One of the most rewarding photographic subjects one can go after is the elusive bolt of lightning. Part of the reason it’s so rewarding is the fact that it’s so difficult. What if I told you that all you have to do is set up on a tripod at night, point toward the oncoming (or receding) storm, set your shutter to 15 seconds, aperture around f/8 and ISO between 100 and 400 lock your shutter button so you take one photo after another and wait.
It is (sort of) more complicated than that. Which is good because that alone would be boring. If you want to go entirely in the other direction, you could set up you camera and try to manually trip the shutter as soon as you see the bolt of lightning. If you have some super-human reflex reaction this will work. However, it is more likely that you will miss the shot a vast majority of the time and this article is about not missing the shot.
It would be seriously neglectful not to talk safety up front. Mother nature is a powerful force in general and should be approached with extreme caution. One of her most overpowering and dangerous elements is the sudden transfer of massive amounts of electricity from the clouds to the ground.
Cloud to ground lightning is the type of lightning we are usually most interested in capturing and it is also the type that is most dangerous to us. According to the National Weather Service (NOAA) website there are an average of 47 fatalities caused by lightning in the US annually with many more if you look globally.
I once found myself in a conversation with a storm chaser who was in the area to document a predicted tornado outbreak. I asked him his scariest situation or what scared him most about chasing. Without missing a beat, he simply stated: “Lightning. You never know when or exactly where it will strike. It is impossible to take cover from it.”
Take extreme caution when trying to document this awe-inspiring phenomenon. If you can shoot from indoors or set up your camera in a way that it is safe and so are you, that is preferable. No shot is worth your life.
Shooting at Night: An “Easy” Method
Shutter Speed: Nighttime affords the easiest opportunity to photograph lightning and requires little if any gear beyond what you likely already own. The method involves simply utilizing a long exposure (15-30 seconds) during which, if lightning strikes within your frame you will have captured it. Consider attaching an intervalometer like this one, or a cable release to your camera so you can lock the shutter and take one exposure after another.
The long exposure has no tangible effect on the brightness of the lightning since the lightning is only present for a fraction of a second. Actually about 1/10-1/5 of a second is typical with multiple shorter pulses (strokes) occurring during that time. The net effect on your scene is similar to a strobe flash or a flash gun (speedlite/speedlight). The lightning will illuminate your landscape but will do so quickly, so take this into consideration as you select your exposure (i.e. don’t expose for the ambient scene without lightning).
Aperture: As far as aperture is concerned, f/8 tends to work pretty well for aperture as it will allow for the longer exposure times without blowing details out in the landscape when a bolt strikes. This is opposed to normal night photography convention where larger apertures are ubiquitous. This aperture also tends be the sweet spot for most lenses in terms of sharpness across the frame. Lightning can vary in terms of intensity so stopping down or opening up a bit may need to happen. Don’t open up too much, especially if you have a foreground object close to the camera as you don’t want to lose your depth of field. You will be balancing this with ISO to get the scene you’re looking for in the foreground of your image.
ISO: ISO is one you might want to play around with as you work to balance the overall exposure when you get a flash of lightning. Generally, keep it on the low side (ISO 100-400) to keep the image clean but you can bump it up to brighten your lightning if you need to. Be sure to protect your highlights on the ground and in the sky. Your shots without lightning might look quite dark and things like cloud details will probably be very dark/clipped to black.
It is possible that the scene you’re after has a lot of bright elements in the foreground such as a city, etc. and the lightning is flashing from within sheets of rain and therefore rather dim. You can deal with this high dynamic range scene in a number of ways.
You can start by pushing the highlights a bit just short of the point of clipping them and then work to recover the details in post. This can work well and would be favored by someone who wants to really get everything in one shot.
Another alternative is to shorten your exposure time to calm the city lights and boost ISO/open up your lens a bit to brighten the lightning flash. With this approach you will most likely end up with a large number of lightning less frames to have to cull through (yawn).
