Tutorial: Capturing Lightning

Lightning is an often elusive subject. Many photographers seek to capture the beauty and power of lightning with their cameras, only to be disappointed by not being able to get the shot they envision. This tutorial should help you to take dramatically better lightning photographs.

Capturing Lightning

38mm, f/6.3, 30.0sec, ISO 100

The first item to consider in photographing lightning is finding a safe location from which to view the storm. For the image above, I chose an upstairs bathroom that had a clean window without a screen. Please take every precaution with safety, lightning does kill people, so please look up recommended lightning safety precautions, and follow them!

The utmost importance should be placed on using a sturdy support for the camera. Exposures that yield the best results are often longer than 10 seconds and therefore should keep the camera absolutely still for the duration of the exposure. A good tripod usually will do the job nicely, but be sure that the set of tripod legs you are using is sturdy enough for the conditions you are shooting in.

Once you have found a good setup for steadying the camera, you need to set your camera settings for lightning. If you are using a camera that has a Mirror-Up mode or similar, definitely use it. In this mode, you push the shutter button once to raise the mirror (blocking out the viewfinder) and push it a second time to take the picture. This eliminates camera-shake from the mirror being raised and lowered. Set your lens to manual focus and turn the focus ring so it is set on ∞ infinity. If left on autofocus, the camera will not be able to get a lock quickly enough in the dark conditions, and you will miss shots. You will want to set your camera mode to shutter-priority for about 15-30 seconds. That’s 30 whole seconds. At night, it takes a long time to create a proper exposure, and the more time we have during the capture, the better lightning shots we can get (more on that later). Aperture settings are not very important for the type of shots we are pursuing.

Now that you have the camera steady with the right settings, it’s time to think about technique. The area from which you are shooting will often dictate your view-angle, and you obviously need to be pointing at the storm. In my example, I was shooting from a window at the storm, so my angle and position were already determined for me. If you are in a situation where you have greater control of the composition, try to shoot wide-angle pointing at the most electrically-active portion of the storm. All of your composition needs to be done before you begin shooting (periodically making slight adjustments for the movement of the active clouds as necessary).

Now you are set up and ready to begin shooting. This part may seem random, but after a few minutes, you should start grasping a pattern to follow. Push your shutter once to raise your mirror, then gently push it again to begin the exposure. Hopefully, a large streak of lightning will light up the sky during the capture, but if it does not, just keep trying until you get something. If you have a bulb setting and a remote shutter-release cord, this is the time to dust it off. Set your camera to “bulb” and connect your release. Then, just hold down the release button for about 15-30 seconds, or until you see an extraordinary bolt of lightning!