A lightning photography tutorial

(exif: canon eos 5d mark ii, canon 85mm 1.8, iso 100, f/7.1, 30 sec – Click for a larger view – Taken this summer in Arizona)

Whenever I post lightning photos, I usually get a few questions about HOW I shoot them. What’s most surprising though are the ones I get from fellow photographers. In the last few days I’ve received a few questions that can basically be summed up like this:

“How do you get the timing right?”

The other one I get is whether or not I used a lightning trigger. I’ll address that later in this post.

I’m not mentioning this as a way to belittle those photogs with that question. I guess I just assumed that everyone that has a DSLR would know how to shoot lightning. I mean, the reason I bought my first one was BECAUSE of what it could do for me when it came to photographing lightning. Obviously I’m realizing now that it’s not something that everyone readily knows and so I figured I’d write up a little lightning photography tutorial on how I get my shots.

Let’s get started.

Opening Statement

I figured I would just start with this: The hardest part isn’t the timing. Timing doesn’t matter (mostly).

The hardest part is finding the lightning.

What You Need

My first lightning photos were captured using a Point & Shoot that could take 3 shots a second. I put it on a tripod and held the shutter button down. It would take about 100 photos before it quit and I had to re-press the shutter. The timing was everything on this because lightning can take place faster than quarter second and you can miss it easily.

Or you can miss the beginning of the strike. Or the end. You want all of it. I want all of it. Look at the photo at the top of this post.

You can shoot that way if you want, but if you are serious about lightning photography, you have to lose that crutch of “timing.”

Equipment list:

  • A DSLR camera
  • Tripod
  • External shutter release
  • Extra batteries
  • Ability to shoot wide or zoomed
  • Umbrella (or something to keep your camera dry if you can)
  • A healthy fear of lightning
  • Luck

Your camera should have a Bulb mode or at least the ability to shoot up to 30-second exposures. Most do, but just make sure  your camera’s shutter can be triggered using a remote shutter release.

Shutter releases can come in a few styles. There are simple manual releases, like this one from Canon. Or ones that allow you to sit back and relax while your camera does the work, like this one.

Lenses are important. Sometimes a wide angle is great, but it also means you are practically right under the lightning which isn’t always a good idea. With my full-frame Mark II, I’d rather use either my 50mm 1.4 or 85mm 1.8. The photo at the top of this tutorial was with the 85mm. It allow you to to zoom into a storm that isn’t right on top of you. Prime lenses are also super-sharp and seem to give the best results.

What I’d really love of course would be a 70-200 for lightning because you can cover a ton of ground with that thing. I still love my primes though.

One of the reasons I like to use a wide angle from time to time is when I want to get the scope of a thunderstorm along with some lightning, instead of the lightning being the main focal point.

Settings and Whatnot

You see lightning a few miles away, it’s dark out, so you pull off into a nice, open area…take out the camera, mount it on your tripod and now want to shoot some lightning. What do you do?

Here are the steps I tend to go through:

  1. Plug in my shutter release
  2. Put the camera in Manual or Bulb
  3. ISO to 100
  4. Aperture to f/5.0 or greater
  5. Shutter speed to 15 seconds (or skip this in bulb mode)
  6. Aim towards the lightning
  7. Fire off a practice shot

This stuff can vary of course. If it’s still dusk out, I’ll put my aperture to the smallest it can go (like f/22 or something) and perhaps even put a CPL filter or an ND filter to help stop down the light a bit.  It just depends on what you are doing or the situation you are in.

But if it’s dark out, the above settings are a good starting point. If your practice shot is too bright, increase your F-stop or shorten your exposure.

Aperture and ISO

Two very important aspects of your shot are the settings of the aperture and ISO. I’ll just talk briefly about what they do for you and why you want them where they are.

ISO is always, ideally, at 100. Especially at night when you have a dark sky and bright lightning. Bumping it to ISO 800 would only end up causing overexposure. During the daytimes (as you can see from some shots at the bottom of this tutorial), sometimes you may up the ISO because you want to be a bit more sensitive to that light.

