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Home Landscape How to Photograph Lightning

How to Photograph Lightning

You’ve seen those spectacular lightning photographs–Mother Nature unleashing her electrical fury in a breathtaking fashion, ripping through the sky and lighting up the world! If you would like to know how to photograph lightning, you’re in luck–we’re going to discuss the basics of this awesome and rewarding niche.

Since lightning photography can be dangerous, let’s begin with how to stay safe.

Safety First!

The best way to stay safe when photographing lightning is to be in a structure or under an object that protects you from a direct strike. You should not use trees for cover, since if one of them is struck by lightning, the electricity travels through the roots and into you. In fact, it is recommended that you stay at least 50 feet away from both water and tall trees during a lightning storm.

You also want to avoid being out in the open–that makes you the tallest thing around, and a prime target for a lightning strike. The safest thing to do is to stay inside a building or car. Remember, though these lightning photographs are stunning, they’re not worth risking your life.

It’s important when photographing lightning to stay safe by doing things like keeping a safe distance as seen in this photograph of lightning in the distance.
It’s important when photographing lightning to stay safe by doing things like keeping a safe distance.

Where should you set up for lightning photography?

The issue of safety aside, you might be wondering where to photograph lightning. The great thing about it is that a lightning storm can happen almost everywhere, but you may have to wait until the right time of year depending on where you live, and it’s also important to consider what you have in your foreground. That requires a bit of planning ahead of time.

It’s best to scout out potential locations before a lightning storm arrives. They should be close enough to where you live that you won’t have far to travel to get there and get set up to capture the best lightning strikes. The best locations have a good view of a large amount of the sky, but also interesting foreground details.

For awesome lightning photographs, consider carefully what you have in the foreground, such as seen in this image of hills and highway in the foreground of a spectacular lightning storm.
For awesome lightning photographs, consider carefully what you have in the foreground.

And, don’t forget rule #1–make sure there’s a safe place at the location where you can set up, even if that just means positioning your car so that you get the best view while you shoot from the window without risking a strike from a lightning bolt.

What type of equipment do you need for lightning photography?

One of the most important things when learning how to photograph lightning is your equipment. Here’s a list of what you’ll need to capture those spectacular lightning strikes: 

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera–A DSLR or mirrorless camera is almost a must for photographing lightning, and you’ll want one that allows you to set manual controls for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. You’ll also want a camera with a manual focus, and you’ll want it to have the option to shoot in RAW rather than just JPEG files. 
  • Tripod–This is also a must since you’ll need a longer shutter speed to capture those awesome lightning photos you often see. Without a tripod, your lightning images will likely be blurry due to camera shake. Even if you have a very steady hand, it’s unlikely you’ll be lucky enough to capture those crystal clear lightning bolts that are so stunning in their detail.
  • Lenses--When shooting lightning, you’ll need different types of lenses, and getting a fast lens is a must, but you’ll also likely want a zoom lens rather than a prime lens. That will give you additional flexibility for photographing lightning at different distances. However, if you hope to capture the breadth of the storm–the grand scene with the towering storm clouds–then a wide angle lens is a must. A wide angle lens also helps to cut down on the guesswork with regard to where the lightning will strike since you can capture more of the sky in the shot.
  • Cable release or infrared remote–A cable release or an infrared remote will allow you to take the shot without touching your camera. This is important because even the slightest touch can introduce camera shake.
  • Flashlight–You’ll use this both to see where you’re walking in reduced visibility, and as a light source with which you can ‘paint’ your foreground. That will make the resulting lightning photograph even more dramatic.
  • Lens cloth or towel–Since you’ll likely be taking lightning photos in the rain, you’ll need these to keep your lens clean. Even a single raindrop on your lens can ruin the picture. 
  • Optional lightning trigger–Finally, there is one optional product you might want to consider if you’ve got the budget for something extra. The MIOPS camera trigger includes a lightning trigger that takes a picture any time lightning strikes. This lightning trigger function even allows you to step away from the camera and take shelter while it does the work. If you’ll be photographing lightning strikes frequently, this is probably worth buying since it will make your life much easier. 

What camera settings are best for shooting lightning?

There are a number of settings to consider when shooting lightning. It also makes a difference if you’re shooting during the day or at night, but in general, the following settings will help you get the best images: 

  • Manual Mode–You’re going to set your camera to full manual mode, since in the lighting conditions you’ll encounter with storms or nighttime photography, your camera’s automatic settings are unlikely to produce good images. That’s particularly true since the lighting will vary as the lightning strike lights up the sky.
  • Focus–You want to set your lens to manual focus, and then, you’ll want to set the focus to infinity. That means the lens is focused on the distant horizon. If you’re shooting at night, you’ll definitely need the manual focus mode since most digital cameras can’t automatically acquire focus if it is dark. 
  • ISO–This is your camera’s sensitivity to the available light. You’ll want to set this to ‘base’ for your camera, which will likely be somewhere between ISO 64 and 200. Most of the Nikon and Canon cameras have a base ISO of 100. 
  • Shutter speed–Because of the low light conditions, you’ll need a longer shutter speed–that means you’ll have the shutter open for a longer period of time. Usually somewhere between 5 and 30 seconds will do the trick. If you want to the foreground to appear much darker–that dramatic silhouette–then, you should have the shutter open for only between 1 and 3 seconds, but you should realize that this shutter speed makes it more difficult to capture the lightning strike itself. You can also set the camera mode to “b” for bulb mode. This means the camera will continue to take a picture until your finger comes off the shutter button. This is most effectively used when shooting at night, because it will let you achieve shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds. 
  • Aperture–The aperture setting depends a little on what you have in the foreground. If you don’t have anything that is too close in the foreground, then start with an aperture of f/5.6. From there, if your image looks too overexposed, you can stop down to an aperture of f/8 and go smaller from there. If you need to go as small as an aperture of f/16, it might be better to use an ND filter so that you reduce the amount of light that reaches your camera. If you have something close in the foreground, you’ll likely need a smaller aperture to increase your depth of field. 
  • Burst mode–This setting lets you continuously shoot frames so that you can be more certain of capturing that lightning bolt in at least one image. With this, you can set up your camera, take a few test shots to check your composition, and then just keep shooting until you get lucky with a lightning strike. 

