Introduction: Lightning Photography (Super Cheap)

Picture of Lightning Photography (Super Cheap)

This is so cheap and easy, it's nearly cheesy.
This will show you how to reliably photograph lightning for under 3 dollars.

Step 1: Professional Lightning Photography

Picture of Professional Lightning Photography

Lightning photography is some of the most impressive natural/landscape photography there is. Most photographers use high-end cameras with adjustable f-stops, special films, a nice tripod, and a cable shutter release. These are all well and good but even the film is out of my price range.

So first, buy yourself a disposable camera. I used a 1000 speed "high action" camera (because it was the cheapest at ~$2.30) and the results seem to hint that a slower speed would work better (those that developed were flooded with light) and I'll tell you how it goes.

RESULTS: the picture in the Intro was taken with a 400 speed camera. Worked great, especially since the photo was taken at dusk.

A word of warning: After experimenting with Kodak disposables, I've found they don't work the same way. They use a spring trigger, which doesn't fit the following steps. I'd stick with fujifilm (plus, they are generally cheaper)

Step 2: Open It Up

Picture of Open It Up

Rip off the paper covering to the camera. Try to keep it one piece so you can put it back on when you get it developed (I don't know if this is necessary, but the guy developing your film may want to know what speed it is.)

There are clips on the sides and top of the camera that releases the front. Use a coin, screwdriver, scissors, etc. to pop these open and take off the front. Be careful not to pop off the back or bottom, exposing the film.

When you open it, the lens will probably fly out, so don't tell me you haven't been warned.

Step 3: Find the Shutter

Picture of Find the Shutter

Now examine the mechanics of the camera. Carefully push around the fragile pieces until you find the little lever that opens the shutter. If you can't, smile and press the trigger, and watch to see what moves when the shutter opens. In my camera, it was shaped like a little thumb.

Step 4: Making Your "cable Trigger Release"

Picture of Making Your "cable Trigger Release"

Now you'll need about 6 inches of thread. I used very thin fishing line (which, regrettably, is very hard to see in these pictures). Make a slipknot and drop it over the little "thumb" that opens the shutter. Most of these cameras have a little hole near the sight on the back of the camera, and put the other end of the thread through there. If your camera doesn't have a hole, drill one.

Pull lightly on the thread to make sure it will open the shutter all the way. I hooked the thread around a post inside the camera to ensure it pulled from the right angle.

Close back up your camera. Remember to put back on the lens that flew under the couch when you opened it up.

Step 5: Now Wait...

Picture of Now Wait...

Now that you have your camera with a string coming out of the back of it, all you need is a storm. And hopefully at night, for reasons we'll see in a moment.

When the time comes, hold the camera down against something sturdy (I used a window sill) and point it towards the source of lightning. Now pull your string taught (the shutter opens). Wait for it... and when you get a flash of lightning, release the string to close the shutter. If you try this during the day, ambient light will flood the camera and over expose the film before lightning strikes. If you have one of those gruesome, dark, ominous storms, than maybe it would work.

Although you may have caught something cool (probably not), the film has not progressed. Put your finger over the lens to ensure the film does not become further exposed, press the trigger, and wind the film wheel.

Place the camera down and try again. Unlike trying to snap lightning pictures on your digital camera with your non-lightning fast reflexes, this method should work every time. depending on how fast you can wind to the next frame.

Step 6: The Results

Picture of The Results

Remember to remove the string before returning for developing.

Like professional lightning photography, this wastes a lot of film. Out of 26 pictures I took, only 3 developed (which were of poor quality), which in hindsight wasn't too bad for the first attempt at a cheap, hacked method.

my second time at it was much more fruitful, with 11 out of 19 developing. One of the best from that set is shown in the intro.

Some tips:

1. Try to keep the camera as steady as possible. I think I'm going to try to make a clamp of some sort to hold mine down next time.

2. I wanted to catch some real bolts of lighting, so when distant lightning "flashed" and lit up the sky, I didn't close the shutter and waited for a good one. This over exposes the film. As soon as there is any significant light (any light with faster films) close the shutter. You'll be surprised: one time I did this, there actually was a little bolt in it I hadn't seen.

