Taking Lighning photos

July 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Over the weekend I was at the Linn Creek Arts Festival, and a nice couple had some questions about lightning photos.  Naturally I shooed them away as my photo skills are classified at the highest government level.   OK my secrets aren’t that secret, so I did actually give some thoughts and advice to taking photos of lightning to that couple, and since it was fresh in my mind and I have been completely ignoring this blog, I am writing an entry today!

Lightning at Liberty MemorialLightning at Liberty MemorialIn life the best way to be lucky is to make your own luck. I spent hours out in the rain and lightning, trying to get a good representation of lightning and managed to get several photos at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City with lightning. However spending all the time in not great conditions is what enabled me to photograph this stunning display of power.

So to start you are going to need certain gear to take lightning photos, starting with the tripod.   A good tripod is an absolute must as you will probably be dealing with longer shutter speeds when you are taking these shots.  Also, you will be in a storm which usually means there is wind present.  So you need that tripod to resist the wind and handle the long shutter speed.   Next you will need remote for your shutter release.  You need the remote because pushing down the button on the camera will cause camera shake and you are trying to avoid that.   You could use the timer on your camera, but if the timer is counting down and lightning strikes during that time, you will not be happy.   The standard 24-80 lens will probably work best for your range.  Finally you will want some kind of filter to make things darker, so that you can have a longer exposure time.   Optional items:  umbrella (rain is quite probable), lightning trigger (this just seems like downright cheating), cloth to wipe off lens (again, it might be raining), flashlight, and maybe a chair and some snacks.


Ok so now all your gear is assembled (be sure to keep it handy during thunder storm season, every second counts) what you will need is a good location.   This gets tricky, ultimately you want a spot where thunderstorms will consistently go through, but unless you are a meteorologist, determining that can be difficult.   I try to pick several spots in a small area, say 3-5 square miles.   That way you can move between spots if your current location is not getting much lightning.  Ideally your location will have a good view of the sky, and something interesting in the foreground.   Statues, skylines, monuments, lone trees on a hill, and barns all work well for this.   Scope these sites out in the daytime, and know where you want to stand and how you want your picture framed.  This way you aren’t walking around in the rain while all the good lightning is striking while you are still trying to scout the location.


When the time comes to shoot photos of lightning, the technique is pretty simple.  Use the filters to increase the length of your shutter, set your ISO as low as the camera can go, and set your aperture to the range of f16 – f22.   When I take lightning pictures with a cityscape, I can usually get a 20-30 second exposure time.  If you are shooting out in rural areas, there is probably very little light around, and you can probably increase that exposure time into the minutes (which is helpful).  Focusing your lens will be tricky.  In the city, there is probably enough lights off buildings that you can use them for focus, in rural areas you either need to bring a large flashlight to light up a target while you focus (if you have your camera on autofocus, set it to manual after you focus in on your target).  Without a target that you can light up to focus on, use the focus scale on your lens.  Turn the focus ring so that the infinity symbol is selected in the focus scale.   That’s not a perfect solution, but setting to infinity combined with the f22 aperture should get you in focus.  Then it’s a matter of using your remote to have a “constant expsore”.   Trip your shutter and listen for the shutter to close in 30 seconds (or whatever your shutter speed is set to) and then trip the shutter again.  Trying to react to lightning is not going to work.  So you just constantly take photos until the storm is over or you are out of memory.   It is not a very glamorous way to take the photos, but you should get a good show to watch and hopefully you come away with several good pictures as well.  Only pause your photo taking to wipe the lens off (a good lens hood could help your lens stay dry). 


So that’s lightning photos in a nutshell, just remember that no photo is worth your life, so be careful when trying to take them!  




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