Friday, August 10, 2012

How to Photograph Lightning {Simple and Sweet}

Lightning is simply astonishing to me. The sheer energy and beauty of God's display is just astounding. Each time a storm builds, I watch for lightning, in anticipation of a powerful display in the sky.

My favorite lightning shot that I have captured. 18mm, f/4.5, ISO-200, 15 sec.

But capturing lightning with a camera can seem elusive. But really, it's not too difficult to do. Here is a quick run down of what you need to do, and then I will further explain each step.
  1. Be safe.
  2. Use a tripod.
  3. Set your ISO to 100 to 400, depending on how distant the storm is.
  4. Set your aperture, again depending on the distance of the lightning, but usually f/9 to f/11 is a good starting point.
  5. Set your shutter speed to BULB or to 10 second intervals.
  6. Compose your photo.
  7. Find a distant focus point.
  8. Switch the auto focus off.
  9. Use a cable release or remote shutter release.
  10. Open the shutter and wait for the lightning.
  11. Close the shutter.
  12. Have patience.
Pretty simple.

Now let's delve deeper into it...

Cloud to cloud lightning.  18mm, f/4.5, ISO-200, 11 sec.

Be safe.

If you can hear thunder, you can be struck by the lightning, so shoot from a safe spot. This may be from your porch or inside a vehicle. You will want to avoid standing in an open field or under a tree, though. An awesome photo will do you no good if you aren't alive to share it.

Use a tripod.

Shooting lightning just isn't possible unless you have a steady surface to rest your camera. You will need to use a slow shutter speed because no matter how quick your finger is on the shutter release, you won't capture the lightning if you wait to push the button until you see the lightning.

Set your ISO.

Your ISO will depend on how distant the storm is. If the lightning is pretty far in the distance, you will need to up your ISO to 400 or so to be able to capture the light. But if the storm is pretty close, the lightning will be brilliantly bright, so bring your ISO down to 100 or 200.

Set your aperture.

If the storm is in the distance, you will need to let in as much light as possible, so you may want to shoot wide open, around f/5 or wider if your lens will open up more. If the lightning is nearby, start with f/9 to f/11 since the light will be quite bright.

These bolts all struck at the same time. 18mm, f/4.5, ISO-200, 3.7 sec.

Set your shutter speed.

If your camera has the BULB setting, that is where you want to be. Otherwise, set it for a long shutter speed, starting with 15 seconds. Then adjust as necessary, depending on how much action is going on around you. You may need to go as long as 30 seconds or even a minute at a time.

Compose your photo.

Because you can't predict exactly where lightning will appear, composition is a difficult task. However, as you watch a particular storm, you will see a general area to train your camera towards. When composing your photo, if you can include a foreground object like a tree or a bridge, the image can be more compelling. But with lightning, a lot of times it is just plain luck.

This photo includes the Washington bridge over the Missouri River, creating a very appealing composition
with the lights on the bridge and the extremely close lightning reflecting in the river.
Photo by Adam Gerdes Photography

Find your focus.

This can be difficult, but don't be intimidated. Try to focus on the distant horizon or a far away light. If necessary, have a friend hold a flashlight 100 yards away and focus on that point. You can also set your focus to infinity (the little sideways 8) and adjust from there. Another tip is to use your LCD screen and zoom in on a distant subject to focus on it.

Turn auto focus off.

Once you have the camera focused, you want to make sure it doesn't try to refocus each time you press the shutter release. So flip the focus to manual, and you don't have to worry about it.

Use a cable release or remote shutter release.

Preferably, you don't want to touch the camera, as you want it as still as possible. Of course, sometimes that just isn't possible if 30mph wind is rocking the vehicle you are sitting in the back of.

My last capture before I headed back inside. 18mm, f/4.5, ISO-200, 16.3 sec.

Open the shutter...and wait...

If it is dark outside, then you won't have any problem leaving the shutter open for a full minute while you wait for lightning to strike within your frame. Take a few test shots at different shutter speeds to find out what is best for the storm you are currently watching. Start with 15 seconds, then go to 20 seconds, then 30 seconds...If the lightning is nearly constant, you may not be able to go more than 15 seconds before the photo becomes overexposed.

Close the shutter.

Generally, you will want to close the shutter after the lightning strikes. If you want to attempt to capture more than one strike in the image, keep the shutter open until you have another strike, or two. However, be careful about overexposing your image from too much light.

Have patience.

It's all about the light...and the light you want to capture is not a steady light, but an exceptionally sporadic and fantastic light that encourages you to just stare in awesome wonder.

See my other tutorials, including shooting the full moon and fireworks. Love one of my shots and want to have one for yourself? Visit my website or contact me today - I always love to hear from you! And don't forget to sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know about new tutorials, events, and specials!

Want to know more about Adam's bridge shot? See his story behind the shot and his tips for photographing lightning here.