3. The best bolt will flash while you're progressing the film from a crappy shot. I swear it happened at least 4 times. Do this with a friend and make it into a competition, with each person getting every other flash. Afterwards you can take credit for the one he caught while you were winding your film.

4. If it doesn't work the first time, try again. These shots aren't too good, but I'll try again with what I've learned and post any progress.

If you have any luck with this method, send me the results, and I'll post them with due citation.


incognito0288 (author)2013-07-01

or you could go to and just buy lightning pictured

Rishnai (author)2008-05-25

I noticed that a lot of the lighting photos in this instructable have a lot of grain in the darker areas. I wonder if that's an artifact of the time you're holding it open, your scanner, or the film itself? I think I'll try this with my film SLR (the hold-open-until-lightning, not the open-and-tie-strings-in-it) method and see if I can get something, since it has an option for keeping the shutter open as long as I hold the button.

sconner1 (author)Rishnai2011-11-07

What a great idea! It makes me hate disposables just a little less.
Even though they have cruddy film and cruddy lenses, this is a great idea for doing long exposures without an expensive camera setup.
It would probably help to pick a disposable cam with a slow film to minimize the overexposure graininess.
If the camera advertises that it's good for action shots or sports, then it's fast film.
Look for the ones for indoors or low light situations to get slower film.
After that you're pretty much limited by the quality of the film the disposable was loaded with.
One could take the artist's attitude and claim you worked hard to achieve that "effect". ;)

aidanjarosgrilli (author)2011-10-16

You can set a dslr on to bulb, which holds the shutter open as long as you want and you can set the sensitivity and apreture.

altomic (author)2008-06-30

So how do I generate the lightening?

coolbuddyv (author)altomic2011-06-10

really nice question :D

jwoo2023 (author)2011-04-23

If you have a sticker on your camera, take it off! you might find something interesting... a USB socket to connect to your computer! well on mine it did

samhutto (author)2008-09-12

I used my Sony H-50 (before I bought the a300 dslr) and took around 1000 pictures of lightning one night. These turned out the best, just on continuous shoot mode.

wat. (author)samhutto2010-10-18


Sodium_Benzoate (author)2008-10-26

samhutto, wth kind of lighting is that on the top right (kinda purple tinge) its like a column instead of a bolt... >.

Boy1er1990 (author)2008-07-25

Another way... Bulb funtion on your Canon 40d :P

Rishnai (author)2008-05-25

Fuli also has a much better dark-tone variation response than Kodak, and the blues are a little richer, although greens are a little flat. So for lightning, even if you're using individual rolls and it cost a bit more, Fuji is the ticket. Kodak has good browns and okay reds, though, so I'll use that for, say, dirt-track races.

LinuxH4x0r (author)2007-10-27

Canon A75 3.2 mp digital 3 out of 130 - got to love digital!

Shifrin (author)LinuxH4x0r2008-01-05

Those are some really nice photos, you can sell them for big $! ~Shifrin

LinuxH4x0r (author)Shifrin2008-01-05

You really think so!? Where? To who? Thanks!

Crusty_07 (author)LinuxH4x0r2008-05-16

Do a search for photo stock on google and add them to one of those sites. They pay you for any people that want to use your photo for commercial uses.

Big Stock Photo is a good one.

LinuxH4x0r (author)Crusty_072008-05-17

Thanks, I'll check it out.

Trebawa (author)LinuxH4x0r2008-01-21

I know nothing about this, but I guess you could try a stock photo site.

Shifrin (author)LinuxH4x0r2008-01-05

Well, I don't know exactly, but that can be put into a book, do your research... Good Luck! ~Shifrin

Xial (author)2008-04-25

In regards to film development and disposable cameras (Mostly, regarding Step 2), I'd like to suggest that rather than bothering to reassemble the camera, simply take the roll of film out of the thing once you've burned off all the shots (The film retracts into the roll once it's completed and properly wound. Also, enterprising users might even know how to reload the disposable camera and/or have the equipment to do so), put it in a film tube, and drop it off at your local/internet photo developer. The rolls in those cameras have the speed printed on them.

