Lightning is an amazing subject to try and photograph. Dazzling. Unpredictable. Lightning can occur during any season, even winter. In fact, winter storms can produce lightning and thunder snows, so don’t stop shooting just because it’s cold outside – embrace it!
Safety comes first
Above all else, be sure to find a safe location to photograph lighting. It is best to stay inside a building, car, or another object that can protect from a direct strike. If you can see lightning, it is close enough to strike you. Avoid photographing lightning in an open area, especially if there is water, tall trees, or other structures nearby. Stand away from water and tall trees and avoid overly exposed places.
- Digital camera - Compact cameras respond too slowly and don't give you enough control over their settings, making a DSLR or mirrorless a must for lightning photography.
- Sturdy tripod - You'll be using long exposures (perhaps 30 seconds or more), so some sort of camera support is essential.
- Cable/remote release - Pressing the shutter button by hand causes vibrations which can result in a blurry photo. A cable or remote shutter release will eliminate this problem. Any solution from MIOPS will help you out.
- Lens - Lightning can be photographed using almost any focal length lens, but a wide-angle zoom (around 28-150mm) gives a good range of possibilities. Make sure the lens has a switch to put it into manual focus mode, as you'll be using that to lock the focusing at infinity.
Choose your location
You want to position yourself around 8 to 12km away from the storm. Getting closer can be dangerous, and makes it difficult to shoot the lightning effectively. Setting up any further away can lead to the strikes appearing too small or dull in the final photo.
Choose your time
Obviously, we need a thunderstorm, but not all thunderstorms occur at night. We can shoot at different times of the day. It’s fairly common to capture lightning after dark, but how about a bolt during the day, at sunset, or even twilight? Shooting at times other than just pitch black will help bring color and style to your image.
Basic camera settings
Start by setting the shutter to BULB, the aperture to f/5.6, and ISO to 400. The focus is manual. As soon as the lightning occurs, close the shutter. After reviewing the first few images on the LCD, start making changes. If the lightning is brighter than anticipated and results in overexposure, change the ISO to 320 or 250. If the lighting is dimmer than anticipated and results in underexposure, change the ISO to 640 or 800.
Automatic lightning trigger
You can fully automate your lightning photography using a lightning trigger such as MIOPS Smart+. This is a sensor that fits into your camera's hot shoe and plugs into the cable release socket. When it detects a flash in the sky, it fires the shutter for you.
Tips for using MIOPS Smart+
Try varying the MIOPS trigger's sensitivity (perhaps to 95%) throughout the evening so that you can limit the camera's captures to instances when they are more likely to capture a compelling lightning strike. With the sensitivity set too high, the camera could trigger at the reflection of lightning bouncing off of the clouds with no actual bolt within view.
Manuel Delgado is an award-winning photographer with a specialization in travel and documentary photography. He writes for Contrastly and is a Mentor for NGO Photographers Alliance, having led workshops in Africa with a focus on ethical and humanitarian photography. His work has been exhibited in Europe and the Americas.
Driven by an innate curiosity for his surroundings, Manuel´s process is mainly focused on capturing people in their natural environment; translating through his lens the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. Depicting people from diverse backgrounds, his work is united by a shared aesthetic that serves to tell each individual’s story. Manuel is currently living in Düsseldorf, Germany.