Lightning Photography Tips for Beginners

We had a very ambitious storm last night, and where there’s a storm, there’s often lightning. Nasim has a detailed article written on “How to Photograph Lightning”, so if you hear there’s a storm coming in your area and you want to grab some amazing shots of it, Nasim’s extensive article will help you be prepared from the start.

When the storm hit, I didn’t have a tripod anywhere near me, but you don’t always need one if you just want to take a spontaneous photograph through an open window or a balcony. While I’m not usually one to photograph lightnings (or landscapes, for that matter), I still grabbed my old-ish D300 (still a great camera I use at weddings) with a AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G lens mounted, set it to its widest setting of 17mm, closed down the aperture to f/8 (the wider the aperture, the thicker the lightning will be, but you’ll need to compensate using slower ISO setting or a ND filter to block some of the incoming light from the flash) and, after setting it to manual focus only, focused at infinity. My camera was set to Auto WB, ISO 200 (base setting for my D300) and Bulb setting in manual exposure mode (M).

Photographing Lightning_1

Thankfully, I was able to hand-hold my camera reasonably steady while I rested myself against a wall. When shooting lightnings against the sky with no other well lit objects in the frame, hand-holding works very well – a lightning strike is usually rather brief, and thus, as long as you use the right camera holding technique and rest yourself against a steady object, you should be able to avoid camera motion blur most of the time.

To Bulb or Not To Bulb?

When photographing lightning, you may set your exposure manually to several seconds in M mode and not worry about having your camera expose for too long, because, unless lightning strikes during that exposure, there will not be enough light to record any useful information on the sensor. Also, if there are any lit objects in the foreground/background, you may set the exposure according to those objects and wait for a dramatic lightning strike to appear in the image. However, if there are too many lightning strikes during one exposure, you may get too much light and overexpose your image. If there are too few flashes (or weaker ones), you may get an underexposed image. Take a look:

Overexposed Lightning

Underexposed Lightning

Bulb exposure lets you save the image you captured at any time you like and start a new one right away. This is most useful if there are multiple lightning strikes at once – you can choose how many of them you want captured in a single image, and thus avoid over- and underexposure of your images. Also, if there are lightning strikes all around you, you can actually try to re-frame your image after a flash and try to capture more lightning strikes around you into a single image.

The only downside to this is that your index finger might get tired of holding down the shutter key if you do a lot of lengthy exposures, but a good image is worth it, isn’t it?

Carefully Frame Your Image

You should try to avoid any less noticeable foreground and background objects in your frame, unless you want them there on purpose. Some objects, while invisible at first, can spoil your composition once lightning strikes and makes the said object much more noticeable. Take a look at the following example:

Photographing Lightning_2

The roof was hardly visible when I was framing my shot, but after the flash, I noticed just how much space it occupied in the image. Had I moved in a little forward and took a step to the left, I’d have an even more enormous lightning strike and more trees in my image, and no unnecessary objects in the foreground.

Experiment!

Use a long lens to give a more detailed enlargement of the lightning strike itself if the storm is further away and more or less local. You can also use a fish-eye lens for some fun perspective – close down the aperture a bit more than you normally would, place it on a tripod, point it upwards and capture tens of lightning strikes into a single image. Use whatever gear you have access to and experiment! Just in case you wonder, you can photograph lightnings just as well using a simple point-and-shoot camera as long as it has some manual control available. Just set the ISO at a base setting, close down the aperture to f/5.6-11 (adjust if necessary), focus on something reasonably far away (turn off AF if possible, or just keep the shutter key halfway pressed) – small compact camera sensor will provide you with plenty of depth of field – and shoot away in manual mode!

In case you prefer not to fiddle so much with your gear and just want some amazing lightning photographs without much fuss, read this review of AEO Photo Lightning Strike Pro, a lightning shutter trigger which will take photographs for you whenever there’s a flash of lightning.

Got any fun and interesting lightning strike images in your portfolio? Share them in the comments below!


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Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.

