How to Photograph Lightning

Photographing a lightning is a dangerous hobby. What most people do not understand, is that a lightning storm is unpredictable and could strike down any time, anywhere. At the same time, taking a picture of a lightning can be very rewarding, especially if the pattern is unique or the picture is taken at an extraordinary location.

Lightning

In this article, I want to provide some tips on how to photograph a lightning storm with a DSLR camera.

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 advise 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 advise 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 – storms 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 lightning strikes 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.

Bolt of Lightning

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.

Good luck!

Comments

  1. May 7, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Good tutorial, thanks, my passion is photography!

    • May 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm

      Thank you Sabin! Let me know if you have any questions.

  2. 3
    ) Timothy
    June 5, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Thank you very much! Massachusetts is under a Tornado watch today and hoping to rock out some first attempts with the D500 :-) Now which lens to use 18-55 or go for the 70-300? Only one way to find out!

    • June 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

      Timothy, thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment! Did you mean to say D5000? I would take both lenses and mount the 70-300 first :) Now if you are planning to stay close, then the 18-55 would obviously be a better choice.

      Good luck and be careful, those tornadoes can be closer than you think!

  3. September 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Nasim,
    Just found this site and I have to tell you that it is amazing! Very well designed, there are lots of easy to understand articles, so really I have seen lot of useful photography hints here

    I’m also a keen lightning photographer, and made some experiment already on this topic. I would like to share my blog with you where I also write about the lightning photography (maybe not in the same professional manner than you do): http://nagybela75.blogspot.com/2008/06/shooting-lightning.html

    I’m based in Debrecen, Hungary and we have some time-slot in the year, from late June to end of August where we can experience some really hard thunderstorms and I’m lucky, because I just put my tripod out to the balcony and use my IR remote control on my D50 and try to catch the lightning.
    One of my dreams are to take some pics in US, I’ve heard that there are some really heaving lightning in Arizona…

    Best Regards,
    Bela Nagy
    Debrecen, Hungary

    • September 17, 2010 at 12:42 am

      Thank you for sharing your link Bela, I’m sure others will find it quite useful! And yes, plenty of spots here for catching lightings…

  4. 7
    ) JJ
    November 15, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Advise, not “advice”.

    • 9
      ) babola
      July 14, 2012 at 2:48 am

      There’s always at least one spell-check obsessed trying to spoil it for others and divert the focus from the message the original autor tries to convey.

      Congrats JJ, you won an award.

      • 11
        ) Tristan
        July 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm

        JJ was merely giving an editing suggestion, anyone who writes and operates a professional website should be interested in spelling and grammar errors in their work. The comment does not distract from the articles message at all. Keeping up basic standards of english in modern journalism and writing is important, just maybe not to you. I will chip in and say this is a useful article for beginners shooting lightning, but would also suggest that the word “lightning” is used to describe a bolt of electricity generated by electrical storms. A flash, bolt or strike is not usually referred to as “a lightning” and the plural is not “lightnings” but perhaps you could use the term “strike” and “strikes”. Thanks Nasim for the sharing of knowledge, thanks JJ for useful edit advice and thanks Babola for having a whine and contributing nothing.

        • July 20, 2013 at 6:21 pm

          You are right, I did not even pay attention to the grammar mistakes when I published this article. I fixed all of the suggestions, thanks a bunch!

  5. 8
    ) Isaac McGinley
    January 9, 2012 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for this.

    Last night I managed to get 3 good shots of lightning out of my flat window during a big storm in Sydney.

    I took close to 900 photos, trying many different shutter speeds, but generally keeping my aperture at f.8-10.

    I got there in the end.

  6. 10
    ) Arun D
    May 10, 2013 at 1:10 am

    Hi Nasim,

    I am following your articles for a long period, Some how i missed this article. After reading this I got some questions. I really got some nice shots. I kept Aperture F16(in my 24-70 F2.8), and focal length to 24mm. Shutter speed from 10-30secs. while viewing in system, got some slight noise. I got blank in my mind to edit. Can you plz share how to edit the lightning shots. Is it like as your editing landscape photos article?

  7. 13
    ) Hrishikesh
    October 14, 2013 at 7:02 am

    Hi Nasim,

    When to click while capturing a lightening image. I mean it appears for fraction of seconds.
    Please suggest the exact moment.

  8. 14
    ) Asad Mahmood
    November 13, 2013 at 3:18 am

    Hi,

    I had successfully captured lightening with my camera but it required so much patience and mere luck to get the perfect lightening. It is all about experimenting with different setting based on light conditions and environment. In the end of the day, its worth the wait and patience.

  9. 15
    ) Abbas
    June 10, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Hi Nasim

    I got canon 1100 D camera and was using 18-55 and also 55-250 len to take picture of lighting but my camera was not able to click the pics only when I check it was showing Shutter speed 1 and appeture 5.6 and whenever I press the shutter button it gave me message as busy please suggest how to click lighting picture in my camera and wht setting will I need to set to click pic successfully.

  10. 16
    ) Vickie Helm
    June 24, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Thank you Nasim, I hope all is well with you and the family.

    I read all your articles they are very helpful.

    Your an amazing photographer.

    Vickie

    • June 24, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      Thank you Vickie :) How have you been? Long time no talk!

      • 18
        ) Vickie Helm
        June 24, 2014 at 9:13 pm

        I have been doing great, are you still at Stonebridge? Are you not on FB anymore?

        V

        • June 24, 2014 at 9:30 pm

          Happy to hear that :)

          Nope, I quit about two months ago. Couldn’t be happier! :D

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