Chasing Thunderstorms and Photographing Lightning
Photographing lightning can be one of the most unpredictable yet also one of the most rewarding photographic endeavors. The effect that a lightning flash makes on a photograph definitely leaves a highly electrifying impact (pun intended). When and where lightning will exactly strike is almost impossible to predict but through patterns of occurrence, lightning density trends, and the general weather forecast, there are various ways through which you can increase your chances of being able to photograph lightning. In this article, let’s talk about some of the best points for lightning photography.
How and Where
A lightning pulse is a result of charge differences between one surface and another. Lightning can happen from one cloud to another or from one cloud to the ground. This happens when particles within the clouds move and collide with each other at a rapid rate which results in an electric gradient against another cloud or the ground. As this difference in charge builds up, the potential increases as the system seeks to neutralize this difference. The air between the two opposing sides act as an insulator until the insulating capacity breaks and a rapid discharge of electricity occurs to transfer the energy and reach electrical equilibrium.
*Prepare for Lightning, https://www.wunderground.com/prepare/lightning
Lightning and thunderstorms can happen anywhere however there are particular regions have them more common and can be considered the best lighting photography places. Lightning happens commonly when there is unstable atmosphere, moisture, and abundance of warmth on the ground. This is why generally more tropical regions commonly get more thunderstorms. In the United States, Texas leads with the most number of lightning pulses in the year 2020 and various years before that, but Florida leads with a higher percentage of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes probably because of its more humid tropical climate. In Australia, the Western Top End and North Kimberly regions have shown to be more active when it comes to thunderstorms and lightning which makes these areas the best lightning photography places.
*2021 U.S. Lightning Report Recording, https://www.earthnetworks.com/
Spring and summer are generally considered lightning season for lightning photography as the frequency of thunderstorms happen more during these times. Autumn and winter generally get less but it is not impossible to happen. All these data and trends can be of help when preparing to photograph lightning.
Chasing the Storm
Being successful in doing lightning photography means being at the right place at the right time and also not being at the wrong place at the right time. Planning is the most crucial part of this creative process because lightning can be so elusive to photograph and you can never be caught wasting time and making mistakes. It’s not everyday that lightning happens in multiple continuous pulses generally happening in the same area enough for you to adjust to it. This is why finding the best points for lightning photography right as the storm starts is your biggest priority.
To find the spots where it will happen, there are various websites and apps that have real-time lightning and thunderstorm tracking that can guide you in finding an advantageous and safe vantage point to photograph the storm. These are apps such as Spark, Blitzortung Lightning Monitor, and My Lightning Tracker and websites such as LightningMaps.org and EarthNetworks.com. By using this information you can find a spot to shoot and even find foreground elements advantageous for your composition. Lightning tends to hit taller structures so being able to keep skyscrapers (in the city) and trees (in open areas) within the frame increases your chances of being able to capture the lightning strike. However it is important also to consider that you should have significant distance from such to ensure your safety.
Camera Settings for Lightning Photography
Photographing lightning requires a few considerations about the scenario to be able to determine the right camera settings. While it is possible to photograph lightning during the day, it is obviously more visible when the sky behind it is relatively dark. Much of the impact that photographs of lightning make comes from how it illuminates the clouds surrounding it especially when the lightning pulse goes from a cloud to another cloud. Taking photographs of lightning is best done at night and during twilight when the sky is dark enough for the lightning strike to stand out.
Take impossible photos by turning your camera into a high-speed capture device!
Take impossible photos by turning your camera into a high-speed capture device!
Since you will be working with a relatively dim environment, it is necessary to shoot relatively long exposures and this will also be generally beneficial in increasing your chances of capturing the split-second lightning strikes. However, it is important to also limit the length of the exposure to make sure that the strikes are visible. Given those considerations, it is best to take 6-10 second exposures that will help you capture any and all lightning strikes that will happen within that period. At the same time, the exposure won’t be too long that the luminosity of other elements in frame will cancel out the bright but brief flash of light. To be able to do this, it is imperative to use a relatively small aperture such as f/8 or f/11 to prevent getting blown out exposures and at the same time ensure that both the sky and the ground elements are in-focus and clear. ISO can be relatively flexible but the goal is to keep it at a minimum since the flash of light from the lightning strike is much brighter than the luminosity of the scenario when there are is no lightning.
