Photographing a lightning is a dangerous hobby. What most people do not understand, is that lightnings are unpredictable and they could strike down any time, anywhere. At the same time, taking a picture of a lightning storm can be very rewarding, especially if the lightning pattern is unique or the picture is taken at an extraordinary location.
So, how do you take a picture of a lightning?
1) Safety first!
Find a good cover – staying inside a building, a car or any other object that can protect from a direct impact is the best. I strongly advice against photographing a lightning in an open area, especially if there is water, tall trees or structures nearby. Stand at least 50 feet away from water and tall trees/buildings.
2) Prepare your equipment
If you want a very good picture of a lightning, a DSLR with a tripod is almost a must. If you have a point and shoot, make sure that your camera can be set to manual control for shutter speed and aperture. Some people get lucky by taking a good picture of a lightning hand-held, but I strongly advice to use a tripod instead. Depending on the amount of ambient light, you will have to use long shutter speeds between 3 to 30 seconds and any potential shake will negatively impact the sharpness of the image. Any lens would work, but wide angle and zoom lenses work the best, since you can fit more and at the same time have the flexibility to change the focal length and target a specific area.
3) Find a lightning storm and a good spot
Finding a lightning storm is typically not a problem – lightnings happen everywhere and depending on the time of the year, might even happen as often as every day. What’s hard, is finding a good spot to take a picture of a lightning. Sometimes it is not very practical to scout for a good location in the middle of a lightning storm, so try to find a spot close to you that would give the best view of the sky and a relatively good foreground/background that would look good. Again, make sure that you pick a safe spot from which you can take your picture. I suggest protecting your camera against rain drops by putting a piece of cloth or a plastic bag on it, covering both the camera and your lens.
4) Set up your camera and tripod
Put your camera on your tripod and configure the camera settings:
- Set your lens to manual focus and then focus to infinity. Take a test shot in auto mode and make sure that your picture looks sharp on the rear LCD. Remember, digital cameras cannot acquire correct focus in dark environments, so it is best to focus manually.
- Set your camera ISO to “base” ISO (lowest value). On Nikon D5000/D90/D300/D700/D3/D3s cameras the base ISO is 200. On older Nikon cameras such as D80/D200 the base ISO is 100. Most Canon DSLRs have 100 as the base ISO.
- Set your camera to full manual mode. In manual mode, you control both the aperture and the shutter speed. I would not trust the camera’s metering system, simply because periodic lightnings will brighten up the area and your camera might give an incorrect exposure. Start at the shutter speed of 3-5 seconds and f/8 and see how the image comes out. If you are in a dark area, you might want to decrease the shutter speed all the way to 15-30 seconds, while in areas with plenty of light, you will have to stop down the lens to f/16 or more to allow longer exposures without overexposing the entire scene.
5) Other considerations
A remote cable release or an infrared remote (depending on your camera) is strongly recommended if you want to avoid camera shake, even on a tripod. If the lightning is far away, having a flashlight with you might be useful, since you can “paint” your foreground subject to make the whole scene look more dramatic.
6) Compose your shot
While composing your shot, make sure to cover more sky than your foreground/background. It might not look very good in the viewfinder, but once the lightning strikes, your subject becomes the lightning. During intense lightning storms, the lightning will cover the majority of the picture and that’s exactly what you want. I would say 60-80% of the sky and 20-40% of the ground is probably a safe bet.
7) Be patient and take many shots
I typically take many shots (shot after shot), pointing my lens at the same location. Sometimes you might get nothing, sometimes you might get an awesome shot. Just be patient and keep taking pictures and I’m sure you will get a really nice opportunity for a great shot.