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Design & Style

Lightning Photography Guide: How to Shoot Photos of Lightning

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 3, 2020 • 5 min read

Lightning photography can be breathtaking. Depending on your photography method, shooting lightning images can either be challenging or surprisingly easy. Either way, once you learn the basics, you'll be able to get out into nature and try your hand at this type of photography.

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How to Stay Safe When Photographing Lightning

Before you set out to capture lightning on film, it’s essential to know how to stay safe. Lightning storms are dangerous, with some lightning bolts reaching one billion volts. To ensure that you don’t get struck by lighting, always consider these lightning safety tips when you're out in a thunderstorm:

  • When lightning is nearby, seek shelter. Proper buildings are best, but cars are also safe.
  • Never stand under trees during a storm. Trees are targets for lightning, and if they are struck, they can burst into flames.
  • If you don’t have shelter, crouch low to the ground. Cloud-to-ground lightning usually strikes the tallest object in the vicinity, so make sure you aren't that tallest object.
  • Be smart. You can always get pictures of lightning another day. Don't risk it all for a single shot. Consult a National Weather Service forecast before going out and plan a path to the nearest shelter.

What Equipment Do You Need to Photograph Lightning?

When shooting lightning photography, your primary goals are avoiding camera shake, achieving proper white balance, and ensuring proper depth of field in your images. In order to photograph lightning, you will need:

  • A camera: Lightning pictures are best shot on an SLR or DSLR, but even a high-quality smartphone can capture a good image if you use it right.
  • A tripod: A sturdy tripod or other form of camera support ensures that your camera stays stable.
  • A remote control, cable release, or lightning trigger: These allow you to close the camera shutter without touching the camera itself. You can also use an intervalometer to take photos at set intervals.
  • Multiple lenses: Ensure that you have a lens with at least an 18mm field of view, and bring additional lenses like a wide-angle lens for shooting landscape shots.
  • A neutral density filter: An ND filter prevents overexposure by reducing the amount of light that passes through the lens. ND filters come in varying strengths depending on how much light is present and how long your exposure will be.
  • A flashlight: Keep a flashlight on hand for navigating difficult terrain in low-light situations.
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The 6 Best Camera Settings for Lightning Photography

A bolt of lightning appears and disappears in less than a second. This means you won't be able to calibrate your exposures the way you could in a still landscape. To ensure you're ready when lightning strikes, apply these camera settings:

  1. Use your camera's auto white balance. The auto mode on most DSLR cameras by brands like Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony can handle white balance perfectly well. If you want to try another preset, aim for one that pushes a cooler light balance and accents blues over reds.
  2. Use a low ISO. An ISO setting of 100 or 200 is appropriate for shooting lightning. Your camera's auto settings can also handle this for you.
  3. Turn off the flash. Perhaps it goes without saying, but there's nothing your flash bulb can do that a lightning bolt cannot do better.
  4. Switch to infinity focus. Lightning shots come and go so fast that your camera won't be able go through its normal auto-focus process. The key is to establish infinity focus, which is like a very wide depth of field. If you have an older camera lens, there should be an infinity focus option. Otherwise, you'll need to use your DSLR's manual mode (consult your user guide) to create this effect.
  5. Turn off noise reduction. Nighttime shots of cloud-to-cloud lightning or cloud-to-ground lightning will not require noise reduction. Shooting daytime lightning can be trickier and you may need to try some test shots with and without noise reduction.
  6. Experiment with aperture and exposure time. In most cases, you'll want an aperture near the middle of the range, but this will depend on your technique. Your shutter speed will also vary depending on conditions and the effect you are trying to achieve. If you want to try longer exposures, make sure you use a tripod.

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5 Tips for Photographing Lightning

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When you set out to shoot lightning photography, you’ll have to use trial and error, but there are several tips for capturing a perfect shot.

  1. Frame your photo. There are many ways to photograph lightning, but they all begin with properly framing your photo. If you have multiple camera lenses to work with, you'll have more options. As a general rule, a lens with a longer focal length gives you a wider field of view, which increases the odds that a lightning bolt will touch down somewhere within your shot. If you hope to capture multiple bolts of lighting striking a landscape all at once, use a wide-angle lens.
  2. Use a filter for daytime photography. Combining a fast shutter speed with a neutral density filter will make daytime lightning photography possible without flooding your image with unwanted ambient light. An ND filter lets you have long shutter times without risking overexposure, which makes it perfect for daytime lightning.
  3. Try bulb mode. If you're determined to manually capture lightning as it happens, start by selecting "bulb" as your camera's shutter speed. You can access bulb speed in both manual and shutter priority mode. You'll need to keep your finger on the shutter button at all times and be able to snap a shot at a millisecond's notice. That said, when most people shoot in bulb mode, they use a remote trigger device. A remote shutter release prevents your shaking hand from moving the camera in bulb mode.
  4. Use shutter triggers designed for lightning. Seasoned storm chasers often rely on lighting triggers specially designed to detect lightning and trigger a digital camera's shutter. Lightning triggers make storm photography accessible to amateurs as well as pros.
  5. Shoot in RAW. If you're using a DSLR camera, or even a digital point-and-shoot camera, you'll want to capture images that are easy to work with during post-processing. Bring extra memory cards and capture your images in RAW. To free up space, you can always delete the exposures that didn't catch any lightning.

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