Introduction: Perfect Lightning Photography

Picture of Perfect Lightning Photography

See the Photos above in High Res
Photo 1
Photo 2

For the last 3 years, I have been obsessed with nature/landscape photography, and capturing the raw power of lightning, raging seas, tornadoes, and blizzards. I've learned a lot of tricks (the hard way) when it comes to capturing great photos. The number one tip to getting great photos, is to know how, BEFORE the moment strikes, so you don't miss valuable opportunities.

This instructable will cover everything I've learned about LIGHTNING PHOTOGRAPHY.

Visit my site for more:
www.tylercard.com

Step 1: What You Need

Picture of What You Need

Equipment:
  • A camera with long-exposure capabilities, or a BULB mode.
  • A Tripod (any solid surface works too- bean bag)
  • Shutter-Release Remote (very helpful, but not strictly required).
  • Wide-angle Lens (25-35mm is ideal)
  • Neutral Denisty/ UV Filter
Supplies:
  • Plastic bag
  • Electrical Tape
  • Umbrella (plastic, if possible)
  • lens cloth
Optional:
  • A friend (even willing to sit in the car)
  • Rain gear (boots, poncho, etc)
  • Reckless Abandon

Step 2: Safety First

Picture of Safety First

This is the gloomy subject no one likes to think about, but it is the most important. Lightning is very dangerous, and therefore, so is lightning photography. ALWAYS be smart, and know when to stop.

Lightning can strike from up to 30 miles away
  • If you can hear thunder, you are at risk, even if you can't see the lightning.
  • This is where the term "out of the blue" comes from. People have been under sunny skies, and still been struck by lightning.
Bring A Friend
  • As rare as it is that you would be struck by lightning, it happens hundreds of times a year. Most victims of lightning strikes survive, but you can get killed. Especially if you are alone!
  • Most lightning-strike deaths are due to the failure of CPR to be performed on the victim.
How close is too close?
  • Lightning doesn't have to directly strike you for you to be electrocuted.
  • Stay away from trees, radio-towers, and other tall or conductive structures.
  • If lightning strikes with less than a second between flash and sound, pack up.
Avoid open areas
  • If you are the tallest thing within 500 feet, don't be there.
  • Avoid fields, golf-courses, hills, and bodies of water.

Step 3: Protect Your Equipment

Picture of Protect Your Equipment

Lightning storms usually come with rain, and water and cameras do not mix.

Remember:
Keep your Camera Covered.
  • Waterproof cases, like this are available, are very affordable, and very worth-it. You may save hundreds in damaged camera equipment with one of these.
  • If you don't have one, at least use a plastic bag. Use a plastic grocery bag or Zip-loc, and wrap your camera up tight. Use Electrical Tape around any openings, and around the lens glass, but not over it.
Use a UV filter, or Neutral Density.
  • Lenses have a protective coating that maintain crisp images. You should never touch or wipe the actual lens glass, because this coating will smudge and cannot be fixed.
  • Use filters (always, not just for lightning) to protect your glass.
  • Water drops or mist on the lens can cause permanent water-marks that will show up in every picture you take.
  • Filters are cheap, and will preserve the quality of your lens, pictures, and extend the lifetime of your lenses.
  • A neutral density filter is great for extended exposures, like you will be using for lightning photography.
Use an Umbrella.
  • Even with a UV filter or waterproof bag, water-drops or mist that land on the lens will show up in every picture.
  • Keep your camera as close to the bowl of the umbrella, near the middle, as possible, without it showing in the pictures.
  • Use a plastic umbrella if you have one.
If possible, face your back to the rain.
  • If the rain is coming in at an angle, keep your back to the rain. This will help protect your camera, especially the glass.

Step 4: Location

Picture of Location
(High Resolution photo seen here)

This may be the most important step, because without the correct location, capturing photos can be very difficult.

