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).
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:
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:
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.
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!