A final tactic, and one that works well for the vast majority of these situations is to take a second exposure and expose for the foreground highlights then blend the images in post. Something else you might want to try in this situation, would be to use a bulb exposure and limit yourself to a pre-determined exposure time and just close the shutter right after you see the flash of lightning. You will probably end up with a wide variety of exposure values allowing you to have the data you need to create a solid final image.
Shooting During Daylight
Lightning filled thunderstorms will sometimes show up during the daylight hours and the technique described above will become problematic.
The same technique as above can be used but will likely require a ND (neutral density) filter to allow for the slower shutter speeds that are helpful when chasing lightning. 10 stop filters tend to work quite well for this.
You could also stop down a bit more but remember, depending on your lens you will eventually see a reduction in sharpness of the image due to diffraction caused by the small aperture opening. The general convention on this is to try to limit yourself to f/16 at the smallest (highest number). This can vary quite a bit by lens so test it out on your kit to see what you might be able to get away with.
In order to figure your exposure settings for a daytime storm you could take one of two approaches. The first is to take some test shots doing quick math in your head or just blindly experimenting to see what works with your scene with the filter installed. My preferred method is to use the exposure calculator in an app like PhotoPills to do the hard work for me and calculate my reciprocal exposure.
For example, I know that the scene in front of me exposes well at 1/80 of a second, f/8 and ISO 100. I would like to get to a shutter speed of near 30 seconds. I plan on using a 10 stop filter (without a filter, the shutter speed would only stretch to 1/10 of a second at f/22). What should my aperture be? I can plug that information into PhotoPills and it tells me that I should set to f/13. This is obviously preferred to messing around waiting on 30 second exposures only to find out that they’re way under/over exposed meanwhile, you’re missing all of the best flashes in the storm. Note: there are several exposure calculator programs that exist, I just prefer to use PhotoPills.
This exposure will be adequate for the scene but because daylight (even under heavy cloud cover) can be so bright, it will make the lightning appear subdued on the final image. It is a good practice to expose the scene to the right a little by opening the aperture slightly and/or bumping ISO up a stop or two. Because the duration of the lightning is so short changing the shutter speed will do nothing to brighten the lightning bolt. However, if you shorten your exposure a touch you can create separation between the brightness of the scene and the lightning (i.e. make the scene a little darker so the bright flash shows a little better).
Keep in mind that your daylight exposures may vary greatly as lighting conditions change. Shooting near sunset/twilight times can also be great times to capture and you may find that your 10 stop filter is a bit too much. Perhaps a 6 or 3 stop filter would work better. As long as you have the concept, you can adjust to create great images anytime of the day.
Using a Trigger
Using a trigger can be another option. These handy devices will allow you to use whatever shutter speed setting works without having to slow your shutter to try to catch the lightning. The way these triggers work is to sense a sudden change in ambient lighting to and then release the shutter (within small fractions of a second).
They simply mount to the hot-shoe of your camera and then there is a cable that connects to the trigger at one end and to your cable release port at the other end. There are many different brands available on the market and they all function very similarly. Some have better reputations than others, so make sure you read reviews before you spend too much money.
I did some asking around to see what experience people have had with triggers and capturing lightning. The experience many have had seems to be mixed. I have not personally used a trigger but it sounds like the common problems include: camera not triggered by lightning, or camera triggered with no lightning present. It’s possible some of this is user error but the technology certainly isn’t perfect. Given time it will improve.
At any rate, a decent trigger can be used for a wide variety of situations (photographing fast moving subjects, water drop photography, etc.) so it’s not a bad tool to get to know or own. One that seems to be popular on the market now is the PLUTO Trigger and I recommend reading Stanley Harper’s great review of the product which includes a section on capturing lightning.
Creating a compelling composition for your lightning shot is crucial to the success of the image. The lightning in your shot should be a background element and if it’s not you’re far too close for comfort! With this in mind it should come as no surprise that a strong foreground element will really add to your image.
Your foreground can be natural or man made. I seem to always find myself in areas with city-scapes in front of me as I am photographing lightning. This is not necessarily by design and a bit surprising considering I live in Nebraska where there is no shortage of a rural foreground. It just seems to be the way it works out and that is kind of how lightning/storm photography works. We are in very little control over the elements and have to work with what we are provided.