Comments

  1. I stacked several frames last summer for an interesting effect, about ten minutes of lightning strikes in a single photo: http://www.aaronpriestphoto.com/lightning-storm-part-2/

  2. 2
    ) Roberto

    Answer is easy: TriggerT

  3. 3
    ) yogesh

    Hi roman,

    i wanted to be the first to leave the comment about this topic that i love the most, because, for a beginer like me, it is a challange to capture lightining. I am hoping for a good lightining in the evening today, and hoping to capture some shots. If i do, can i upload here? If i could, pl let me know how can i upload. Thanks a million for providing the camera settings u used.

    yogesh

  4. 4
    ) Karol
  5. 5
    ) Martin
  6. 6
    ) Porf Reyes

    I love lightning pics! I live in a valley and the storms that we get through here are pretty impressive. I took this one on July 4th while getting ready to watch the fireworks shows from my deck:

    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8152/7505519468_b3b8c0d890_h.jpg

    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8422/7505519622_674753f16e_h.jpg

  7. 7
    ) C.G.

    Recently played around with lightning photography on my inexpensive Canon Rebel running add-on software called MagicLantern. Nice utility in that app allowing for Motion Detect capture which essentially monitors brightness levels in the frame much like the external lightning triggers, and the added bonus that it’s free. Almost feels like cheating :D

    Here’s a few from a storm that rolled through my area this past spring on the first night I set it all up.

    1. http://www.flickr.com/photos/cgeorge5555/7546460256/in/set-72157630520704956
    2. http://www.flickr.com/photos/cgeorge5555/7546459542/in/set-72157630520704956/
    3. http://www.flickr.com/photos/cgeorge5555/7546458982/in/set-72157630520704956/

  8. 9
    ) mayank

    Hi
    I want to add lens, not sure which one to bye to replace 18-55 kit lens
    I don want to go for 300mm range as if do that i would go for 70-300 fx series for sure

    pls any one advise which one is good for day to day use
    1) 18-105mm
    2) 18-200
    3) 55-200

    i have already 50mm -1.8G with my d5100.

    looking forward for expert comments from the team

    regards
    Manu

    • 11
      ) Mike Swiech

      Manu,

      For your everyday use, It would be best advised to go for the 18-200 as it is the most versatile of the 3 that you have listed. Just an FYI the 70-300 is a DX / FX lens as it can be used on both sensored bodies. IMO I would go with a 18-300 that Nikon just released. You have the the gamet of ranges from super wide to tele zoom. The 50mm is a great lens as I love to use to while I am out photographing lightning strikes.

      • 12
        ) mayank

        Dear Mike
        thanks for your advise , is there any practical reviews of 18-300, and what would be the cost of this lens as India its announced but not sure about the cost as web site is still not showing the cost.

        In my opinion it would cost about not less than if I see in USD 1500, if that would be the case I would rather go and update my camera body to fx entry level.

        what’s your suggestion Nasim,

        regards
        MM

  9. 10
    ) Sam

    thats great!

    i love it!

    thanks!

  10. 13
    ) Tom

    I like your first image – it really pops. I’m new at photographing lightening. These are good tips. There is another website I found helpful :http://phototipsforbeginners.net/

  11. 14
    ) Jaimi

    Injust captured my first lightening shot last week. http://flic.kr/p/cAJnLu
    I was just tickled with how well it turned out! This is a great post!

    • That is a great shot for sure! Congrats! :-)

  12. Roberto is right. :)

  13. It isn’t even a choice, really. You need the tripod in order to keep everything else in the image from blurring. If it looks like it’s going to rain, you’ll also need

    a plastic bag to cover everything except your camera’s lens.Most lightning photographers prefer to wait until a storm has passed before attempting to photograph

    lightning. It doesn’t matter if you are covering your camera with a raincoat, you’re going to do some damage if you’re in the middle of a downpour. Besides, it’s very

    dangerous to be outside holding an electricity conducting tripod with lightning overhead.

  14. Love the lightening photos Romanas! Well done!

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