How to Photograph Lightning

August 09, 2014

I can't start off an article about photographing lightning without saying that the number one priority is safety.  If you can see lightning or hear thunder, no matter how far away, you are at risk of being struck.  My house was hit by lightning one day when you could barely see flashes in the distance .  This is especially true for photographers, standing next to a tall, metal tripod in a storm.


However, if you feel confidently safe, how do you photograph lightning?


(This amazing photo is from Charlotte Lemoine, posted with permission)


The most important thing to know when photographing lightning is how to expose the photo properly.  There are two interesting points about exposure with a lightning bolt: first, a long shutter speed does not increase the brightness of the lightning, since it happens so quickly.  In fact, a long shutter speed increases the ambient brightness of the environment without increasing that of the lightning, making the bolt appear fainter.  Second, the lightning itself acts as a gigantic flashbulb, lighting up the environment and freezing everything that it illuminates.  For example, look at the shoreline at the very bottom right of the photo; despite this photo's exposure of six seconds, the incoming wave is frozen perfectly because the lightning lit it for a very brief period of time.


If you want to photograph lightning, do the following: first, set the camera to manual mode.  The brightness of lightning is only affected by aperture and ISO, although shutter speed controls how bright the lightning is in relation to the rest of the landscape.  If you can set the aperture at an f/number below f/4, that is ideal.  Set the ISO at 100, and set the shutter speed long enough to brighten the landscape how you want.  Note also that the farther zoomed-in you are, the bigger the lightning will be in the photo and thus the brighter it will appear.  


However, these settings may not give you quite as bright of a lightning bolt as you want.  At ISO 100 and f/3.5, for example, lightning is visible but won't be prominent in the landscape.  If you prefer a brighter lightning strike, it may be better to change to f/3.5 and ISO 200.  Or, if you need a lot of the landscape in focus, perhaps try f/5.6 at ISO 400.  


If you set too long of a shutter speed, although you may get more lightning bolts in a photo, the ambient light from the landscape will be much brighter in comparison to that of the lightning bolts, making them more faint.  If it is relatively bright while you are trying to photograph lightning, do the following: set aperture and ISO at f/2.5 and ISO 100, or a setting which lets in comparable light (for example, f/3.5 and ISO 200, f/5 and ISO 400, or f/7.1 and ISO 800).  Then, in manual mode, set a shutter speed so that the landscape appears relatively dark when you review photos (perhaps one or one-and-a-half stops underexposed).  This shutter speed may be relatively fast, but these settings are the only way to get bright lightning in a daytime photo.  


Now, the next step after finding the correct settings is easy: take lots of photos. Put your camera onto continuous shooting mode (three frames per second should be more than enough if you don't want a thousand photos) and hold down the shutter button for several seconds, or even several minutes.  You may have to let off the shutter periodically so that the camera has time to write all the photos it has already taken.


If it's night time, your exposures could be in the several-second range, meaning that after a couple minutes, you may have twenty photos.  However, if it's day time, your exposures may be just a fraction of a second long.  If this is the case, just know that you may end up with more than 100 photos after just a couple minutes of shooting.


Overall, although it is clearly not easy to photograph lightning, the basics come down to this: set your aperture and ISO to make the lightning bright enough (roughly f/3.5 at ISO 200 or settings equivalent in brightness), then set the shutter so that the landscape is a bit darker than you would otherwise need (probably about half the shutter speed that the camera recommends, although make sure that this setting still gives you workable detail in the shadowy areas of your frame).  Then, put the camera into continuous shooting mode, and hope for the best!


"Lightning off the Coast""Lightning off the Coast"Tier Four:
12x18 - 10/10 available


(Click to see on black  ::  Link to photo in gallery)


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