as it makes adjusting the field of view easier, but a fixed focal length lens will produce results just as good.  

I have found with my  Canon 6D (full-frame camera) with a focal length of 35mm and an F-Stop of about f/8 is a good starting point. At about f/5.6, the lightning washes out the exposure and at f/11, the lightning looks unimpressive. However, if the lightning is far away, you may need to lower the f-stop. If it's close, you may need to increase it.

Exposure Times

The exposure time won’t matter because it should be pretty dark out. Simply hold down the cable release button and wait … which could be as long as a couple minutes. Three to five flashes of lightning that flood the sky with light do little to expose the image. If a lightning strike occurs within your frame of reference (what you see when looking through the camera), then release the cable lock. If you happen to catch a lightning strike within a few second of pressing the cable release button, keep the button depressed a while longer to allow the other scenery to show up as well.

Reference Frame

Study the storm for a bit to see where the lightning is coming from. Set your camera up and look though the lens to gauge how much you need to zoom in or zoom out. If possible, you want about 20% of the frame to show the ground, and the remaining 80% of the frame to capture the sky. I like to capture the lightning bolt exiting the cloud as it really adds a lot of power to the photograph.

Location, Location, Location

Make sure there aren’t too many headlights from cars, street lamps, or buildings lights in your field of view. If the lights are off in the distance you should be fine and they won’t wash out your exposure. However, if you have a street light right above or in front of you, or cars are coming right at you, then you'll want to find another angle from which to photograph the storm.

Be careful where you set up shop. You don’t want to be in an open field, under a tree, or on top of a building. You also don’t want to be right next to the road as cars may have a difficult time seeing you in the dark and can also throw up pebbles which can leave a nice welt (Yeah, I learned the hard way). Just use common sense and don’t put yourself in danger. You don’t have to be right under the storm to capture a great shot.

Take note of where you point the camera. What I mean is, while looking through the lens, take note of objects on the far left and far right. Then find those points while not looking through the camera. That way when a lightning bolt strikes, you will immediately know if your camera “saw” it as well. The reason being, when you push the shutter button, you will no longer be able to see through the camera lens.

There’s a lot of adjusting you need to do when taking pictures of lightning. The storm will move and one part will become more active while another dies down. And remember, don’t be afraid to take very long exposure times. You do not need to release the cable every time a lightning bolt flashes. The large flashes that occur within the cloud and fill the sky do very little to expose the image. So keep the shutter open until a lightning strike hits directly in front of your camera view. It can be frustrating at first, but don’t be afraid to experiment! And be thankful you aren’t shooting with print film!

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