Nature offers the most fascinating sights and sounds that only true observers can appreciate. Photographers know this too well so they venture into the outdoors to capture breathtaking and once-in-a-lifetime scenes through the lens of their camera.
One of these visual artists' and camera wielders' favorite subjects is lightning.
Why Lightning Photography is a Popular Genre
Lightning strikes are naturally-occurring phenomena that are both captivating and unpredictable. These two characteristics make them appealing to professional and beginner shutterbugs. However, their appeal and unpredictability also present risks.
Lightning is a powerful bolt of electrical discharge that cannot be tamed. They strike when there is an imbalance between the ground and the clouds. Typically, they occur between clouds, inside clouds, and between the clouds and the ground. These events happen at millisecond speed.
Thi high-speed light show presents challenges and offers opportunities to those who dare to take on this impressive photography assignment. There’s a reason why photographers hone their skills just to take their talents to the next level, a level that’s good enough to add a perfectly composed lightning photo to their portfolio.
How to Get Started with Lightning Photography
In this article, we’ll help you achieve just that: a lightning photography portfolio that showcases your abilities and skills in one of the most daunting genres of photography, high-speed lightning photography.
Specifically, we’ll focus on how to take lightning photos and create unique lightning photo compositions for a one-of-a-kind and once-in-a-lifetime image.
Before we get started, let’s first look at how to set up your camera, settings recommendations, and what equipment you need to capture great lightning photos consistently.
Lightning Photography Camera Equipment, Settings, and Setup
Lightning photography is beginner-friendly. Even if you only have standard and entry-level camera equipment, you don’t have to worry. As long as you know how to use your gear and set up your equipment, you’ll be okay.
So what are the camera gear and equipment that you need to get started on your lightning photography journey? Let’s start with the basics.
Whether you’re using a DLSR, mirrorless camera, or point-and-shoot camera, as long as it has a Manual mode, you can use it for taking lightning photos. The question of which camera to use for lightning photography will depend on the purpose of the shoot.
If you’re a beginner photographer and just want to see what you can do with your camera, you can focus more on your technique and how to adjust your camera’s settings to get the shot that you want.
However, if you want outstanding and high-definition photos of lightning, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras should be on your equipment list.
FAQ #1: Why is having a Manual Mode important when taking lightning photos?
Manual modes allow camera users to adjust their cameras according to the subject, background, and light source available.
Manual mode adjustments allow varying Aperture settings to control how much light from the lightning bolt enters the camera, ISO to adjust your camera to the light burst sensitivity and shutter speed that determines how fast your camera captures the event.
Professional photographers have developed this stability, in terms of handling their camera by hand, without worrying about blurs and missed shots. However, confidence and experience may not be enough when taking lightning shots. You’re still going to need the help of your good old, and not to mention, dependable tripod. Why?
When taking good lightning photos, you’re going to shoot them in a low-lit environment. It means that the only source of light that the camera will get is the lightning strike, which is the goal. You don’t want any light pollution to ruin the exposure of your shot.
Since the light source is low, you’re going to need an aperture level of f/5.6 and a fast shutter speed. A fast shutter speed requires your camera to be stable, with zero shaking and vibration, or risk getting a blurry shot and missing great photo opportunities.
FAQ #2: Can you use any tripod for lightning photography?
Lightning photoshoots are done outdoors. It means you’re going to travel and probably hike to your location. Bringing a light tripod with you is practical. However, be prepared to be resourceful.
Lightning events usually happen during thunderstorms. We’re not talking about a calm night with a nice breeze. It can be a rainy evening or daytime, with relatively strong winds that could easily topple down a camera mounted on a light tripod. There are remedies to this.
Use gravity to your advantage. Attach a hook to the center pole of your tripod and hang a bag of rocks or your backpack to pull the structure down and secure it to the ground. However, remember not to overdo it. A tripod can only hold three times the weight of your camera, lens, and tripod head combined.
Photographers who have experience taking photos of lightning say that any lens will do. However, most of them have preferences.
Typically, you can use a mid-range zoom lens and choose between a 24-105mm lens and a 24-70mm lens. Other photographers love zoom lenses instead of the prime lens selections as the former gives them flexibility and ensures safety for capturing dangerous lightning bursts from a safe distance.
FAQ #3: Are wide-angle lenses good for capturing lightning photos?
A quick lightning photography tutorial Google search will give you varying opinions on this question. However, most photographers indeed like using wide-angle lenses for lightning photography as the width of the frame allows them to capture multiple lightning photos across the frame, and not rely on luck. Other lenses often used in landscape photography are also popular picks for the same reason.
4. Remote Trigger
Also known as a shutter release, a remote trigger helps you control your camera from a distance. This is helpful, especially if you’re taking photos of lightning, known to be one of the riskiest photography genres in modern photography.
A remote camera trigger ensures that you are triggering your camera’s shutter from a safe, dry, and protected distance, especially during thunderstorms where lightning events are equally captivating and powerful.
More importantly, camera triggers help you take on the challenges of high-speed photography. With a camera trigger, you’ll be fast enough to click your camera’s shutter and capture split-second lightning bolts without missing a shot!
Remote camera triggers often work wired or wirelessly. However, the latest models and brands of remote camera triggers offer more than just remotely signalling your camera to activate the shutter fast.
FAQ #4: What is the best camera trigger for lightning photography?
There is a long list of lightning camera triggers in the market today. MIOPS leads the ranking as the most recommended remote trigger you can use for lightning photography.
Why is MIOPS a great camera trigger for beginner lightning photographers?
