Introduction: Perfect Lightning Photography

See the Photos above in High Res
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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.

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Step 1: What You Need

  • 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
  • Plastic bag
  • Electrical Tape
  • Umbrella (plastic, if possible)
  • lens cloth
  • A friend (even willing to sit in the car)
  • Rain gear (boots, poncho, etc)
  • Reckless Abandon

Step 2: 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

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

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

(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

(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

(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:

Step 7: 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.