Stay out of the storm- not only is this good for safety reasons, but for other reasons as well.
  • Rain causes haze. Being in front of, behind, or beside the storm will offer crisp shots of lightning with no clouding.
  • When you're in the storm, the lightning will be striking all around you. Being outside the storm allows you to aim your camera in one general direction, which will offer a higher probability that the lightning will appear in the frame
  • Being in front of the storm is best, because the thunderheads in the background will offer a dark backdrop to contrast the lightning, and the thunderheads themselves will illuminate nicely.
Open Horizon- find an area that allows a clear view of the sky.
  • Once again, stay away from open fields and tall conductive structures.
Subject Matter- give your photo a little something extra.
  • A photo of lightning piercing a vacant sky is good, but find interesting areas that can compliment the photo (like the skyline pictured above. It doesn't take the focus off the lightning, but accents the photo well.)
Use a wide-angle lens (25-35mm)
  • If you don't use a wide-angle lens, you probably won't catch the full spread of the lightning, or it can be very difficult to do so.
  • Lightning is all about being in the right place at the right moment. Having that wide-angle will increase your chances of capturing the lightning.
  • Going too wide will reduce the quality of the image and the detail in the lightning, so try not to go below 25mm.
  • Lightning photography CAN be done without one, but it can be very difficult. I
Don't have a wide angle lens? Try this:
  • For between $20 and $50, you can buy a "fisheye lens with macro". It screws onto your existing lens, and makes it a wider angle.
  • There are different types, but a good one is .45x. That means it multiplies your lens x .45. So that 55mm lens just became a 25mm!
  • Know your lenses filter thread size and buy one that will fit. The thread size is also measured in mm, so don't get it confused with the focal length measurement.
  • Be sure you get one that comes with a macro. They USUALLY come with them, but I've seen some sold without the macro.
  • Without the macro lens, the fish-eye shots will look like a circular bubble. The Macro flattens the picture back out so it looks rectangular again.

Step 5: Exposure

Picture of Exposure
(High Resolution Photo)
This is the part most people find challenging, but here are some helpful tips:

Long Exposure- 4-6 sec
  • With a long exposure, any lightning bolt that strikes during the exposure will show in the picture.
  • Using a long exposure increases your chances of capturing a lightning bolt, and capturing the whole thing.
  • Using a long exposure helps illuminate ambient light such as the illuminated clouds.
  • Too short of an exposure doesn't give enough time for the whole bolt to strike or for the rest of the scene to illuminate properly.
  • Too long of an exposure time creates noise, or static, in the picture, and erases the detailed, almost undetectable finders of lightning that come off the main bolt. (see this photo to see what I am referring to)
  • Use an exposure time of 4-6 seconds. This will give plenty of time for the bolt to strike, but not cause too much noise.

Low Aperture- F1:1.4-F1:5.6

  • Using a low aperture will help bring out the colors of the lightning
  • Using a low aperture will help capture the small fingers of lightning
  • A low aperture will help keep your shutter speed fast enough to reduce noise.
Low ISO- 100, 200, 400.
  • A low ISO will eliminate noise in the picture and allow for the fine details of the lightning to be visible.

Step 6: Steady Your Camera

Picture of Steady Your Camera
(High Resolution photo here)

Since you'll be doing a long exposure, reducing any camera movement is essential.

Use a Tripod
  • A plastic tripod is safest, but they are usually lightweight.
  • A heavy tripod is best for reducing movement, but are usually made of metal, so there is a decision to be made here.
  • A heavy tripod will be necessary if there is strong wind
No tripod? Try this:
  • If you don't have a tripod, steady your camera on a solid surface.
  • Use a bag of rice, bean bag, or sand bag to rest your camera on. This will allow you to angle your camera correctly, but form to the contours of your camera, and provide a solid base.
Use a shutter-release remote:
  • Using a remote eliminates the small moves that you would otherwise cause by pressing the shutter-release button on your camera.
  • Much more comfortable.
  • With a clamp, your umbrella can be secured to your tri-pod, and a you can actuate your shutter from the safety of your vehicle (if you're comfortable leaving your camera out in the rain and wind unattended).
Lightning triggers are also available, and come in a wide range of prices.
  • Lightning triggers release your shutter the instant that a flash of light appears.
  • Some have the capability of sound triggering, and even laser beam triggering as well, so you can also photograph hard-to-capture things like balloons popping, and even bullets piercing objects.
  • Here is a commercially available lightning trigger that is a choice amongst professionals: http://lightningtrigger.com/

Step 7: Additional Tips

Picture of Additional Tips
Don't wait for the lightning, click away!
  • The best way to capture lightning is continuously click the shutter. As soon as one photo is taken, take another.
  • Don't try to click it after you see it, or it will be too late.
  • You will have a lot of unusable photos, but at least you won't miss the opportunity when it strikes (sorry for the pun).
Look for the dark, low-hanging clouds
  • The dark, low-hanging clouds are thunder-heads. This is where the majority of lightning will strike.
  • You will have to adjust your camera as the storm moves. Just watch the sky.
Occasionally check your photos, and make adjustments
  • Check your photos occasionally to make sure the exposure is correct.
  • Heavier cloud cover will cause brighter pictures.
  • The closer the storm gets, the brighter the picture will be.
  • Heavy rain will darken your photos
Set your focus to just short of infinity
  • If you zoom completely out, the lightning will not quite be in focus.
  • set your focus just barely short of infinity and your photos should turn out perfect.