Lone trees on the horizon can create great foregrounds for images as can things like fields, long straight dirt roads (or any road really), empty prairie, etc. Just be sure you are aware of your location and surroundings. Don’t setup on top of a lone hill with your metal tripod under a tree that is likely to attract the lightning. BE SAFE!
With regards to framing your shot, you should be aware of the focal length of your lens. Successful images can be captured with many different lens combinations from a super wide 14 mm out to 300 mm. Which focal length is appropriate really depends on your scene, distance from the storm, type of lightning and the look you’re going for.
Most of my own favorite shots have been captured with focal lengths from 24-60 mm. The longer lens will make the lightning appear larger and it will fill the frame more but you’ll find that luck plays a much larger role in your ability to capture the lightning. Ultra-wide lenses usually work best when you’re capturing the dramatic cloud to cloud bolts that really fill the sky and you want your ground based foreground element visible in the frame.
Consideration should also be given for the other elements in your composition when choosing a focal length. Sometimes super cell thunderstorms can reach several miles into the air and capturing the whole scene would require the really wide lens. Experiment and see what works for every situation.
Things to Avoid
Try to avoid distractions in your frame. It is not uncommon to see a great lightning exposure tarnished by power lines. I'm going to pick on myself for a second… To the right, find the first “successful” exposure of lightning that I ever made. This image was captured almost exactly 10 years to the day before the image at the top of the article. At the time I was ecstatic to get that shot but by just moving myself to my left a bit I could have eliminated the power lines and while it may still not have been the best possible composition, it would have been far better.
On top of that problem my settings were as follows: 20 mm 20 sec (nothing wrong with those); f/22; ISO 1600 (oops). With regards to those last two, both caused problems with my sharpness and dynamic range. Dropping signal by stopping down and balancing it by pushing ISO up caused serious noise issues. If I could go back, I'd move to the left (or find a better foreground altogether), open up my aperture a bit so that I can drop my ISO and still balance my exposure. Clearly I was just guessing and Improvephotography.com wasn't around to help me :).
Planning the Shot
There are a few things you should think about as you are planning your shots. Overall composition and foreground elements are important but you should also understand that you are capturing a very dynamic process that is impossible to predict.
It is best generally to try to be out ahead of the storm and capture the lightning on the leading edge of it. This is the perspective from which the lightning tends not to be shrouded by the rain/clouds of the storm itself and there is also the added benefit of you and your gear being dry. Another helpful idea in terms of planning is having your locations selected and scouted ahead of time. Keep a list (physical or mental) of places you can go to if a line of storms is coming your way then actually visit these places and plan the shots you would go for.
There are a few apps I have found that are helpful in keeping an eye on the weather and ensuring my chances of getting the shot as well as my safety. For general forecasting, I usually use the STORM app by Weather Underground. To be honest, all of the consumer targeted weather apps are more or less the same but this one gives me some very useful information displayed in line graphs over time which help me to get a better idea of the time the action is supposed to start.
For live radar, I always turn to the Radar Scope Pro app. Nebraska is full of weather/storm experts and I asked around to find the best product for radar and this was the answer. At the time of writing this article there is a free version and a subscription based version. To get lightning data, you need the subscription version ($9.99/yr. as of 2017). This app contains much more functionality that I am likely to use but it is incredibly helpful for tracking a storm and seeing RAW radar data and detailed lightning data.
As I mentioned above, I also use PhotoPills. My main use case within lightning photography for PhotoPills is calculating exposures but it can also be used when scouting a location and you want to see your field of view with the augmented reality (for about any camera/lens combination).
With extreme weather events comes the challenge of dealing with those elements. The inherent danger of a thunder storm is just one aspect that we need to be aware of. Sudden gusts of wind can blow against your camera setup causing problems with your image or they could even cause your rig to topple. Rain can be a real problem in these situations as well and you want to make sure your gear is adequately protected.
