As common as it is, lightning is one of nature’s more impressive displays. Capturing this elusive show of power can be as challenging as it can be rewarding. Getting a decent photograph of lightning is almost certain to be tricky, but there are a few ways to increase your chances of snapping a good shot.
First things first: be safe about it
A good storm for lightning photography may come as a surprise, but don’t let your scrambling for the right angle, timing or equipment translate itself into recklessness. Make sure to steer clear of these circumstances (and this doesn’t just go for photography ventures, it goes for general safety during a lightning storm as well).
- Do not position yourself near trees, bodies of water (that includes baths), windows, power lines or fences.
- Do not position yourself in an open space or field of any kind, or on top of a hill or otherwise elevated surface.
- Stay off the phone.
Safety extends to your camera, too, whether it’s a full professional setup or a camera phone. Use something as a protective rain barrier, whether that’s a store-bought item made just for that purpose or a simple plastic bag in which to envelope your camera.
This article about taking pictures of lightning is part of my growing list of holiday and travel photography tips in a collection of articles I think you might find really helpful to get the best photos possible:
- Travel Photography Preparation and Basic Camera Maintenance
- Architectural Photography Lighting and Composition Tips
- Tips for Taking Photos of Drinks – Photographing Cocktails
- Taking Pictures of Animals – Wildlife Photography Tips and Tricks
- Photographing Sunsets – Tips for Taking Perfect Sunset Pictures
Find a good spot, position and angle
Your circumstances and the storm itself will determine where and how you make your attempt to capture lightning in a picture.
- If you’re in a position to do so, you’ll want to find a position that affords a broad view of the horizon. Again, this does not mean placing yourself in a wide open field in the middle of a storm. Maintain a respectful distance from the area of activity itself.
- The composition of your photograph may be influenced by the storm’s level of activity. For a storm that produces clear, striking lightning bolts and branches, frame your photograph so that the line of the horizon falls about one third from the bottom of the frame. If the lightning is largely obscured by the storm clouds or rain shaft, then include more of the landscape in your picture. The way the lightning illuminates the landscape can make for a stunning shot even if the lightning itself is less visible or defined.
Adapt your camera’s settings and set up accordingly
You’ll have a rough time capturing even a single shot if you’re relying on instinct and reflexes alone to click the shutter at just the right moment. Change your camera’s settings to do that work for you.
- Even the most basic of cameras has the option to adjust shutter speeds. Set yours to a higher time so that when you “take” your photograph, the lens stays open for a longer amount of time, thus allowing for the possibility of capturing lightning if it strikes during the shot.
- Because you’ll be using a longer shutter speed, you will want minimal to no camera movement during each shot as it will register every minute movement as a blur. As such, if you have a tripod available, absolutely use it. If not, improvise by placing your camera on a stable surface in such a way that it will not rock or move around.
- You will have to play with the exposure value on your camera to find what works best for that particular storm. There is no exact guide for this, as the storm and lightning’s intensity will determine its level of brightness.
- Change your camera’s focus setting from automatic to manual and get the best focus on the sky itself that you can manage. Otherwise your camera will search for something on which to focus, and it’s not very likely it will be the broad, general sky.
Additional things you’ll need: luck, timing, patience
No matter what steps you take, it’s ultimately up to nature and timing as to whether you will get a good shot.
- Daytime lightning photographs are spectacularly challenging even for seasoned professional photographers. You’ll have a much better chance at capturing lightning in a picture if you attempt this during a night storm.
- Even if a storm is particularly noisy or intimidating, it may simply not be the kind that produces visuals to match the noise. Pay attention to the direction of the storm and whether the lightning is even visible around rain shafts and moving clouds.
- Relax and be patient. You will have to mess with your camera’s settings, your position and your setup before you have a chance at getting a good shot, and then you’ll need the storm to cooperate via timing as well. You may luck out and get a good shot quickly; you may not get one at all. Keep this in mind at the outset.