How to photograph lightning

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How to photograph lightning

  • Safety
  • When and where
  • Equipment needed
  • Composition and exposure
  • Technique

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lightning strike on power station

How to photography lightning

Safety first

An Electrical storm is one of the most powerful forces in nature and has fascinated mankind since the dawn of time.

Fact! Lightning strikes are extremely unpredictable and around 100 people are killed each year in the USA from by being struck by lightning. If you are going to attempt to take photographs in a thunderstorm, be sure to follow the following safety advice

  • Avoid being in an exposed outdoor area or under a lone tree etc. during a thunderstorm.
  • Ideally photograph from within a sturdy building (i.e. not a small remote shed)or from inside a vehicle.
  • Remember, thunderstorms are frequently accompanied by heavy rainfall so do not set up your equipment in the open without rain cover.

how to photograph lightning

Equipment needed

As a minimum you will need

  • Digital camera –This article will primarily deal with using a DSLR, but any digital camera that allows long exposure times may be used.
  • Tripod, Camera bean bag or other stable platform upon which to support your camera. It is not possible to obtain good lightning shots whilst hand holding the camera.

Other useful (but by no means essential equipment)

  • Remote shutter release and/or intervalometer
  • Polarising or neutral density filter
  • Lightning trigger

how to photograph lightning

When and where

Thunderstorms can occur pretty much anywhere and this article is intended for those who wish know how to take advantage of a storm when it happens in their vicinity rather than become a dedicated “storm chaser” who plans to go searching for storms.

Storms can also occur a all times of day or night. However the best time to photograph lighting is at night (or late evening/twilight) when storms are more dramatic AND it is somewhat easier to capture lightning at night than during the day.

The ideal location is from with a sturdy, covered building that has unrestricted and unobstucted views to the horizon.



how to photograph lightning

the set up


The set up (as with all photography) falls into two distinct sections

Composition and Exposure. Dealing with each in turn.

Composition

Although the lightning bolt itself will be the primary subject, including other elements into the shot (rather than just photographing the sky) will add impact and drama to the photo.

Obviously the exact location of the lightning is also unpredictable, so landscape orientation with a wide angle of view and the horizon (or other foreground elements) positioned along the lower third of the frame is often used. When shooting at night, incorporating other (relatively) distant light sources, such as lit buildings or street lights etc. can also add interest to the photo.

Ideally there should be no light sources too close to the lens and ideally the closest objects should be far enough away to only be bought into focus when the lens is focused to infinity at the final aperture used.


Exposure.

Just as with flash photography, exposure of the lightning “flash” occurs in such a short time frame that exposure for the lightning bolt itself is more or less independent of shutter speed. So it is Aperture and ISO that are most relevant.

Lightning bolts will be best exposed using medium apertures and low ISO settings.

Given the erratic nature of lightning it isn’t possible to give exact settings. However apertures typically from F5.6 to F11 at ISO 100 will work well with the majority of lightning strikes at medium distance (5 to 15km).

The farther away the lighting, the lower the F number (i.e. BIGGER aperture) and higher the ISO will need to be.

If lightning is overexposed at less than F11 at ISO 100 – then the storm is DANGEROUSLY CLOSE and serious consideration should be given whether to continue until it is at a greater distance. If however you are in a safe environment then prevent overexposure by using higher f number (i.e. SMALLER aperture)

If your composition does include elements that are important to the composition –particularly other light sources such as lit buildings etc. , then having selected an aperture and ISO suited to capture the lightning, you will need to select a shutter speed that will work with those settings to correctly expose these elements.

As already stated, the shutter speed will not in itself have any effect upon the exposure of the lightning – however longer shutter speeds will provide a greater chance of capturing a lightning strike (or even several) during each exposure. Ideally shutter speeds from 5 seconds and longer work well.

I usually use the aperture priority mode and spot metering in order to establish aperture and shutter speeds required and then switch to manual mode and programme in these settings.





how to photograph lightning

technique



So, the storm is raging– you have your camera pointed in the direction of most lightning activity ,have composed your shot taking into account additional elements within the scene aside from the lightning itself and have established the exposure parameters in terms of Aperture, ISO and shutter speed.

Now for the other critical elements of the technique.

Steady your camera.

As with any long exposure photography – maintaining stability of the camera throughout the exposure is essential. I therefore recommend you follow as many of the following steps as possible

  1. Use a tripod (best option) or camera bean bag or place the camera on a firm surface such as a wall etc. etc.
  2. Use a remote shutter release (best option) or the camera's self timer (set at 2 second rather than 10 second delay to limit the chances of missing lightning that strikes that occur during the countdown procedure.
  3. Use your camera's “live view” mode (particularly if it has an electronic 1st curtain shutter option – such as with canon's “2nd silent” shooting mode) or alternatively the mirror lock-up facility (in both cases cover the optical viewfinder eyepiece to avoid stray light effecting the exposure). These actions will avoid any blur due to camera shake as a result of vibrations from the mirror and / or shutter movement.

When to take the shot

The best advice is to NOT attempt to begin the exposure when you see the lightning –although you may react fast enough to capture secondary or rebound flashes, you are likely to miss the primary dramatic “forked”flash.

Given that storms typically pass relatively quickly, it is better to simply continuously keep taking exposures non stop. Although this may result in many exposures without any lightning, these can simply be discarded afterwards, with just the successful “keepers”retained. (Hardly a problem with modern high capacity memory cards that are able to record thousands of exposures.)

Options here are

  1. If using the self timer, simply begin a new exposure as soon as the previous one is complete – the downside being that you may miss a lightning flash during the timer countdown.
  2. Use a remote release and bulb setting – open the shutter and then end the exposure immediately AFTER witnessing lightning. This option is only suitable when other items of the composition are not dependant upon exposure from light except that from the lightning flash itself (This lends itself to remote rural locations). Alternatively if shutter speed is defined simply use the remote to begin a new exposure as soon as the previous has completed – this has the advantage over the self timer in that there is no countdown delay during which lightning strikes could potentially be missed.
  3. Use an intervalometer. This is a device often used in the capture of time-lapse photography where the camera is programmed to take a shot at predetermined intervals for a given period of time or number of shots. Some cameras have the function built in, or third party firmware can be installed (e.g. magic lantern for canon) or a separate device – often combined with a standard remote shutter release can be obtained. The interval is simply set up for 1 second longer than the shutter speed, so a new exposure will begin automatically 1 second after the previous one has finished. This has the advantage of enabling the photographer to retreat safely inside whilst leaving the camera in a potentially more hazardous location.



how to photograph lightning

other settings, ideas and recommendations

lightning strikes merged


Shooting in RAW format is recommended to allow maximum flexibility to get the most out of the photo in post processing particularly with regard to white balance. However if you do choose the JPEG format (or your camera doesn’t allow RAW) then some photographers suggest a TUNSTEN or FLOURESCENT white balance which captures the lightning with a blue/ purple colour – but at the end of the day this is somewhat down to personal preference.

Merging separate exposures in post production. If you have several separate lightning strikes captured with the same composition (i.e. the tripod wasn’t moved between shots,) then it is a relatively simple procedure to merge them in photoshop to a single photo showing multiple lightning strikes.

If shooting lightning during the day, or when higher levels of ambient light are unavoidable then it may be necessary to use polarizing or neutral density filters to reduce the light such that long shutter speeds can be maintained. Try and avoid using smaller apertures as the lightning itself will have the same intensity day or night and small apertures (high F numbers) may result in insufficient exposure of the lightning flash. If you are unable to attain long shutter times it will make it more difficult to time your exposures to coincide with a lightning strike.




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