Lightning Photography Tutorial – A Primer

Photographing lightning can be very rewarding and produce very nice images that have a great ‘wow’ factor. Capturing images of one of the most powerful displays that God built into nature takes some planning and patience. This quick tutorial will show you how to use some basic equipment to translate a few million of watts of electricity into a few million pixels.

Lightning Photography

Lightning Photography

Lightning Photography

The Perfect Storm

First, a warning: Lightning can and will hurt you if you’re struck. If you think you’re too close to a storm, then you probably are. If the lightning and thunder are nearly simultaneous, then forget taking pictures. Lightning doesn’t have to hit you directly to be bad news. Even if you’re close to a tree that is struck, you can be hurt by flying splinters when the intense heat of the lightning instantly boils the sap in the tree and it’s trunk explodes. Ok, there’s my warning, take it or leave it.

Personally, I’ve only been in the right place & time for about 2 or 3 of these lightning shows. They are very beautiful to watch, and I think they show God’s majesty and might in a way that’s hard to ignore. First, it can’t be too cloudy or rainy between you and the bolts, or you’ll just get glowing clouds and fuzzy lightning. Having said that, glowing clouds and fuzzy lightning make for great shots as well, so you may want to see what you get anyways. To capture the clear bolts of cloud-to-ground electricity, you have to be in a place in relation to the storm where the wind and rain doesn’t get to you before the lightning show starts.

The Gear

1) Tripod
2) Camera: A Rebel XT was used in these examples, but any DSLR will work, and with some patience and trial & error, probably do it with a point & shoot like a Canon A series or Nikon Coolpix.
3) Cable shutter release: I got one for around 7 bucks on ebay. All you need is the one that has a simple shutter release button, and preferably one that can ‘lock’ the shutter button down for ‘bulb’ shutter mode.
4) Time: Each picture you take might take 30-60 seconds, so you must be patient, and wait for the lightning.

Getting the Shot

What you’re trying to do here is let the lightning be your flash. Think about a typical flash photo for a moment. Let’s slow time down and look at what happens when you push the shutter release button. 1) The shutter opens 2)The flash fires, exposing your sensor / film 3) The shutter Closes. I know that’s super-basic, and lot’s more goes on than that, but that’s all you need to know for this technique. After you get your camera on your ‘pod, use a distant street light to get a good focus, then switch to manual focus. Get your focus point using auto-focus, because most DSLRs aren’t set up very well for manual focusing, and it’s ten times harder to do in the dark, peering through the viewfinder.

Try starting with these settings. You will almost certainly need to adjust these, but I found this to be a good starting point. These are the settings I used with my Rebel XT:

Capture Mode: RAW
ISO: 100
F-stop: 13
Exp Time: 29 seconds
Focal Length: 30mm
Lens: 18-55 Canon AF-S
White Balance Temp: 4550K
Shutter speed: ‘bulb’

I set the ISO very low, so that I could keep the shutter open for 30 sec or more without overexposing the shot. The lightning is more than bright enough to give a great exposure at very low ISO speeds. Use a small aperture to get a crisp shot, even if your focus is off slightly. I generally shoot RAW in cases like this. Since you know you’re going to need to tweak things later, especially color balance, go ahead and shoot RAW.

Ok, now let’s leave camera-setting-world, and actually take some pictures of lightning. Once the lightning picks up to a reasonable pace, maybe 1 or two strikes per minute, push down, and lock the shutter button on the cable release to open the shutter, and wait. And Wait. And wait some more until you see a good bolt. As soon as you see a good bolt, release the shutter button to close the shutter. This may take as long as a minute or more, depending on your storm, but check each shot to make sure you’re not over-exposing.

Take a few 30 sec to 1 min exposures without lightning to make sure you’re in the ballpark for a correct exposure. With no lightning, you should see just a faint blue or purple glow in the sky, nothing very bright, and definitely not a bright blue or white sky. If you’re getting bright skies, raise your F-stop number, or lower your ISO sensitivity even further. If you capture some lightning, and it’s too dark, and you can’t see any color in the sky, lower your F-stop number, or raise your ISO sensitivity. Below are examples of what you’ll see if your exposure is off.

Lightning Photography
This is a bit overexposed. Very blown out, and all the definition is gone in the brightest parts of the bolt.

Lightning Photography
Properly exposed – you can see the glow of the sky and all the branches and detail in the bolt

Lightning Photography
This one is a little dark, unless that’s what you’re going for. The glow of the sky is gone, and only the brightest parts of the bolt are visible.

Take Lots of Photos

If you’re in a good storm, and your settings are working the way you want them to, start taking lots and lots of pictures. You never know when the perfectly shaped bolt is going to land, so as soon as you close the shutter and end one exposure, immediately start another one to be sure you’ll capture whatever is next. Don’t spend much time reviewing your shots, or you’ll miss the good bolts for sure. Save all the ooh and ahh for after the storm.

Time for Photoshop / Camera Raw Processing

Having other items in the shot for framing and giving a sense of scale. I like to have something silhouetted in the foreground to show just how freakin’ big these bolts are. It also gives the photos a little more composition by default. This always helps, since there’s no way to predict how the lightning will fill in the frame. I had to do some cropping in these shots to get a decent comp. Color Balance is another consideration. You want the night sky to look like a night sky, and not Mars or some weird brownish color. A different colored sky will give you a very different look and feel of the photo. This is why I recommend RAW, because you can change the color balance very easily and get just the color you want. Below are different color balance adjustments for the same image, each giving a very different effect.

Lightning Photography
This is close to what the sky looks like naturally

Lightning Photography
The warmer colors help give the lightning a hot, glowing appearance

Lightning Photography
… and a cool version

I hope you got something out of this tutorial, and I hope the rest of the summer is nice and stormy! Thanks for reading this, and if you found this helpful, leave a comment below.

Adam Bowman is a web developer and 3d artist from the rolling hills of East Tennessee. When not designing websites or creating 3D presentations, Adam loves to get out and photograph the natural world around us.

Flickr: adamcarsonb