Aperture. The wider your aperture, the more overexposed your shot will end up being. Hence you really never want to get much wider than F/5. The closer the lightning gets to you, the higher your F-stop should go. It doesn’t ALWAYS have to change, but it’s just a guide more than a rule.

The Long Exposure

So the way to counteract the “timing” issue it to negate it entirely by using long exposures. Yes, there are lightning triggers out there, but I really don’t see why you’d use them at night (which I hear some people actually do). During the day, yes, that makes total and complete sense. But I still don’t think a lightning trigger is fast enough to capture the entire strike.

I’d never use a lightning trigger at night. Baffles me.

The long exposure is the way to go. Depending on your camera, there are a few ways you can go about doing this.

My old Rebel XSi could do Bulb mode (of course) so I used my manual cable release to hold open my shutter until I saw a lightning strike. This is a good way to start. You hold it open…wait for the strike and then choose to release the shutter or hope for another strike.  I’d normally not go more than 30 seconds without a strike before releasing and then shooting another shot. The longer it’s open, the more noise, the more cloud movement, etc.

The problem of course is if you miss a strike during that brief 1-2 seconds between close and open again. It’s a killer when you miss a strike because of that and I’ve let out a few curses when it’s happened.

Now, my 5D Mark II has a cool feature. I can set the camera up in Manual mode for a 10-second exposure and then on my cable shutter release, put it in locked mode so it’s continually pushed down and then just let it go. The camera will just keep firing 10 second exposures as long as that shutter release is held down. Sit back, relax. My Rebel wouldn’t do this. So Bulb mode was the only way to go.

If you have a fancier shutter release that has the timer built in, you can program it to shoot say a 10-second exposure every 10 seconds and that should work even on the Rebel. However, programming one of those things out in the darkness, during a storm, when you are in a big hurry is a royal PAIN. It’s so much easier to change the shutter speed or to just do Bulb mode.

Bulb Mode or Manual

So what’s the better mode to shoot in? And why?

It basically depends on what you are going for.

Manual mode allows you full control. If you want, you can do as short as two seconds or five minutes. It’s up to you. If you are shooting in manual and set for say, 10 seconds, you are stuck with that until you change it. You have no control mid-shot.

Why does full control matter? Well, let’s say you have an awesome storm going on. Strikes are going nuts. With Bulb mode you can leave the shutter open as long as you feel necessary to capture as many strikes as you can in one shot. Sometimes you are just going for one. Other times you can get 2, 3 or more in a short timespan. Bulb mode let’s you control that better.

(There are people that like to combine multiple lightning strike shots into a single image…I don’t like to do that. I’d rather capture it in a longer exposure.)

Manual mode is nice if you don’t care that much. You can aim the camera at a spot, set it for 30 seconds, lock the shutter release down and sit back. I like this mode for safety purposes because I can setup the camera outside my car and then hide inside to avoid getting struck by a bolt.

This past week while in Memphis I put it outside under a patio umbrella and let it fire off into the night sky while I sat inside watching TV.

Focusing and Live Mode

You’d never think about it, but focusing is one of those things that can bite you in the ass when you are shooting lightning. It’s of the upmost importance to get a clear, crisp strike. Focus can also be difficult when you are in the middle of nowhere in the darkness. What do you focus on?

Your best bet is distant city lights. What you can do if you want is to shoot in Live Mode, find some lights, zoom into them and manually focus until they are sharp. I’ve also used stars or the moon. If all else fails, you can also just set your lens to the infinity focus line and hope for the best!

Live Mode is also a good idea on some cameras because it keeps your mirror locked up and quickens the speed of your next exposure. I pretty much use it 100% of the time.

A note about Infinity on your focus ring: If your aperture is set at 5.6 and you use the Infinity line to focus, instead of doing an auto focus on something on the horizon, like city lights, etc, you could end up with blurring lightning. Because the aperture is so wide open, being off even by just a hair on the Infinity line can screw you.

Hence the need to have extra batteries!

