Doing photography of lightning can be one of the most fun experiences a landscape photographer will have. Last week, Sean Allen from Florida sent in a question asking for some tips on how to take pictures of lightning. I wasn't surprised to be getting this question from someone in Florida, because the Florida lightning storms happen about twice per week. It's probably the best location on earth for photographing lightning.
Lightning photography is not terribly difficult, but it does require some specialized knowledge. What follows is my step-by-step process to shooting fantastic lightning shots. After doing it dozens of times in the last year, I have learned that this is what works.
10 Tips for FANTASTIC Lightning Photos
Lightning Step #1: Wait for night. Taking pictures of lightning during the day is nearly impossible without specialized gear that triggers your shutter when the lightning strikes. The reason that night time is better for lightning is that you can use a long exposure to capture the lightning rather than shooting and hoping you capture the lightning at the very instant you trip the shutter.
Tips for lightning #2: Find a location suitable for lightning. Lightning locations need to meet three criteria: (1) Safe, (2) as far away from the city as possible to avoid light pollution that will ruin the shot, and (3) has a great foreground element. Don't think that you can just throw composition out the window simply because you're taking pictures of lightning.
Lightning Photography #3: Lock down on a decent tripod. Hopefully this goes without saying, but you'll NEED a decent tripod if you want to take a solid night picture.
Photography Step #4: Prepare for the rain with a good rain cover. I didn't take my own advice and shot lightning in a downpour last month in Nauvoo, Illinois. Fortunately, my camera survived; however, if you don't want to risk losing a couple thousand dollars worth of gear on your lightning shot, then buy a cheap rain cover for your DSLR.
Lightening Photo Tip #5: Get your camera settings right. Obviously, the settings will be totally dependent on the situation, but here is a good starting point on camera settings for lightning: Manual mode, ISO 100 or 200, f/11, bulb shutter speed. Here's an article on bulb shutter speed if that's a new concept to you.
Tips for night lightning #6: If you're a perfectionist, then get ALL the camera settings right. These aren't necessary, but they can certainly be helpful to get nice pictures of lightning: Mirror lock-up, long exposure noise reduction, and the 10 second self-timer if you aren't going to use a cable release.
Lightning Photography Step #7: If you have one, use a cable release. DSLR cameras only allow shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds, but you can use as long of a shutter speed as you want if you use a cable release. The good news is that they only cost about $10.
Lightning Photography Step #8: Start the exposure. Trip the shutter with your cable release and just wait with your finger on the button. The camera will keep taking the picture for as long as you hold the button. The real trick to getting great lightning shots is to keep holding down the shutter button until you see the lightning flash. When you think you've capture enough lightning bolts in that exposure, simply let go of the button. This method works MUCH better than using a pre-programmed shutter speed on the camera, because it allows you to adjust the camera to how much lightning you actually see during the exposure.
If you enjoy lightning photography, you might consider taking a look at my $5.99 eBook entitled “Improve Your Night Photography.” The concepts in that book are a big help for understanding how to take great night photos.