A modern camera trigger, like MIOPS SMART camera trigger, does a lot more than controlling your camera’s shutter. For one, MIOPS has a dedicated Lightning Mode that caters to the most specific high-speed settings and requirements in lightning photography.
MIOPS SMART camera trigger has a highly sensitive Light sensor that detects lightning activities on-site. This device eliminates the guesswork as it automatically triggers your shutter to take a photo whenever there’s a lightning event.
As a remote and wireless trigger that can be controlled via the smartphone, through a dedicated mobile application, you can just relax and wait in a sheltered location, and let the camera-remote trigger combination do the rest.
MIOPS’s intelligent technology also lets you control your camera through your smartphone. Through the MIOPS app, you can automatically adjust your camera’s ISO, exposure value, and aperture, and takes control of the shutter speed to deliver a perfect, blur-free lightning photo.
A remote trigger can definitely up your game in lightning photography, even with an entry-level camera!
5. Weather Proofing
Remember, your camera is not rainproof. The most beautiful lightning events come with a price: they usually happen during the harshest of weather. Weather-sealing items for your camera, therefore, should be a part of your lightning photography equipment.
Your camera and your lenses are very sensitive to moisture and condensation. They’re going to be sitting there, for hours, waiting for the best photo opportunities that nature can offer. Weather-sealing them not only protects your expensive gear. It will also give you more time to stay and take more photos, making the trip and the trouble, worth it.
Now that you’re ready with your camera equipment and how to set up your gear for a lightning shoot, it’s time to decide on the composition and how you frame your shot.
Lightning Photography Composition Ideas
Planning your composition is a bit tricky when it comes to lightning photography. Aside from the fact that your subject is unpredictable, you also have to consider that you can't choose the exact location of the lightning events. You have to make do with what you have and let your creativity flow, during the shoot and the post-process.
However, we’ve asked some of the seasoned lightning photographers we know and here are several pieces of advice that they shared with us.
1. Identity interesting lightning cell areas and focus on them.
While every lightning event offers unique and unpredictable lightning bursts, you can also rely on one fact: lightning does strike the same spot twice. With this knowledge in mind, you can position your camera and point your lens towards specific sections on the horizon to catch lightning cells that seem more interesting.
These sections may not give you the same patterns but trust that they are capable of delivering the same intensity and power of that electrical current that created the previous bursts.
2. Focus on your subject and make sure they dominate the frame.
Veteran lightning photographers can spot a beginner based on how they fit the lightning strike within the frame. Most of these rookie mistakes include lightning images that have too many clouds and sky that cover a third or even half of the photo. Remember, you’re photographing lighting, not cloud-watching!
One professional advice is to make sure that your lightning bolts always originate below the top of your camera’s frame. Include just the right area of the cloud where the burst originates. It’s also crucial to know your lightning types.
3. Know the different types of lightning and capture their uniqueness.
Another beginner mistake is delivering an incomplete lightning photo because of bad composition.
For instance, some photographers accidentally or intentionally cut off the lightning pattern at the top or the bottom where it hits. For starters, capture the lightning’s point of origin to deliver a powerful portrayal of this breathtaking event.
Additionally, make sure you know your subject. There are different types of lightning, each offering colors, patterns, and intensities that make them unique.
Types of Lightning Events
A. Ribbon Lightning
Ribbon lightning is characterized by a thick, ribbon-like streak of cloud-to-ground lighting.
B. Forked Lightning
Forked lightning is the most common, with bursts branching out and often dividing into two streaks the moment it hits the ground.
C. Spider Lightning Lightning
Another type is spider lightning often found underneath clouds. They are identified with an oval-shaped point of origin and long, horizontal branches.
D. Ball Lightning
Finally, the rarest lightning of all that many photographers only dream of capturing is the ball lightning. Its characteristics vary, based on descriptions of people who were lucky enough to witness this once-in-a-blue-moon event.
Ball lightning is a very luminous lightning event and its bolts come in red, yellow, orange, or blue. Observers say that they move up and down, have a distinct, sulphur smell before it disappears, and can explode upon contact with an object.
4. Use your surroundings and balance the frame.
Use your surroundings to your advantage to create a background and foreground that complements your subject. Capture dramatic photos of lightning on the horizon, above cityscapes and natural landscapes, such as trees and mountains.
5. Just have fun and leave room for post-processing!
Capturing lightning strikes can be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time. However, you don’t have to worry about perfecting this genre right away. For mistakes, missed photo opportunities, and faulty framing and composition, you can always rely on your post-processing skills. To do this, make sure to take your photos in high-resolution to give your images the flexibility and quality it needs for post-processing.
Post-processing helps you become creative in crafting a more spectacular image. You can also combine multiple lightning events in one image, to either show duration or transition.
This stage in image production also allows you to make adjustments, such as adjusting the image’s exposure, reducing noise, sharpening the images, and cropping your photos for better framing and composition.
Remember that you’re allowed to make mistakes. It’s another way to learn and hone your skills in this amazing photography genre.
Start Your Lightning Photography Journey Here
It’s easy to start your lightning photography journey, especially if you have the right camera gadgets and equipment with you. Why not try to learn more about MIOPS Camera remote trigger and see how it can help you take the first step?
Check our MIOPS Smart and our other high-speed camera gadgets here!
Blog Credit: Charm Villalon
Charm is a writer and a visual artist. Her drive to share ideas and stories is evident in her background in communication arts and language studies. Years of professional experience in content creation have given her a broad proficiency with the process of engaging online communities. An appreciation for multiple languages and cultures drives her to seek out experiences and capture these moments through her writing, digital art, and photography.