One solution for dealing with the weather is to shoot from inside a building or vehicle. This is a perfectly valid solution and will keep you and your gear fairly safe. Tripods mounted in the back of a car or even on a window mount can work well when shooting from a vehicle. You can also setup your camera outside your camera and trigger it remotely which works really well if you have Wi-Fi. Bonus tip if you have Wi-Fi—you can preview your images without touching your setup. This is especially useful when you have an active storm and want to keep shooting but you want to see/get the images right away.
Shooting from indoors can also work but comes with its own problems. Glare from the window you are shooting through can be a real problem. If opening the window is not an option, you will can make the room as dark as possible and that will help to eliminate the glare. Be aware of yourself and the glare you can cast on the window (your white shirt will show up quite well on the window when illuminated by lightning). Getting the lens as close to the glass as you can helps. Alternatively, as above you can set up your gear outdoors and automate it using an intervalometer or the like and go inside for safety. Just be aware of the constantly changing conditions in case you have to rescue your setup!
It’s difficult to believe, but not all gear has weather sealing. After all, it can't be all that expensive to add it. A good investment to keep everything dry is a good rain cover for your camera. You don’t have to spend a fortune on one, it just needs to block the rain. I’ve even used trash bags and large rubber bands in a pinch and it works pretty well. My favorite solution is my Altura Professional Rain Cover which is sturdy and quite easy to put on my camera. As a bonus it came with some really great microfiber cloths, which are a must have to wipe water, condensation from the lens.
Always Have a Bail out Plan
Just before the above photo was taken, I was about as afraid as I have ever been while taking photos. I was on the tenth floor of the Rosen Inn at Pointe Orlando on the outside balcony walkway (the rooms all open to the outside). My room was not on that floor, it was just the best vantage point for shooting the storm.
I had been shooting happily for about an hour when I got a notification that a tornado warning had been issued within a mile of my location and I could see a squall line on the radar headed my direction. If there was a tornado it was moving away from me based on the warning area, but what I failed to take into consideration was the straight line wind that came with the line of storms coming straight at me. I was situated in such a way that the building would take the brunt of the wind and I should be protected.
When the line hit, the wind and rain really started to get violent. Visiblity dropped to nothing and I decided to try to find cover. My plan had been to go to the open air hallway at the end of the balcony and hide by the vending machine. But, when I came around the corner the full force of the 70+ mph wind hit me along with a wall of water. All I could do was sit by the wall and wait. It was a little terrifying to be honest.
Once the line passed though, I was able to set back up and 3 frames later I captured the image of the nearby bolt of lightning striking next to the Orlando Eye Observation Wheel. Totally worth it in my mind but the one mistake I will try not to repeat is waiting until it was too late to take cover from the worst of the storm. I had been shut off from my exit route and that can be problematic.
I won’t go into this in great detail here (perhaps a future post will deal with this in detail) but there are several interesting things you can do with your captured images. A popular technique involves collecting all of your lightning images from the same composition and combining them together in a composite. This gives the feeling of a very active storm, and that isn’t far from the truth usually as active storms create the best composites. The image at the top of this article is an example of this technique.
Another creative idea beyond single image processing which uses all of your frames (even the ones where lightning was not captured) is to create a time-lapse. As I was writing this article, Rusty Parkhurst posted a great article on “13 Sure-Fire Time-Lapse Photography Tips”. The article even starts with a video showing a great time-lapse of a lightning filled thunderstorm with a day-to-night transition! The trick to this is really committing to your one composition. It's too easy to be tempted to move your setup around trying to chase the lightning. If you do this, the time-lapse idea goes out the window.
You're going to get some great shots of lightning. Armed with this information the only thing that will cause you to miss the shot is to not shoot. This is assuming, of course that you have a storm to shoot, you're pointing your camera in the right direction, the lightning is visible and complementary to your composition, etc.
If storm photography is something you're really interested in but you're at all worried about your own safety (which is a healthy worry to have) consider hiring an established storm chasing tour group. I have never done this personally, but I know there are several in existence that have a great reputation for safely showcasing nature's most beautiful and dangerous phenomena. No matter how you choose to chase and document a storm make sure you are doing so in the safest way possible.