Comments

zoomx (author)2011-11-07

Can I suggest another trick? If you own a Canon compact camera you can use CHDK (see here: http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK) and run a script that automatically take a photo when there is a lightning as you can see here http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/Samples:_Lightning_photography

e45cream (author)zoomx2011-11-07

This is one I took using CHDK. The original is here

tylercard (author)e45cream2011-11-07

That is a perfect example of a great lightning photo! Thanks for sharing!
That's also a great tip for anyone willing to do a little experimenting with their Canon. I should point out to anyone thinking about using CHDK that it voids the warranty on your camera, and it can cause damage to your camera (although it is very unlikely).
Lightning triggers are also available, and come in a wide range of prices. Some have the capability of sound triggering, and even laser beam triggering as well, so you can also photograph hard-to-capture things like balloons popping, and even bullets piercing objects.
Here is a commercially available lightning trigger that is a choice amongst professionals: http://lightningtrigger.com/

zoomx (author)tylercard2011-11-08

I am not sure that CHDK voids the warranty because it works only in camera RAM and nothing is written on camera flash memory where the original firmware is. If you remove the SD card where CHDK is there is no way to discovery that you used CHDK until you don't damage the camera for example driving the zoom too fast or too frequently.
More explanation here:
http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK_for_Dummies#Will_CHDK_damage_my_camera.3F
Anyway CHDK can help you tho shoot at the right time but you need also the other things well explained in your instructable.

BengaminJ (author)2016-02-16

Here's one of mine

rodgerbooth (author)2015-04-18

i got the first one just about the way wish i could have gotten the whole thing.

Jan_Henrik (author)2014-05-02

Awesome!!! I have to try it!

txCWS (author)2013-10-20

Nice 'ible. I have been shooting electrical storms here in TX since 2006. Sadly my many years in CA offered little in this type of storm :) I use many of the techniques you put forth here but have not done much long exposure shots...will attempt some in the coming storm season. Here is one of the latest shots I took, it was in Gulf Shores AL. The bolt is not spectacular, but it definitely was bright.

axxwound (author)2012-08-09

I took this pic with my iPhone 4s. I just videoed the storm , then paused and took screenshots of the lightning. The quality isn't great but it is an easy way to get lightning pics with your phone.

kristofvagyok (author)2012-07-15

I also made a lightning photo instructable what had really nice results(:

https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-take-really-spectacular-lightning-photos/

lpobiak (author)2011-12-20

I had a successful shoot with lightning not too long ago, myself. I didn't do any fancy tricks or anything like that, just a 30 second exposure. Thought to share one of my results. ...

jimvandamme (author)2011-11-10

Your lightning trigger link above didn't work (goes right back to this page), but I figured it out. But they want $329 for it, plus cables!! I doubt there's much sophistication in them. I know a lot about electronics, but not much about cameras, otherwise I'd be interested in designing one.

tylercard (author)jimvandamme2011-11-10

Sorry about the broken link. As I said, they are available in a wide range of prices and that one is commercially made for professional use. The difference between this one and others is that it can be adjusted for variable intensity, detects multiple spectrums including infrared, and can be adapted for sound detection. There are some that are as simple as a light sensor that triggers when any change in lighting occurs, for a fraction of the cost, and other self-build circuit kits for even less.

jimbru (author)2011-11-08

Hi Tyler, great instructible. I have a suggestion for the light/heavy tripod issue.

I prefer a lightweight tripod(aluminum) and for the rare occasion I need it to be heavier I use smallish sandbags connected to the legs to keep it steady.

It works quite nicely and I can choose if I want to lug the extra weight around depending on the circumstances.

