The Secrets to Photographing Lightning
You should start out be doing extensive reading about weather and lightning safety long before you decide to go outside and try to capture photographs of lightning! There is no joking around about this and if you’re too dumb to take this advice, then you should stop reading this blog entry right now and forget all about the subject.
Speaking of safety, you must concern yourself first and foremost with safety. Lightning can and does kill all the time, and if you go out to photograph it, you may be no more than a second away from death at any time unless you exercise good safety practices. If you chose to go out and try this, you should first do a lot of studying on safety in thunderstorms, otherwise DON’T DO IT. Let me be perfectly clear about this issue: you WILL be at risk if you go outside and try to photograph lightning. Your camera gear will also be at risk, so be prepared to accept those risks before you decide to do this.
The biggest trick to getting good lightning photos is to recognize that the main subject in your photo is going to be extremely well-illuminated. You don’t need a fast ISO or a fast shutter speed to catch a lightning strike; in fact the opposite is true. Some folks use lightning triggers to fire the shot at exactly the moment when the lightning strikes, and I suppose you might call me old school, because I don’t do it that way. Before I get into the techniques that I use, let’s go down a list of the items you should have if you head out to try this:
- Camera – set on Manual mode (if you don’t know how to use it like that, attend one of my photography schools).
- Cable Release – wired or wireless will work fine.
- Tripod – make sure it is very sturdy and plenty capable of holding your camera steady in the wind. Also make sure you tie your camera strap down to the tripod while you’re making long exposures like lightning shots.
- Lens hood – this helps to avoid lens flares and also helps to minimize the rain that gets on the front element of the lens.
- Fully charged batteries – this type of shooting with suck the life out of your batteries quickly.
- Plenty of memory cards/film – you’re likely to take a lot of shots to get just a few good ones.
- Rain gear for you and the camera.
- NOAA Weather Radio – yes, you really should be paying attention to what the storm is doing. If you have radar and web access on your phone, that will work too.
- Water and food – you might be out there for a while and if the storm turns really bad it might be hard to make it home.
- First Aid Kit – yes, you might hurt yourself while you’re out there in the dark.
- Flash light – something small that can fit in your pocket. You’ll need it for working with your camera settings.
- Fully charged cell phone – in case you need to call for help.
Ok: here are the techniques that you’re looking for;
Did you read my column about shooting fireworks? Well if not, you should have because you could have extrapolated the techniques for shooting lightning from that column. If you start out with your aperture set to f/8, ISO at 100 and shutter speed at 8 seconds, you will be able to catch lightning strikes too. In fact those settings will work perfectly for a storm that is in the early evening in the middle of a city where you have a fair amount of ambient light. (Those settings are also a good starting point for getting practice on this topic.) This will give you a photo where you’ll be able to see the buildings or cityscape in general and the lightning will be very bright if it’s close.
Your white balance will depend on your shooting location as follows. When shooting in the city where there are a lot of ambient light sources (like street lights, parking lot lights, building signage, etc.), I’ve found that using the Tungsten setting will result in the best color. Shooting in the country where the ambient light sources are non-existent or rare will usually work out well using the Daylight setting. Either of these settings should result in nice blue-white coloration on your lightning strikes.
If you are shooting later in the evening or with less ambient light and you want the scenery to be identifiable in the photo, you might find that you’ll have to shoot at slower shutter speed (perhaps as much as 15-30 seconds). If on the other hand you have a lot of ambient light sources you may need to stop your aperture down into the f/11 to f/22 range. This is only going to work out if the lightning is striking in a clear sky where it is very bright, otherwise the lightning could be hard to see in the resulting shots.
My most sincere advice is to go out and practice with an average evening situation when you’re NOT trying to catch lightning. I do not recommend shooting with a shutter speed that is faster than 8 seconds because I generally will not shoot lightning until it is striking somewhere between every 8 to 15 seconds within the area that I want to shoot. If you get more than one strike in a single shot it’s not a bad thing. After you’ve got the evening shooting techniques mastered you can work on the lightning and have less to think about and worry about. Oh yeah, I am almost never in the rain when I shoot lightning. Instead I’m usually miles away from the actual storm and generally practicing the 30/30 rule of lightning safety (look it up on the National Weather Service website).
© 2010 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com