(UPDATE: Forgot to include this: Once you get your lens focused,  switch it on MANUAL FOCUS. If you have it on Auto, it may try to focus on the dark for the next shot and mess up all your images! Manual focus! A better method for this is to get your camera setup for “Back Button Focus”, which you can Google. I highly recommend this as something you should just do anyways)

The Chase and Luck

Back to my original statement up top: The toughest part of shooting lightning is actually finding lightning.

It has to be one of the most frustrating things to photograph. Sometimes it can be like shooting fish in a barrel and sometimes you drive hundreds of miles in a day to chase it down only to miss it and see it’s behind you now and you gotta drive THAT way, and you are getting tired, it’s late (or early, who knows) and you are mad, annoyed and running out of gas and patience. You gotta get lucky sometimes.

But it’s like anything that’s elusive and hard to find: Once you have it in your hands, it’s exhilarating.

The key is to put yourself in a good spot to shoot it. If it’s your home area, know the high points, where cool things are, how the storms usually operate and move and slowly understand/predict where they will end up. Watch the radar, pay attention to where the storms are and where they are likely to be later that day. Learn how they develop.

A big thing I do is to bring along my laptop, an internet connection and watch the radar. It’s a HUGE help if you are suddenly unsure where to go next.

The shooting part isn’t that tough really.

Wherever you pull over, just judge how far away the strikes are and choose a good lens. Normally you want that strike to fill the frame. Take a practice shot or two and see how your sky and clouds look. If they are acceptable, then go ahead with your Manual or Bulb method and shoot until you capture a strike.

Try to avoid the desire to stop shooting and hit the “Play” button to look back at a strike. I do this all the time, but it can cause you to miss another one. Just know it’s going to be on that card the rest of the night and you can look later! The only reason to look would be to make sure your exposure looks okay.

Composition

I know it may seem funny, but composition is still key to a good lightning photo. It’s not completely about just aiming and capturing a strike.

Most of the time at night you’ll be ending up with foreground silhouettes. so try to frame them according to your good senses. I like to have these elements in my shots because without them, a lightning strike has no scale or scope. Sometimes a strike disappearing behind a tree is awesome. A lone silhouette of a cactus can be sweet with a giant strike behind it. Usually you are in such a hurry it’s tough, but do your best to find cool things to frame in your shot. Powerlines or a towering radio antenna can be fun. Lightning reflections in puddles of water are awesome if you can find them.

Another discipline to have is the ability to toss out subpar strikes. Just because you got a shot with lightning in it doesn’t mean it’s good. Some strikes are just boring and weak. The best ones have interesting curves, twists, or are giant explosions of trails going everywhere. Use your own judgment, but try to be okay with some shots not making the cut.

Dust, Wind and Rain

Three natural elements that make things tough are dust, wind and rain. Nothing can frustrate you more than knowing you have some awesome lightning going on and there is too much rain, wind or dust blowing around.

To combat the wind, I usually take off the camera strap before leaving the house. When you are out in the field trying to shoot and there is so much wind you are worried about camera shake during your 30-second exposure, look for ways to shield the camera. Drop the tripod closer to the ground, use your car as a buffer, whatever.

Rain is tough. A few sprinkles can be dealt with, but if it gets heavier, you gotta bail. Rain spot on a lens can totally ruin a lightning strike. If you aren’t super-close to the lightning, you can use an umbrella a little bit to shield the camera. I’ve also used my body or just a hand above the lens. If you use a 50mm or 85mm that have nice, deep lens hoods, that helps too!

My buddy Shane Kirk taught me a sweet method for shooting in pouring rain that worked for me last year: Put your camera on a tripod or on the dashboard of your car and put the wipers on. You’ll never see the wipers and you’ll still get some good shots. It’s key though to find a spot without lights anywhere, because they’ll reflect off the brief water spots and could cause some issues. The closer your camera is to the windshield, the better.

Also, now that I have the 4Runner this year, I plan on shooting out the back whilst sitting inside to avoid the rain. We’ll see how that works.

Dust is dust…but I figure I can always get my camera cleaned right? I’m brutal on my equipment during a stormchase.

