Photographing any weather event comes with risks. Lightning photos are no exception. The bolts of electricity are unpredictable and are often accompanied by heavy rain and strong winds. However, if you do it right, the photos can be exceptional.
Here are our tips on how to photograph lightning with a DSLR.
1. Find lightning
This doesn’t really need much more explanation. It is best however, to try to get in front of the storm so you can see the weather event but aren’t in it. There are hundreds of apps to help with this and the best part is you won’t require thousands of dollars of gear to protect your camera from the elements.
This is the big one. It’s really important that you understand lightning bolts will take a direct path to the ground. If you are holding a camera or metal tripod, they, and you become a prime target. (It’s also this reason why you should never go golfing in a thunderstorm). You should never be out in an open area especially if there is water, tall trees or structures nearby.
If you’re in the storm, we recommend staying inside a building or being on a balcony so you aren’t shooting through glass but are still protected. If you are a distance away from the storm you will still need to be careful. If you do this, you also won’t need any wet weather gear for your camera.
Just like photographing the stars or fireworks, you will need a tripod and remote shutter release to keep the camera steady. If you don’t have a remote release for the camera, you can set it to a 2 second delay and then step away to avoid bumping it. You’ll also need batteries, and lots of memory cards. It’s better to be prepared than miss e best shot because you run out of power or space on a card.
What makes an incredible lightning shot is how it is composed. It’s rare to just see lightning photos without a foreground or some context for scale. When setting up your shot take into account the entire sky will change colour with the lightning and illuminate what you can’t see with the naked eye. We recommend locking your tripod in place on a composition you like so you end up with multiple images with the exact same framing. It will help in post production.
Now to the camera settings
It’s vital you have the camera focus set to manual. You don’t want the camera hunting for a focus point in the low light and missing the shots. Because of the randomness of where lightning strikes, setting your focus to infinity should ensure you won’t end up with blurry photos.
This varies depending on where the lightning is striking. An aperture of f/6 or under will work best. A shallow depth of field will only be a problem if you have something in the foreground you want in focus. Take a look at how you composed the shot and pick your aperture accordingly.
General rule for long exposure photos is to keep the ISO as low as you can get it. For lightning depending on the length of exposure you can safely go up to 800 without introducing noise. For lighting shots during the day it would need to stay at 100-200.
8. Shutter Speed
The maximum your shutter should be open for is8-10 seconds. Any longer and you’ll risk over exposing the image. Lightning is always brighter than you think it will be. Set your camera to bulb mode and keep the shutter open to capture the lightning and close it as soon as it has touched down.
While it is often thought lightning photos have to be taken at night, this is not always the case. As you can see above, this image shot by Timothy Baxter in Queensland, Australia, was shot at sunset. He said a photo like this is more challenging because the lightning is very fast and you have to balance trying to get the longest shutter speed without over exposing the image. In this instance it was a case of right place right time, he was shooting clouds to start with and had never expected to capture anything like the photo he did.
Shooting in raw will be your best friend. This is why we recommend lots of memory cards. It will help in post production and give you a far better change of capturing the image you see in your head.
10. Post Production
In post production you have unlimited options with the photos. You’ll notice lightning that is further away will have a yellow tint. The closer it is, the more blue and purple it will turn.
If you wanted multiple lightning bolts in the one frame and just couldn’t get it while you were out and about, here is where you can create that image. If you kept the same framing for your photos, all you need to do is stack your images in top of each other in photoshop (with a little tweaking) and you’ll have the masterpiece you envisioned. If you end up with hundreds of photos, consider creating a video like this one.
We definitely agree with Baxter when he says “Always just keep your camera with you, you never know when something might happen”.
Don’t forget to send us your lightning photos on Facebook.
All images used with permission