Cheers, J

tylercard (author)jimbru2011-11-08

Thanks for the tip. I did something similar once with gym weights, but I like having the ability to pack up in a second (fold up the legs of the tripod, keeping the camera attached) and leave if I need to. I usually leave both tripods in my car, and use the heavier one if I need it.
I like the sandbag idea, but the problem I had with the weights is that I couldn't find an easy way to hang them. They would swing and cause more harm than good, and if I just placed them at the base of the legs, the tripod would still move. Any suggestions?

montymintypie (author)2011-11-07

This is a favourite of mine. Pity my lens broke, and my aperture is now stuck at full open, making it useless for lightning :'(

tylercard (author)montymintypie2011-11-08

Actually, you should try it. I use an aperture of f1:2.8 for most my lightning photography. It keeps your shutter speed low to reduce noise, and helps the small fingers of lightning to show. The colors will be much more vibrant with a wide aperture too. So don't give up just yet!

Smoke_me_a_kipper (author)2011-11-07

Nice tutorial.

I use an older model Canon camera with CHDK firmware. The Motion Detection script for it can snap lightning very nicely. Just aim the tripod mounted camera out the window, run the script and any flashes will trigger the camera. I set the camera on Fireworks mode for a 2 sec exposure. We didn't get many storms this year :(.

pdub77 (author)2011-11-07

Took this at my house in Indiana. Just thought I would share it with you. Cheers!

tylercard (author)pdub772011-11-07

That's an amazing shot, excellent work!

T0m T0m (author)2011-11-07

Howdy Tyler...

Many people will not have a remote shutter release for their camera. But nearly every camera will have a function for delayed shutter release. Typically, this is the used so that the person who sets up a shot, has time to get in the photo before the picture is taken. A highly valuable but lesser known use of this function is to activate the delay, press the button on the camera to take a photo, and not be touching the camera when the shutter releases. By doing this, the photographer without a remote release can do just as well to eliminate camera shake.

Nicely done inclusion of safety information, btw.

Tom

thatbellevuekid (author)2011-11-05


Nice article! I took these a couple of years ago at the beach. I was taking pictures of my family when this storm showed up!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/thedoublea/sets/72157624087616225/

Wow. Your lightning photographs are amazing! I love the colors of the sky and the clouds. Very well done. I'm actually a little bit jealous haha

sunshiine (author)2011-11-03

I love storms as long as they don't hurt anyone! Your pictures are awesome! thanks for sharing these valuable tips! Have a beautiful day!
Sunshiine

tylercard (author)sunshiine2011-11-03

Thanks Sunshiine. Your food looks delicious, and it's making me hungry. I think it's time for me to go get some lunch!

sunshiine (author)tylercard2011-11-03

You are welcome! And thanks! Enjoy your lunch!

Penolopy Bulnick (author)2011-11-02

Your photos are amazing! I want to get better at photography, I will have to give this a try when I get the chance.

Thanks Penolopy, I appreciate it! Be sure to send me a link of your photos when you get some!

I don't have any filters and I also really need to protect my lens ( I have had to deal with trying to paint the same spot out of every photo before and don't want to have to do it again with this camera) do you have a suggestion on where to get them?

Since these filters' primary use will be to protect your lens, you don't need to spend a lot on expensive ones. I would get some cheap ones if you plan on using them in the rain a lot. You can get them at any camera store, but they are quite cheap if you buy them online, like on eBay.
  • You will need to first find out what your filter thread size is. It is measured in mm, so don't get it confused with your lenses focal length which is also measured in mm.
  • If you are going to use them just for this purpose, Neutral Density filters work best.
  • If you are going to use them all the time (which you should, to protect your lenses), and don't want to buy several different kinds, a UV filter is a great standard filter.
Good luck!
Phil B (author)2011-11-02

Thank you for sharing. This is very helpful to anyone who wants to photograph lightning.

tylercard (author)Phil B2011-11-03

Thanks for taking a look Phil. If you (or anyone) have any more tips that I haven't learned/ added to this tutorial, please let me know!

Phil B (author)tylercard2011-11-03

I once bought a book titled "The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography." It was about 700 pages on glossy paper and covered just about everything. I read the whole thing, but, I do not remember anything about lightning in it. That book did have a good section on photographing fireworks, which was similar in some ways to what you suggested for photographing lightning. (I have since given the book away, since I no longer do anything connected to film photography.)

matt.e.jenkins (author)2011-11-03

Thanks for this. I look forward to our next storm.

tylercard (author)matt.e.jenkins2011-11-03

Thanks, Matt. Send me a link to your photos when you do, I want to see em.

About This Instructable

31,787views

202favorites

License:

More by tylercard:Hanging Umbrella LightMacro Photography and PhotomicroscopyPerfect Lightning Photography
Add instructable to: