Lightning is one of nature’s most powerful displays. A single bolt of lightning can reach more than 5 miles in length and raise the air temperature by 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit – five or six times hotter than the surface of the sun.
One study found that the average thunderstorm over several hours expends enough energy to equal 50 atomic bombs of the type used during World War II.
An approaching thunderstorm packs incredible beauty along with its incredible energy. It is this awesome and fleeting feature that photographers strive to capture.
As difficult as it may seem, lightning is actually easy to photograph with basic camera equipment and a bit of knowledge and experience. With some practice, you will find yourself taking striking lightning images to show off to friends and family.
The tips listed below will greatly increase your chance of capturing that breathtaking storm shot. Before the tips, though, let me stress safety. Lightning can be extremely dangerous, and according to the U.S. National Weather Service, 73 people die from lightning strikes each year and hundreds suffer life-debilitating injuries. No picture is worth your life.
Try to photograph from a covered, safe structure and once the storm is within a mile or two, it’s time to pack up and head to another location.
As you may have guessed, you will be taking most of your lightning photos at night. The darkness will allow you to use long exposures while photographing the strokes of lightning. You will generally need to hold the shutter open for at least 5 seconds. If you did this in the middle of the day, the entire photo would be white.
Before you go:
- Scout several locations in advance that will give you a good vantage point depending on the storm direction.
- Review your camera manual and know its capabilities. You may have to operate the controls in the dark.
- Bring a rain cover for you and your camera.
- In your bag, have extra batteries (charged), a tripod, a shutter release cable and a small flashlight or headlamp.
- Bring insect repellent and wear long sleeves and pants.
- Review weather reports and weather forecasts.
- Get positioned so that you have a clear view of the storm and the predicted path.
- Try to have a foreground object for a silhouette or a body of water for reflection.
- Use a tripod and cable release if you have one; if not, set your camera on a steady surface because you will be using long exposures.
- Double-check that the horizon is level. It is often difficult to tell in the dark.
- Get the distance to the storm location prefocused, it will also be difficult to do in the dark. In a pinch, if you lose focus, set infinity on the lens barrel indicator, if you have one.
- Mode - Select the B (bulb) setting on your camera if you have one or Night mode if you don’t.
- Aperture - Set Aperture to F5.6 to F8
- ISO - Set your IS0 at 100 to 400
- Focus - Set the focus to manual and select infinity on the range, or pre-focus on a distant object and leave it there.
- Shutter speed - Shutter speed should be 10 seconds to 60 seconds, depending on the frequency of the lightning and the amount ambient light.
- Shutter operation - Hold the shutter open for a series of several strokes and then release the shutter and take a quick look at the LCD screen and make adjustments as necessary before opening the shutter for the next exposure. (A note on shutter operation - In the B (bulb) setting the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the button. Watch the storm and try to predict the next set of strikes. Remember, digital images are free and only limited by your camera storage size. Take lots of pictures. This is the fun part. Hopefully you will get lucky and capture that great image.)
Processing, Storing, Enjoying
Once you’re done and out of the rain, select and enjoy the fruits of your endeavor. But get out of the weather; remember, SAFETY FIRST!
An APP for that
If you have a Smart Phone, there are a couple of APPs that I find very helpful:
See Dennis' other work at his website: www.northernimages.com