Safety and Stuff

This may not be evident, but I’m sort of terrified of lightning. If it’s super-close to where I am, I’ll stop watching the storm from the patio and hang inside. I have no desire to get struck.

So being out there shooting the stuff in the middle of storms is kind of crazy for me. I’m super-excited to be doing it, but I’ll also cower in the car while holding my shutter release.

This is a good thing though. You should be afraid of lightning. It can kill you. This fear will keep you safe while you are out there. It will stop you from running to the top of a hill in the middle of a storm, becoming the tallest object around. And while you are standing there, it starts to rain so you pull out your handy-dandy metal umbrella and now you are a sitting duck.

If I see a lightning strike suddenly appear over my head, it’s time to get in the car.

While you are in the act of shooting, watch the sky. Don’t completely focus just on where your camera is pointed, because it is ALREADY looking that way and will capture the lightning for you. Keep a look-out for stuff developing around you and behind you and above you. Not only will this keep you safe but it will also alert you to a better shooting option.

Also, pull off the side of roads as far as you can. You don’t want a semi crushing you into oblivion. It’s always best to find a safe pull-out, dirt road, parking lot, etc.

Post-Processing

Tweaking your lightning strike images can turn them from being just okay to being awesome.  Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw has some great ways to play with your exposure to get it perfect. Lowering the exposure, upping contrast, fill light, blacks, saturation, etc…all of it can greatly enhance your final product. I also play with filters in Photoshop, like Phototools or Nik.

Depending on the ISO you used or how good your camera is, you may need to do some noise reduction, or clean up dust spots.

Cropping is a huge thing. You may have framed it well, but suddenly the strike is in the lower right corner. Try to crop the image to get the strike to fill more of the frame if the rest of the shot is boring.

Conclusion

Lightning photography is amazingly fun and can also be amazingly frustrating. It’s a euphoric feeling to look back at your shots and see a huge strike captured. You’ll also want to cry when you wasted a tank of gas, got home at 3am only to work the next day and didn’t capture a single strike.

I’m still learning. Heck, a few days ago I discovered how great the 85mm 1.8 is for doing this. There are always better ways to do things. The key is to practice. You can read my tutorial, or someone else’s, but until you get out there and do it, you aren’t really gonna know what’s going to work and what wont.

Have fun with it, be safe and please ask me any questions you want about what I do. I’ll gladly answer and do whatever I can to help you out.

For those in Arizona, I’m planning on doing some On-Call Stormchasing Trips this summer where you can ride along with me and hopefully we’ll shoot together and learn together. More to come on that.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite shots from last year and some of the EXIF info on them.

Lighting Photo Arizona

(exif: 55mm, iso 400, f/29, 9.0 sec – dusk settings. Not sure if I put an ND or CPL on for this or not…probably)


(exif: 17mm, iso 250, f/10, 6 sec)

Lightning Sunset in Tucson

(exif: 18mm, iso 250, f/22, 6.0 seconds – Narrow aperture, but higher ISO to be more sensitive to the light)

Lighting Photo Arizona

(This was the dashboard shot from last year – 28mm, iso 100, f/5.6, 9.0 sec – probably should have upped the F-stop on this, it’s pretty over-exposed. But it was less than 1/4 mile away anyways!)

Symmetry - Arizona Monsoon Lightning

(exif: 70-210mm f/4, 205mm, f/5.6, iso 400, 30 sec)

  • http://hdrexposed.wordpress.com Dave DiCello

    Mike this is a great write up. I’ve only been lucky enough to capture lightning once, but you’ve got me wishing now for a big storm! Thanks for the tips!

  • Lew Kline

    Great article Mike! This takes some that “mystery” out of the lightning shoots. The first shoot I ever did for lighting was using Kodachrome 64. The main storm was way out on the horizon, but to my surprise another crept over the mountain to my back. It was a time to make a quick get-away. I still came away with some good shots. I don’t chase the storms even though I would love to…there just aren’t too many good spots left without having a bunch of houses in the way, so I shoot from the comfort and over of my porch or garage. Again, great article!!

