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10 Lightning Photography Tips

Introduction

I wasn’t planning on taking any photographs. The storm just rolled in but after just a couple of flashes of lightning I felt an overwhelming urge to capture it. I guess I’m just weird like that.

Below is the best of the photographs that I took. It has proven to be quite popular and has been posted on several popular web sites which has boosted the number of views it’s had on Flickr and perhaps how you found your way to this post?

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Lightning Over Maidstone, 8s @ f/13 ISO 100 18mm

Anyway, taking photos like this with a DSLR, at night, is pretty straightforward. I often receive comments like “great timing” which is nice, but when you read the tips below you’ll realise it’s not really great timing at all. I hate to burst people’s perception of my photography skills dagnabbit!

First of all the equipment I used. Canon EOS 500D DSLR with 18–200mm f/3.5–5.6 IS kit lens, Canon RS-60E3 shutter release cable and Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod.
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The shutter release cable is sort of optional. You can press the shutter release yourself. As you’ll see below, you still won’t need lightning (sorry) reflexes.

The tripod, or some form of firm surface on which to rest your camera is essential. I love my Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod but it’s very HEAVY and having lugged it around the 12½ mile Bewl Water Round Reservoir Route I can confirm it’s not an ideal out-and-about tripod. However, as I took this photograph from just inside the front door of my house it was just fine.

OK, here are the “tips.” I’m not a professional photographer. The tips below are just based on “what I did” when I captured the photo above. They worked for me but YMMV. If you’re already good with a camera the “tips” might seem obvious but I know when I was starting out, being reminded that f/8 was a smaller aperture than f/2 and what effect it had on the photo was priceless.

The Tips

Manual mode. You really need to be able to set both aperture and shutter speed, so manual mode is the way to go; you don’t need the camera to make the wrong decisions for you.

Focus to infinity. We want as much of the scene as possible in focus, but especially the lightning. I’m not infallible. It was dark and my first shorts had the house in the foreground in focus and the lightning waaay out of focus. Typically on Canon lenses, you rotate the focus ring anti-clockwise to focus further from the camera. On Nikon cameras you turn the focus ring clockwise, the more logical (I think) direction to focus further from the camera. I’ve read that you should turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then just a tad back in the opposite direction to prevent any issues from dialling the lens to one extreme.

Exposure of 8 seconds or longer. This avoids the need to have the super-human reflexes. When we take a shot, the camera opens the aperture to let in any light (there won’t be much if it’s dark) and keeps it open for the length of time you specify. My Canon 500D can expose up to 30 seconds or you can choose BULB mode which exposes for the length of time you hold down the shutter release (but this will make your fingers ache!). Remember, at the top I said photographing lighting a night is pretty straightforward? That’s because exposing the sky for this period of time, at night, isn’t letting in much light (see the next tip on aperture size) and the only light we’ll capture will be lightning.

f/8 to f/16 aperture. Remember f/2.8 is a wide aperture (lots of light gets into the camera), f/8 is a smaller aperture (much less light gets in). f/16 is a tiny aperture (hardly any light gets in). We don’t want to let too much ambient light in while the shutter is left open due to the long exposure (see the tip above). Aperture size is trial and error. Set your exposure, 8 seconds say and aperture f/8 say and take a shot. It helps if you have some light source in the image (like the streetlight and house lights in mine). Look at the image on your LCD; the sky should be dark and the lights reasonably well exposed. If the sky is too light, I’d bump up the aperture (photographers call this stopping down, the aperture is getting smaller reducing the amount of light getting into the camera) so f/8 to f/10 or f/13 to f/16. Of course if the whole photo is dark, even the reference lights then chances are you need to open up the aperture (f/16 to f/13 or f/10 to f/8). Take another shot and see if you’ve darkened the sky but can still see the reference light sources. Remember, the light sources don’t need to be in your final photograph, they’re just there so you can guestimate exposure correctly. At the end of the day, lightning is so bright it’ll give enough light to be exposed on a camera with practically any aperture but taking some test shots lets you figure out how the rest of the image will be exposed with the ambient light. Remember, the lightning will literally “light up the sky” so even doing this is all pretty much trial and error. The best time to know whether you’ve set your exposure correctly is when you capture that first lightning strike!

ISO 100. Remember higher ISO means more light sensitivity but more noise in your photo. The lightning will be bright enough that ISO 100 will be best. Less noise, more than enough sensitivity  to capture lightning.

Lens hood. Those big bits of plastic at the front of your lens that make you look like a pro photographer ;) but actually do make a difference to several aspects of your photography. When taking photos in the rain they can help to keep rain off your lens. Now, I was sat just inside my front door but the storm and driving rain was so intense that rain was coming indoors, hitting me, my camera and soaking the rug I was sat on (don’t tell my missus!). If I hadn’t had the lens hood on, the photo would have had a lot more drops of water on the lens than it actually did.

Auto-shutter release cable. Engage the auto-shutter release and let the camera take a continuous stream of 8 second or 10 second or whatever exposures. There’s no need to “time it right” it will just capture the lightning when it happens. The longer your exposures the more chance you have of capturing multiple strikes in the same image. As I mentioned you don’t need an auto-shutter release cable you could press the shutter, wait while it takes the 8 or 10 second exposure and then press it again but this creates a window in which you could miss a strike, it pretty laborious and introduces shake on your camera which when exposing for 8 or 10 seconds might be quite noticeable. Auto-shutter cables are pretty cheap. Definitely worth adding to your photography kit.

Don’t chimp! The temptation to check the camera “did I just catch that strike?” is often strong but overcome it. You don’t want to miss the next one (which will be amazing) whilst chimping at the LCD. By all means do this when setting up but once that storm starts up, just let the camera keep shooting!

A nice wide-angle lens is useful for framing more of the sky in your photograph. I had an 18mm lens but on my cropped sensor this isn’t really that wide feeling more like a 24mm lens would on a full frame camera. Unfortunately, I don’t own a full frame camera.

Patience. Leave the camera shooting. Get a hot drink, sit down and watch the show. Of course I was sat indoors where I felt relatively safe. Do whatever you feel you need to do to keep safe and comfortable.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. Just some tips and information on what I did that you might find helpful to capture lightning without too much trouble. The hardest part is waiting for the right storm and keeping you and your camera dry!

I love the photograph but, like the quintessential fisherman I wonder about “the one that got away.” Just after this shot there was a very big, very loud, very close strike just off to the left of the photo. At the time I didn’t know if it was in frame or not. Turned out it wasn’t. It was so close the arcing at the edge of the lightning was almost feather-like to the naked eye. I can only wonder what it would have looked like in a photo. Next time.


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