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Sunday, 27 March 2011

Lightning and How To Photograph It

An updated version of this post may now be found at  This blog will soon close down, so please link to the new location.

Qu: How do I photograph lightning?   Ans: Very very quickly!

Actually nothing could be further from the truth.  Photographing lightning requires patience, time and whole lot of luck.

But before we get into the topic, let me say this….


The first thing to consider when photographing lightning is your own safety.  No shot, NO PHOTOGRAPH, even if it's worth 10 bazillion Racknoids on the planet Meopter is worth jeopardising your own safety for.

Lightning storms are both predictable and unpredictable at the very same time.  We know that there will be lighting… "predictable".  But we don't know where it will be… "UNpredictable". 

Lightning can occur OUTSIDE of the main storm cell.  For every one person that I have heard describe a tornado as "like a freight train", I have heard another say "the lightning came out of nowhere!".  

I teach my kids this very simple rule…. "When you hear thunder, you better get under".  It really is as simple as that.  If you are close enough to hear a storm, then you are close enough to be at threat from a lightning strike, so it is at this point that you should seek shelter.... and "shelter" is NOT a tree!!  Hide under a tree during a lightning storm and you might as well paint a target for the lighting on your head.

So find yourself shelter under a structure or inside your car.  Naturally this can make shooting a little difficult, but hey…. if you miss the shot this time around, at least you are alive to try again next storm. 

OK we are now under cover or in our car and quite safe.  We can see the storm's approach and lightning is active but it is not yet dark.  Bugga! It's not dark…. well that just make things a little bit harder.   Lightning happens in the blink of an eye and we are simply not fast enough on the draw to shoot it.  

Sure you can luck it sometimes, as you may be exposing a shot anyway and right in the middle of it there is a flash of lightning, but this is rare, very rare!  So if your intention is to get a lightning shot and this is your approach, then you will return home disappointed time and time again.

The best thing to do is maximise the time your shutter stays open.  The longer it's open, the more chance you have of lightning happening within that time.  This is why daytime lightning is far more difficult, as we have no choice but to expose for the regular ambient light of the scene and this generally requires a short exposure.  

There are a number of things you can do to extend your daylight exposure times however…

* Use a smaller aperture (bigger f-number)

Keep in mind the characteristics on your lens however.  If your lens turns too moosh after f11 for example, then use f11… consider that the maximum f-number for that lens.  After all, there is no point sacrificing the image quality… do that and you may as well not take the image in the first place.

* Use your lowest ISO rating.

Most cameras will provide 200 or 100 as their low ISO rating, while some can be extended down to 50.  Use your camera's lowest setting, but once again keep in mind what provides the best image quality from your camera.

* Use a neutral density filter.

Neutral density filters cut down the amount of light entering the lens and can greatly increase exposure times.  While most people may not have a neutral density filter, there is a good chance that they will have a Polarising filter.  These work perfectly well as a neutral density filter.  Place it on your lens, adjust for polarisation and you will pretty well double your exposure time.  :-)

The things to watch out for here though:  Don't use a very dark neutral density filter, as a very long exposure may increase the effect of movement in trees and clouds.  This could be a good or bad thing and that is your call, it's your image after all.  You also don't want to go too dark, as you may inhibit the exposure of the lightning itself.  Lightning is always very bright compared to surrounding scene, so you have good leeway, but just keep this in mind.

Now at this point I must mention the tripod as an essential tool in lightning photography.  Long exposures require still cameras, without a tripod your long exposure images will be soft & fuzzy due to movement.  

But what about if I am in my car for safety, how do I use a tripod?

Well depending on your car you have a number of options.  I have a Land Cruiser and I am able to sit in the back with my tripod and have the tail gate open, while a mate with a regular sedan uses a "window mount", as this allows clear and stable vision out of the driver's window.  This also makes it easy to reposition the car as need be for better composition.

So we have now extended our exposure times and got the daylight shot…. terrific! ….but what if it's dark? 

Well this is where it gets easy… real easy!  During darkness we need not do anything to extend our shutter times, because our shutter times will be long anyway… it's dark remember!

The particular technique that I favour is as follows….

1:  Manually focus on the point of interest in your "composed" shot.  This avoids AF hunting in darkness.  OR  1a: Manually focus on a distant light or set the lens to just under the infinity focus mark, if your composition is a distant open landscape scene or of the sky only.

2:  Set the f-number to f8 (based on ISO100)  This gives me some depth of field, plus it exposes lightning well.  Close the lens down too far and the lighting will be dull, open the lens up too far and the lighting becomes a big fury bolt with little definition.

3:  Manually set my exposure time to 30 seconds.  Keep in mind your surroundings though, as 30 seconds may be too much for your "scene" if you have included one, so adjust to suit. (10 secs still gives a good chance of lightning if the storm is active.)

4:  Using a remote to avoid shake or bumping, trip the shutter.

I will mention "Mirror LockUp" here.  Some may like to use it to help cut down camera shake, but personally I don't see the point, as it's a dark scene anyway. Mirror LockUp and self timers just take add to the chance of missing lightning IMO.

5:  Wait and hope that a strike happens in the field of view.

I would suggest that you keep your image review times to a minimum, as this too adds to the chance of missing new lightning strikes.

6: Repeat steps 4 & 5 as required.

If you are super-dooper lazy like me, you can use a timer remote and set it to just keeping talking 30 second exposures until the card is full.  My favourite lightning image was shot like this, while I was inside watching TV.

What if the storm is really active and there is more than one strike in the 30 seconds?

Then you are lucky!!  Multiple strikes add drama and excitement, plus clouds can become lit from within and then become secondary subjects within the image.  However, if you feel that there is too much going on in the 30 seconds, then a simple trick is to cover your lens with a hat or similar.  This effectively ends the exposure and allows the remaining time to complete normally.

Now before I go, I have to stress again.... LIGHTNING AND STORMS ARE DANGEROUS! Please be sensible and do not put yourself at risk.

I hope that you found this helpful and I would love to see some of your results. Please feel free to post some image URLs in the comments section below.  They won't directly hyper-link, but those interested will be able to "copy and paste" them into a new browser window to view.

btw..... This is my favourite lightning image, as shot from the cover of my front verandah while I was inside watching TV. Titled: "No Earth"



Tags: photographing lightning storms storm photography clouds lightning strike

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