When it comes to photographing the natural elements, one of the coolest things that you can capture with your camera is a terrific lightning bolt in the midst of it's happening! Now, it's been done for years and every photographer out there will say they have the best technique but the truth is that it's 90% luck and 10% gear, lenses and camera settings; although there are a few things to keep in mind that will definitely increase your chances. It's not particularly hard to photograph lightning, it's mostly a matter of being prepared to get a good image when the lightning happens. All the images in this post were taken in San Telmo, Buenos Aires during an intense electrical storm that kept us up all night.
1. FIND A GOOD LOCATION
First off, it's important to realize that the conditions you are shooting in are unpredictable and therefore potentially dangerous, so safety first. Lightning can kill and no photograph is worth dying for. Try to be under some kind of shelter although this won't always be possible especially if you are outdoors, say in the countryside, or you happen to drive by a storm and decide to take out your tripod. Obviously if lightning starts to strike near you, it's time to pick up and leave. Since we cannot see lighting coming, we need to predict where it will strike. So by observing the lightning pattern and by using a wide angle lens we will cover enough area to hopefully catch a few strikes. It's too late to start thinking about composition when a storm is imminent so a good storm photographer will plan where to set up his or her camera before the storm comes.
You don't need expensive gear for lightning photography. All you really need is a DSLR camera with manual settings, a sturdy but light tripod to move around and a wide angle lens to capture as much of the scene as possible. Then there are other things that are good to have at hand but are not "essential" like protective gear for your equipment; microfiber cloths and covers to protect from the rain and wipe your lenses and a release cable or remote so that you avoid touching the camera. You can always just use the built in camera timer (although this can be difficult to see when dark and rainy).
3. SET THE FOCUS TO INFINITY
Always disengage the auto-focus on your lens and manually set it to infinity (the ∞ symbol on the focusing meter). Lightning will fool the autofocus sensor every time, especially at night so manual focus set to infinity is key to getting the bolt and background sharp. Since we will also be shooting wide apertures, objects closer to the camera may be out of focus but depending on your composition this will add or take away from the photograph.
4. CAMERA SETTINGS
Photographing a storm consists of taking long exposures and hoping the lightning will strike while the shutter is open. There are 3 ways to take long exposures available with most DSLRs
Manual Exposure Setting - Set your tripod and frame your shot, then observe the lightning pattern and more or less determine and manually set the exposure time (anywhere between 10-30 seconds). Fire away. You need the most luck with this setting.
Bulb Setting - Set your camera to "Bulb" mode and this will allow you to hold the shutter open for as long as long as the shutter release button is held down. With this setting you will end up with different exposure times on every shot and you will have to judge it yourself. This setting gives good results if you "read" the storm well and predict the strikes.
Mirror Lockup Mode - This mode lets you engage the mirror well before the shutter releases, so there is no mirror slap vibration. Set up your remote cable release before hand, frame the image and hold down the shutter release button to open the shutter, wait for the lightning to flash and disappear and immediately end the shot.
Every storm is different so this this will be trial and error until the exposure is just right. The mirror lock up mode is very useful, since we can wait for the lightning to strike before closing the shutter, remember that this function only works in fairly dark conditions. In this mode a remote trigger is essential to avoid touching or moving the camera during exposures. F-stop will be set to anywhere from f/2.8 to f/5.6 and ISO set to 100 to minimize noise. If a storm is very active you might get two or even three strikes per exposure!
So, I will usually keep taking these long exposures until there is no more lightning. I personally feel that the images where the lightning struck near the end of the exposure turn out the best for some reason.
Shooting a streak of lightning across the sky and nothing else may look pretty but it gives no sense of perspective so framing your shot with features in the foreground like trees, moving cars or in this case a cityscape will give context to your photographs. Aside from giving you more chances of capturing a strike, a wide angle lens will also allow you to crop and reframe in post if you have the megapixel count (anywhere above 18MP). Ultimately your composition will depend on where the lightning is appearing but always consider the elements that you can bring into the shot.
As you can see there is no great mystery in photographing lightning. It takes a little know-how, persistence, the right weather and a lot of luck! The photograph of a lightning trail is unique, no two lightning strikes will ever hit in the same place and in the same way. With that in mind be prepared for the next time a storm starts brewing in your area. Send us your lightning photographs and a little description! We will be creating and featuring a gallery with the best shots!
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