Don’t forget to stop and check your images every once in a while. That way you can adjust your camera settings as necessary. 


Composition

Probably one of the most important rules for composing your lightning shots is that you want to cover more sky than whatever you have in the foreground. It won’t necessarily look good to you when you’re checking it in the viewfinder, but once the lightning strikes, that becomes your subject. You want to the lightning to cover the majority of the picture–60 – 80% sky versus 20 – 40% foreground usually works best.

Since you don’t know where the lightning will strike, you usually want to have your composition be wider than normal, so that you can crop the image later in post-production. You also want to consider carefully what you have in the foreground. Some object could spoil the composition of your image, and though it might not be that noticeable at first, it will often become much more noticeable with the lightning strike.

For good image composition, the majority of the photo should be sky--as much as 80%--as seen in this image of a lightning storm over a city.
For good image composition, the majority of the photo should be sky–as much as 80%.

Know Your Subject

As a photographer, it’s always important to know your subject, and towards that end, let’s look at the different types of lightning. The ways in which lightning is categorized is in accordance with the following characteristics: type, intensity, pattern, and color. 

Type: The three types of lightning are cloud-to-ground lightning, cloud-to-cloud lightning, and intra-cloud lightning. If the lightning descends from the clouds to the ground, it is cloud-to-ground, if it strikes from one cloud to another, it is cloud-to-cloud lightning, and if it occurs within a single cloud, it is intra-cloud lightning.

One type of lightning is cloud-to-cloud lightning as seen in this image of a horizontal lightning bolt between clouds.
One type of lightning is cloud-to-cloud lightning.

Intensity: It’s important to be able to estimate the intensity of the lightning as that can affect your camera settings. For that reason, you should study the lightning for a few moments before actually trying to take a photograph. As yourself how often is it striking, and which bolt is the brightest–is it the fourth or fifth? Once you assess the intensity, you can fine tune your camera settings to get the best image. 

Pattern: This has to do with what kind of image you want. Do you want the image of a lone lightning bolt with its stark, beautiful simplicity, or do you want the type of lightning that scatters across the sky or shoots off numerous smaller lightning bolts? Again, study your subject and that will help to set up your gear to capture the image you’re trying to get. 

Simplicity is a beautiful pattern in lightning as seen in this image of a single cloud-to-ground lightning bolt.
Simplicity is a beautiful pattern in lightning.

Color: Lastly, there is the color of the lightning bolt. Lightning comes in white, red, yellow, green, and even blue or purple colors. The color of lightning depends on the gases, chemicals, and other such impurities in the atmosphere as well as the temperature of the lightning bolt itself. Of course, vivid white is most common, but if there is dust or pollution in the air, orange or red colors will occur, and hailstones in a storm can contribute to a purple or blue hue. Even the vapor lamps found in a city can give the lightning a bluish-green appearance.

The color of lightning depends on certain atmospheric factors, such as the presence of hailstones which will create a purple color as seen in this image of lightning.
The color of lightning depends on certain atmospheric factors, such as the presence of hailstones which will create a purple color.

By understanding these lightning characteristics, you can better plan to get the exact image you hope to capture. Additionally, these helpful tips will help you understand the basics of how to photograph lightning.

If you’re trying to get those spectacular, breathtaking photographs of Mother Nature at her most shocking, learn about your subject, scout out locations with lots of sky and a good foreground, set up your camera with a tripod, shutter release cable and lightning trigger, adjust the manual settings, take cover, and shoot to your heart’s desire. You’ll capture those spectacular, beautiful, and powerful lightning bolts as they rip through the sky.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best camera for shooting lightning?

As mentioned above, a mirrorless or DSLR camera is a must. Of course, there are many brands out there that will work great, but the Nikon D7500 is a great choice at an affordable price.

What is the best lens for photographing lightning?

You usually want a fast lens to shoot lightning, and depending on your budget, it’s good to have both a telephoto lens as well as a wide angle lens. The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR Lens is a great choice as is the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens.

How can you use your smartphone for lightning photos?

You can capture that perfect lightning image with your smartphone. As with your camera, you should set your phone on a stable surface or use a small tripod to avoid camera shake. Next, you want an app that lets you adjust the settings manually so that you can set the ISO setting to the lowest value, and adjust the aperture and shutter speed accordingly. Then, just follow the other tips for shooting lightning that you use for a regular camera.

How should you use photo editing software to perfect your lightning images?

You’ll likely need to process your lightning images in a software program like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. One technique that creates spectacular lightning images is photo stacking. To do this, you should use several shots of the same landscape with different lightning strikes, then select all the images you want to stack, and open them as layers in Photoshop. From there, you can adjust the settings for all layers, or you can apply layer masks to adjust only certain areas of the images. The result will be the landscape you photographed with numerous lightning strikes appearing to strike simultaneously.

Catherine Gaither
Catherine Gaither
Catherine Gaither is a professional bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.

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