  • http://photostry.com/ Kristi Hines

    You’re awesome! This is just what I needed before monsoon season. My previous attempts at lightning have not gone well, but I had some completely wrong assumptions about shutter speed and other settings. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattgranz/ Matt Granz

    Very well written. I myself, use the focus factor of infinity when shooting lightning or in the dark in general. I hope I get the chance to shoot some lightning this year… California’s lightning storms are very weak and sporadic, so I’m hoping for some good action when we vacation in PA this summer.

  • http://www.chrisfrailey.com Chris Frailey

    Very thorough information Mike. I’ll have my beeper ready for when the on call starts. Would love to capture some lighting shots.

  • Larry Smit

    Excellent tutorial Mike! Whenever someone asks how I got my lightning shots, I will send them here for advice!

  • http://axphotography.wordpress.com/ Scott Ackerman

    Awesome stuff Mike. Very good read. To add to his Bulb vs Manual mode discussion, I’m a fan of using Bulb mode just for the fact that I can stop a shot after one good bolt. The storms are always illuminated by the lightning and if you get two or three different bolts in your exposure, you will also get two or three different exposures of the storm. Now this doesn’t sound like a bad thing unless the storm is changing rapidly. You will up with a blurry storm with weird motion as apposed to if you stopped the exposure after one good bolt.

  • http://photographybanned.com John Groseclose

    A lightning trigger has an inevitable delay not because of the trigger, but because most cameras have a 45-85ms delay from the time the “shutter” signal is delivered to the time the mirror is up and the shutter open.

    So, the stepped leaders and arborization of the night-time shots is usually lost or at least greatly lessened.

    That said, one does occasionally get lucky and get the whole thing.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattgranz/ Matt Granz

    As a reply to Scott, I agree, and whats-more, I am the irreverent type who would consider if I got three strikes in a row in the same frame, I might blend them in photoshop. It’s easy as pie. You just load them as a stack, and then, if you have, lets say three exposures, you choose the blending mode of Lighten, and only the bolt will come through, and leave the rest behind. Yes, I believe in dishonest photography, but I’m an artist, not a journalist.

  • Mike

    @ Scott – Good point of course…blurry clouds CAN be cool sometimes, but not all the time.

    @ John – Very good observation about the trigger. That’s why I don’t like it because of missing stuff, even the tiny beginning of the strike. Still, it’s invaluable during the day. Although, that link you posted…it was probably dark enough you could have shot at a high F-Stop and done 3-4 second exposures and perhaps still gotten it?

    Either way man, LOVE your stuff, that Weaver’s Needle one was sick!

  • Mike

    An Update: Matt Granz reminded me about Manual Focus, so I made sure to include that above…your lens should always be on MANUAL FOCUS.

    And Matt…I love you for being an artist. Dishonest is totally fine, I dig it. And who knows, I may end up stacking some shots this year to try it out. We’ll see.

  • http://photographybanned.com John Groseclose

    @Mike Thanks for the compliments! Not really. Check the EXIF. The storm was far enough away that I was shooting at f/5.6 to get decent exposure on the strikes, and I generally use the lightning trigger any time I can’t get an exposure over five seconds. I had been shooting for years with a Nikon D80, and started worrying about the shutter life banging out a few thousand images over the course of an afternoon storm.

    The other thing that happens with a lightning trigger is that occasionally you’ll get the full strike when the storm is active enough that you’re getting doubles and triples. The first strike will pop the shutter and the second strike happens while the shutter is open.

  • http://dastodd.com/blog/ Charles Dastodd

    Awesome tutorial, Mike! very helpful!

  • http://www.stevebeal.com Steve Beal

    Mike – this is so awesome. I am taking notes and can’t wait for the first big storm! It is like wildlife photography – you only have a few brief seconds to capture your subject. Very thorough tutorial, much appreciated!

  • http://www.doephotog.com A.Barlow

    Holy crap man, that one shot looks WAY close. Really sweet tut thanks for sharing your process!

  • Mike

    @John – Interesting about the shutter life…I guess I figure I’m not shooting lightning 365 days a year, so doing a lot of them in the summer isn’t going to be so bad.