Essential Camera Gear for Lightning Photography
The camera gear and support gear to be used in photographing lightning play a key role in the success of the endeavor. Since this involves catching and photographing an elusive phenomenon that only happens in fractions of a second, it is important that the gear being used is reliable and can very well adapt to the situation.
Cameras with high resolution sensors and good low light performance offer a certain advantage especially if the goal is to produce large prints or if there is a need for significant cropping. However the more crucial aspect about the camera of choice is the availability of manual controls. It is important for the photographer to be able to set the exposure settings with a certain level of precision to be able to capture the scene better. The choice of lenses depend entirely on the distance of the photographer from the storm which means that shooting from within the area requires a wider lens, and shooting the storm from afar necessitates a telephoto lens. The goal is to fill the frame with the lightning and the ground elements to be able to give it the emphasis and attention that it deserves.
Since shooting involves long exposures, stable support gear are an absolute requirement. The choice of tripod should focus on one that is stable and can keep the camera still even with a bit of wind that usually comes with the storm. Both the gear and the tripod should also be able to withstand a bit of rain since precipitation commonly accompanies thunderstorms. Heavier downpours will either require a rain cover, that is if the rain does not hinder visibility of the clouds and of the lightning strikes.
To make the process much easier and automated, a dedicated lightning photography trigger makes all the difference.
Using A Lightning Photography Trigger
Lightning photography triggers make the process of shooting automated. There are various approaches to photographing lightning and the most basic one is doing so manually while hoping that lightning happens within the exposure time. Another way is to use an intervalometer to keep the camera shooting consecutive exposures whether or not lightning happens.
Using a smart camera remote trigger like the MIOPS Smart+ gives you the automation of a lightning trigger and many more. The Smart+ can be used for long exposures, time-lapse, HDR, special effects, star trails, and night photography in general. For photographing lightning, the MIOPS Smart+ is equipped with a light sensor that scans the scene for flashes of light that typically happens during a lightning strike. You can set the threshold level of sensitivity depending on the intensity of lightning flashes that you want to capture. When the sensor detects a sudden flash of light that is enough to hit the threshold, it triggers the camera to start an exposure. This way your camera is not simply shooting blindly and wasting exposures on shots wherein no lightning happened but instead giving you only photos wherein lightning actually struck. This doesn’t only automate the process of photographing lightning but also helps lessen the number of shots wasted while waiting for something spectacular.
Shooting A Storm-lapse
To better capture how the thunderstorm starts and progresses, shooting a time-lapse is a great option. Since doing interval shooting is one approach to shooting lightning, it requires exactly the same process to produce a time-lapse. Capturing consecutive exposures and compiling them into a video clip allows you to compress the time into a video clip that shows the changes in the environment that would otherwise be too slow to appreciate in real time. If the frequency of lightning pulses is significantly high, the option of using Storm-lapse mode on the Smart+ combines the automation of using the lightning sensor as the camera trigger and the process of producing consecutive exposures together that gives you a collection only of photos wherein lightning struck that can either be used as individual stills, combined into a more encompassing multiple exposure composite image, or to produce a highly dynamic time-lapse sequence of the thunderstorm.
Photographing lightning is a combination of luck, good planning, and preparation. The creative process can be quite a gamble given all the uncertainties surrounding the environment as well as the physical risk of being out during a storm, but when done successfully and with artistic intent, it can result to some of the most impactful and dynamic outdoor photographs that you will ever take.
Blog Credit: Nicco Valenzuela
Nicco started his photographic journey in 2007 practicing the craft as a hobby. Currently, he shoots for various local and international architectural firms and construction companies. Out of his love for sharing his knowledge, Nicco began writing about photography and various pieces of gear.