Everything you need to know to photograph lightning!
Lightning photography is astoundingly beautiful but it takes precise camera control, expert meteorological tracking skills, and perseverance. It doesn’t require any specialist equipment beyond a camera and lens, but to get the best out of your experience it’s best to use a remote trigger or a lightning trigger such as the MIOPS Smart+.
Camera settings can be tricky to master, especially for beginners, but again devices like the MIOPS Smart+ remote trigger has a lightning-specific mode for capturing lightning easily, perfect for beginners or pros alike. So let’s take a look at our ten top tips for the best lightning photography.
1. Use a Sturdy Tripod
The key to successful and sharp photographs of lightning is to keep the camera steady during exposures. Sure, you can place the camera on the ground or a wall, anything that will keep the camera still enough during the image-taking process, but this is far from ideal when it comes to composing good photos.
Ideally, you’ll use a tripod instead. But not just any tripod will do. You must make sure that the tripod (and the tripod head that sits atop it) can hold up the payload of your camera and lens setup. To do this, add up the weight of your camera and lens (including any memory cards and batteries) and then search for a tripod that accommodates that weight. For those on a budget, aluminum tripods offer good value for money whilst remaining lightweight. However, those that can afford it should look to carbon fiber models that are extremely lightweight and sturdy in equal measure.
Tripod heads come in a range of different types from three-way, to pan-and-tilt, and even gimbals, each have their own specific usage. However, lightning photography is much like landscape photography because we capture the land around the lightning strikes as much as the strikes themselves. Therefore, it’s advised to use a ball-head. Ball-heads can rotate 360 degrees and allow for all kinds of camera orientations. They make it simple to level horizons easily on uneven ground and switch between horizontal and vertical orientations quickly without having to release the footplate from the screw thread underneath the camera body.
2. Choose the Right Lens
There’s no ‘lightning lens’ perfect for capturing those strikes, but some lenses will give greater advantages than others. A key feature to look for is a wide maximum aperture. This allows the greatest amount of light onto the image sensor and therefore keeps shutter speeds (or ISO sensitivity) lower whilst maintaining good exposures.
Image stabilization is largely unimportant for lightning photography because you should be using a tripod to keep the camera still. And there’s no sweet spot when it comes to focal length either. Wide-angle lenses can help with capturing a wide field of view, useful if your storm system is happening all around you, but mid to telephoto lenses are also useful for distant captures.
3. Tracking the Weather
Probably the most important part of photographing lightning, other than having the camera with you, is being able to find lightning in the first place. Using local weather forecasts are important as are online forecasts such as accuweather.com. Don’t just look at the top result displaying sun, cloud, or rain though, dig deeper and track weather systems via satellite data which shows the movement of storms.
There are also storm-specific Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts that track local and national storm systems. Try a quick search online to find a group or account that covers your area. There are various apps that track storm systems such as My Lightning Tracker & Alerts which help when tracking storms in real-time. For those without access to a smart device though, websites like LightningMaps.org allow for storm tracking, too.
4. Best Lightning Locations
There’s no getting around it. To get lightning photographs consistently you’ll have to head to where the lightning is. Certain geographic locations are better for this than others. According to Accuweather, some of the cities with the highest lightning densities in the U.S. include Green River, WY, Rock Springs, WY, and Dickinson, ND.
For those in Europe you may want to head to northern Italy and nearby countries like Slovenia, and Croatia. And just as the location is important, so is the time of year you visit. Summer storms are more likely to bring thunderous storms because of the increased heat which allows cloud systems to build bigger than in colder seasons.
Real lightning photography buffs travel to find the best storms, but it’s likely that there will be a storm local to you at some point during the year. The best thing to do is to keep an eye out using weather forecasts, storm alert apps as aforementioned and speak to those who like to track and chase storms themselves to get the best results.
5. Which Camera Mode Should You Use for Lightning Photography?
Compact cameras, bridge cameras, and some entry-level DSLRs have various shooting modes to allow beginner photographers to take images before they learn all the ins and outs of the camera’s settings. Sometimes this includes a lightning capture mode, which sets camera settings automatically without user input. These can get good results, but manually dialling in settings is the best option.
Set the camera to manual mode, open the aperture as wide as possible and set the ISO sensitivity between 400 - 1200 depending on the light levels (night-time lightning photography can be some of the most stunning, so higher ISO sensitivities are required). Set the shutter speed to between 1-5 seconds (or longer depending on light levels) and take a sequence of images over the period of several minutes or hours. Within one of these images you should have at least one clear shot of lightning.
To make this easier, you can rely on the MIOPS Smart+ camera trigger to automatically capture some of the best lightning photography. The Smart+ device works as a lightning trigger by detecting lightning and instantly triggering your camera so that you always capture lightning strikes without all the additional missed shots.
6. Use a Remote Shutter Release
Pressing the shutter button when capturing long exposures of lightning can introduce vibrations to the camera and leave your images blurry. So to avoid this you should use a remote shutter release. If using a remote shutter release it pays to get one that also doubles as an intervalometer which can automatically take consecutive images in order to reproduce the shooting method described in point five above.
However, since the MIOPS Smart+ camera trigger can automatically detect lightning and trigger the camera immediately, we’d argue that this is a better option than an external shutter release. The Smart+ device can also be used to capture bursting balloons, timelapses, it can be triggered by sound, has laser mode, and camera control can be operated via the MIOPS app on a smartphone.
Take impossible photos by turning your camera into a high-speed capture device!
7. Focusing in Low Light
When shooting lightning in the daytime autofocus takes care of getting photos perfectly sharp, but as soon as the sun goes down and the sky gets dark, things get tricky. Autofocus stops working and starts hunting because it doesn’t have enough visual information to grab on to. That’s where you’ll have to engage manual focus on the camera body or lens.
Start by engaging the rear screen (or the electronic viewfinder, if your camera has one) and zoom in to a distant street light or a star in the sky. Alternatively, set the lens’ focus to infinity and fine-tune it (infinity markers generally don’t yield the best results).
8. Staying Safe
Photographing lightning is tremendous fun, but it’s a dangerous business. If you’re chasing storms in a car make sure you stay in the vehicle when near them and keep the windows rolled up. There are plenty of storm-chasing companies and plenty of storm-photography businesses that offer workshops who have good equipment, knowledge of getting near storms safely, and have other safety protocols in place to keep you safe.
9. Shooting Sequential Photos
If you don’t have the MIOPS Smart+ camera trigger and are using the first shooting technique described in point five then use the camera’s internal intervalometer to continually take multiple photos in sequence without repressing the shutter release button. This will give you several photos with lightning strikes in some shots. But how do you put these together to create a single, impressive photograph? Let’s take a look.
10. Compositing Sequential Images Together
An image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Serif Affinity Photo can layer several photos and blend them together to create a single composite shot of several lightning strikes. In Photoshop go to File>Scripts>Load files into stack. Then select all lightning photos and click OK. When the photos have all opened, select the top layer and change the blending mode to multiply. Right-click on the layer and choose copy layer style, then shift-click on all the other layers except the bottom-most layer. Then right-click on these layers and choose paste layer style. All the lightning shots should now appear atop one another in a composite.
Blog Credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes
Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer, educator and writer. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients. Further information can be found in his website www.jasonpb.com.