How to Photograph Lightning
It’s a well known fact that lightning storms are one of nature’s most powerful and dynamic phenomenons and you could even go as far as to call them nature’s own fireworks, due to their ability to produce stunning light shows across the sky.
So, it’s no wonder that capturing one or more lightings doing their dance could leave you with some stunning photographs, especially if you’ve managed to expose them correctly and framed your shots the correct way.
This guide will help you find the right gear to photograph lightning, introduce you to some safety tips, teach you about nailing the brightness of your images and getting a nice composition and much more. So, let the bright lights illuminate your mind and get prepared to learn how to photographing lightings.
What type of gear should you use?
Despite the fact that you’ll be photographing lightning bolts in low light conditions, a very good high ISO performance won’t be mandatory since you’ll be using low ISO values and slow shutter speeds all of the time.
This means that a mirrorless camera with a smaller sensor, like the Four Thirds, will do as good a job of capturing lighting as those with bigger sensors. You may not be getting the ultimate sharpness and resolution like you would with a full frame camera, but you also won’t have to invest a lot to get started capturing great quality photos.
You also won’t have to spend a lot when buying a new lens for lighting photography. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 will be perfectly fine since on occasions you’ll have to close the aperture even further than that. Also, using a zoom over a prime lens is also a good idea, since it will give you more flexibility when it comes to framing your shots.
Just make sure that it’s wide enough to capture enough of your scene, at least 28mm or ideally, even wider than that. Since lighting bolts are very unpredictable and they can appear almost everywhere, shooting at wider angles will allow you to capture more of the sky and have a higher chance of catching them in your photos.
Safety tips and precautions
While it sometimes may look like the thunderstorm is far away and you are completely safe from it, it’s still not advised that you stand out in the open while photographing lightning strikes. Thunderstorms can be very unpredictable and can catch you by surprise if you’re not careful.
If you can, stay indoors while photographing them. Shooting from a balcony is also a good idea, since it will provide you with a safe space but also a wide enough view of your surroundings.
If you have to be outside to photograph lighting and there is no other option, use remote shooting. Cover your camera to protect it from the rain and place anti vibration pads under your tripod to give it extra stability against the wind, while you are hidden somewhere and firing away from a safe distance.
Is a tripod required for photographing lightning?
Yes, since slow shutter speeds will be required to capture the lighting itself. A tripod will give you the necessary stability to capture photos without any blur and also help you get more precise framing.
Also, look into getting a cable release or a remote for your camera, so you can operate the shutter without touching the camera. You could also use a smartphone application, if your camera supports it. Besides remote shooting, some apps will also allow you to adjust the exposure as well as change some basic settings.
Achieving the right composition
The first thing you should do is to find the right spot to photograph lighting. A lot of the time you’ll be able to get away with pretty decent photos from your own home, as long as you’re high enough to have a nice view of the open sky and some foreground as well.
If you’ve managed to find a great spot out in the open, make sure that you’re protected from any possible danger by staying in your car or in any kind of a building. When framing your photos, try to include as much of the sky as possible, but also while leaving some details visible on the ground, giving them more context and depth.
To give yourself the best chance to capture the lighting no matter where in the sky it appears, use a wide angle lens and then crop in later if necessary. Some of your photos may not look perfect immediately after their capture, but try to stay focused on capturing the lighting bolts themselves and not leaving parts of them out of the picture.
Alternatively, you could achieve a different kind of composition by zooming in and capturing the lighting in a lot more detail, if you want to spice things up a little. Also, take as many photos as you can and don’t be afraid to fill out the space on your memory card.
The first thing you should do before adjusting the exposure is to turn off autofocus and focus manually. Focus on the most distant subject you see or set your focus to infinity if your camera or lens has that feature. Also, most cameras have the option to magnify what’s on the screen or in the viewfinder, so you can achieve critical focus more easily.
Now, set your ISO to your camera’s lowest value, which will mostly be between the ISO of 80 and 200. Since lightning bolts themselves are very bright, you won’t need higher ISO values. Be sure that you stay in the Manual mode, as you’ll need all the control you can get to successfully capture lightning.
If the foreground objects in your view are very dark, keep your aperture at f/4. Otherwise, you can close it down to f/5.6 or f/8 to avoid the possibility of overexposing the lightning itself. Lastly, there’s the shutter speed and it’s something you’ll have to experiment with to get the best results.
First, start by setting the shutter speed at 5 seconds or more and see how many lightning bolts have you managed to capture. Check your exposure as well and change the aperture if necessary. Then, if you haven’t had any success, use an even longer shutter speed and try again.
Photographing a lighting is a time consuming and experimental process for sure, but just play around with your shutter speed and arm yourself with some patience and you’ll eventually get it right.
The first thing on your to do list in editing should be the color correction. Make sure that the colors in the image are neither too warm nor too cold and try to adjust them in a way that they accurately portray the atmosphere brought on by lighting strikes. If you like, you can also bump up the saturation a little to achieve an even more dramatic look.
Now, it’s time to make sure that the dark and light areas are properly exposed. Lower the global exposure value and tone down the highlights if the lightning appears overly bright, but also lift up the shadows to make the dark areas more visible. If you end up with an image that looks washed out, increase the contrast and adjust the black level.
Lastly, zoom into your image to check if all the details are presented nicely. If it looks a little soft to your eyes, add a little sharpening. Also, crop the image to your liking to put more emphasis on lighting bolts themselves.
While photographing lighting is always a challenge no matter how much knowledge and experience you possess and there is a slight learning curve to capturing it successfully, the end result you’ll be able to get after following all of the steps above will be well worth your time and trouble, since lighting photos are one of the most dramatic ones out there.
You might not succeed on your first or even a second try, but once you get the hang of the entire shooting process and get comfortable with it, you’ll be on your way to capturing some of the most stunning images of your photography career. Just remain focused on your goal and you’ll surely get there. Just remember to stay safe while you’re doing it.