    I still may invest in a good lightning trigger though, for daytime stuff, although I really like the nighttime stuff better most of the time.

  • http://scottwyden.com Scott Wyden Kivowitz

    Dude, you need to make a PDF of this sucker!

  • http://theperfectsunset.net Jason Hines

    Wow, thanks for the tutorial Mike! I am super excited for this monsoon season so I can get out and take some weather shots. Do you have any particular spots or areas that you would suggest I check out?

  • http://www.curtfleenor.com Curt Fleenor

    Awesome tutorial Mike and impressive shots too! I agree with Scott, you seriously should put this into a PDF for the masses!

  • http://www.cdeangelisphotography.com/ Chris DeAngelis

    Great tutorial Mike! Now I can’t wait to get out to P-cola to work on my technique! Love the shots you included! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.flickr.com/cliffbaise Cliff Baise

    Great write up! I’ve always wondered how lightning shots were done. You’re article made it crystal clear.

  • http://chriskenison.com Chris Kenison

    Great tut, Mike!

  • http://heathofee.com Heath O’Fee

    Thanks for this, Mike! Hope I’ll be able to put it to the test at some point this year.

  • http://ericleslie.com Eric Leslie

    Good to read how you do it. I got to figure this all out for the first time last weekend. I was dealing with different strikes having different intensities. So I ended up shooting at f/11 and still some of the really big strikes were a little overexposed where the surrounding strikes came out great. There a lot of trial and error to it.

  • http://www.myblueheaven.com Scott Wood

    Just to add a couple things from the way I shoot. I am a bulb guy with lightning. I like being able to stop the exposure when I feel it is the right thing to do. For the Nikon shooters out there, one tip I would have is to use primes that are D model lenses. They have a hard stop at infinity, lenses that focus beyond infinity can cause some really problems.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattgranz/ Matt Granz

    Scott you are absolutely right! I bring a flashlight on me for the lenses I have which feature infinity + (whoever came up with that setting needs to be hauled out and slapped vigorously). Setting to infinity manually with flashlight in hand works every time for me. I just need to remember the flashlight is all… Doh!!!

  • http://imagesbyjw.com Jan Winther

    Thanks Mike. I have always wanted to shoot lightning – always. Never actually got one, but perhaps next time we have a thunderstorm, ill be going out.
    Im going to a fireworks competition this August, and Im pretty sure I can use some of your tips. At least you know where the action is going to be with fireworks – should be a tad easier…:)

    Thanks again for taking the time.

  • http://www.benscamera.com/home/ Ben Tucker

    Brilliant tutorial Mike, I’ve always wanted to capture a great lightening shot but like you said finding it is the hardest part. After reading this though I’d like to think i’ll be more prepared when the opportunity arises. Great shots in the write up, very jealous of them 🙂

    Ben

  • http://www.lightning-chaser.com Shane Kirk

    Excellent tutorial Mike! You obviously spent a lot of time on this! Well done!

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  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Fantastic shots and tutorial. Lightning photography has always been a pet interest of mine that I’ve love to do more of, but out here in Japan I’ve rarely seen lightning storms. Good that I have the knowledge now ready for the next one though!

  • https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150359136111678 Graham Sorenson

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150359136111678&set=a.71056891677.99078.717836677
    Daytime can be done in nearly the same way. set your exposure to take a good shot without lightning with a lot of ND Filters. 1.2+0.9+0.6 etc. probably could get a 30 second shot at F16. Plenty of time to capture some lightning.

  • http://www.mikeolbinski.com Mike

    Only problem is I’ve tried that and you have to up your ISO to 400-800 to get the light to show up. It’s so dark, it’s a lot different than at night when a strike lights up the entire sky. With a bunch of ND filters, it’s really tough to see it.

  • http://catchthejiffy.com Adam Allegro

    Awesome tutorial. I cannot wait to start doing some storm chasing next year. Well done Mike!

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  • Ryan Silvers

    Great advice!! Any favorite spots in the Phoenix/Tucson area?