As it was, when I was developing film in my old job, all we did with the disposables is tear 'em apart, load the film into the machine, and whack the camera to pop out the battery to spook our coworkers with a sudden flash as well as discharge that building charge.

denilsonsa (author)2007-12-13

A tripod is one of the best things I bought for my camera. Wait, it is the best thing I bought for my camera! I think everybody should have one. Even the cheap and small tripods many times give better pictures (less blurry) than when just holding the camera. I wonder if your photos could have been better with a tripod.

graphak (author)denilsonsa2008-04-02

anybody know if the cheap disposables even have threads for a tripod?

gschoppe (author)graphak2008-04-07

epoxy a fine threaded nut to a C-clamp, and use it to hold non tripod cameras

Shifrin (author)2008-01-05

Yeah, this is really cool! i'd love to try it, but I think i'm just going to use my fathers cannon powershot! it would be much easier on my side... The photos you took were cool but not as clear... ~Shifrin

Ribs (author)2007-11-30

by exposure time do you mean ISO / ASA?

tcabeen (author)2007-10-18

On the high end SLRs, this is often called "bulb" where the shutter is open until you release the shutter button (or press it again, depending on model) Your 400 speed film is definitely going to yield better results than the 1000 (which will be grainier) I shot some lightning with a midrange digital point&shoot;, but that was all luck. I put it on an 8sec shutter and pressed the button again every time it finished. Out of 10 exposures, I got 3 or 4 good shots, and 1 great one. It was the FL Keys, though, where storms can get pretty electric. :) Love the bit about ripping apart disposable cameras. Kudos.

static (author)2007-09-19

Around here the good light shows don't start until it's good and dark out. I would guess the open shutter technique should work OK, not great, but OK. Has to be better than exposing my Minolta SLR to the elements. I'll have to pick up a disposable to hot rod and try this. Only if I would have found this before the "season " is ending.

dannosliwcd (author)2007-06-13

You can try with a digital camera (or a film SLR, but then you can't delete bad photos) by using a shutter priority (Usually S grouped with options P, A, and M) or night photography (if you have a choice between night landscape and night portrait, choose landscape so it focuses better) mode. When using shutter priority mode, you can choose the shutter speed and the camera out all the other settings for your photo. Try using a shutter that stays open for at least 2 seconds (take some test photos to find the longest possible time you can keep it opened without having a washed-out photo). Then just point your camera in the direction of the storm and take preemptive shots. If your camera has a "last burst" mode, try using that. Last burst modes allow you to take many photographs in succession without a long pause in between, just hold down the shutter button. For example, I think the last burst mode on my camera can take up to 30-some photos without resting, and it just keeps the last 5. By doing that, I can hold down the shutter until I get some lightning then let go after it strikes. If your camera has a time-lapse option (mine doesn't, but my sister's does), then you can just tell your camera to take a set number of photos with a set time to wait between photos. That way you can just point your camera in the direction of the storm and let it do its thing. Come back when it's done and check the photos it took for one with lighting. Remember to keep your camera dry (unless it's waterproof) and don't leave it outside if it can get blown away by the storm or stolen by some random passer-by.

RedRussian (author)2007-06-07

Did you try waiting until you heard the thunder before opening the shutter or not? That should minimize exposure time and net you a clearer picture. This of course will only work if the storm is far enough away that there is a noticible gap between the thunder and lightning of a strike.

Tayl90mm (author)RedRussian2007-06-10

That probably wouldn't work all that great because light travels faster than sound so when you pull the string the lightning is already gone.

Crash2108 (author)2007-06-05

If you have a digital camera, you should be able to set the exposure time, too.

joejoerowley (author)2007-06-05

That is really cool!!

knexer1 (author)2007-06-05

Very cool! My parents have a camera with a cable shutter release, and a tripod so the pictures that you can take with that are really cool, but expensive, so that makes yours better.

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