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Long Exposure Lightning Photography

Long Exposure Lightning Photography

Lightning Photography and Long Exposure 

Photographing lightning can be a bit tricky. It is a mix of managing available light that may or may not be abundant, while anticipating a drastic change in brightness when a lightning flash occurs. This is all happening while facing the challenge of anticipating when and where the lightning will strike. There are a multitude of factors that govern the possibility of capturing lightning in a photograph and your success in doing so depends on preparation, flexibility, and sheer luck. 

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To be able to capture lightning, the range of exposure settings applicable is much more narrow than other kinds of photography outdoors. Exposures would have to be longer than usual but not too long to the extent that surrounding ambient luminosity may cancel out the image of the lightning strike. At night, lightning strikes become easily visible because of how bright they can get compared to the luminosity of the sky. However, during the day, this can be a bit harder and daytime lightning photography settings often have limitations due to the fact that the abundance of ambient light might not result in enough contrast to show the difference of lightning strikes and nearby illuminated clouds. That is why the workflow of photographing lightning can have differences between doing it at night when it is dark, and during the day when light is abundant. 

Lightning Photography and Long Exposure

Essential Gear for Lightning Photography

To capture lightning, you would want a camera that can easily be adjusted to adapt to the situation. Shooting lightning means having to deal with a lot of changing environmental factors and on top of having good resolution and the right kind of focal length, it is important that the camera has manual functions that will give you more flexibility. 

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A non-negotiable accessory to have is a good and sturdy tripod. It’s not enough to simply have something that the camera can stand on. Shooting lightning storms means having to withstand wind and even possibly rain and this is not just for the longevity of your equipment but also because shooting long exposures can ultimately be ruined by a single shake from the tripod being blown by the wind. 

Lightning Trigger Smart+

To make the process more efficient and fool proof, a smart camera trigger makes all the difference. Shooting lightning has specific settings that have to be achieved not just to get a clear photograph but also to get the best detailed shot of the lightning strike you are capturing. Using a very capable camera trigger, specifically one that has a lightning sensor, can give you the assurance of getting the flashes of lightning for the best results but also lessen the amount of wasted exposures. The MIOPS Smart+ is both an intervalometer and a lightning photography trigger. Along with other features such as a sound trigger, laser sensor trigger, and a wireless camera remote, the Smart+ is the most versatile photography tool for lightning photography, time-lapse, landscape photography, and many more.

Lightning Photography at Night

Doing lightning photography during the night can be considered a simpler endeavor than doing so during the day. This is simply because of the added limitation of exposure when there is a lot of ambient light around. At night, since it is much darker, it is easier and even a necessity to do long exposures to be able to get enough brightness in your photos. To be able to achieve the same lengths of exposure during the day would mean having to use extra tools. 

Lightning Photography at Night

Long exposure is an almost absolute necessity in photographing lightning. Lightning strikes are generally very elusive and hard to predict because they only last for fractions of a second. The general principle of being able to capture them even when you can’t predict when they will strike is simply by doing long exposures and hoping that a few lightning strikes will occur within your frame during the duration of the shot. Kind of like casting a much larger net to capture a very fast moving fish. However, lengthening your exposures also have a limit because even though the background (the sky) is darker at night, an exposure that is too long can make way for more light to illuminate the dark areas which will in turn cancel out the details of the lightning strike. This is particularly true especially when the lightning strikes happen early in the duration of exposure. 

There are a couple of ways to “catch” lightning as it happens in front of your camera. The first process is pretty much like casting a net, and the other one is aiming with precision. The net method is simply shooting with an intervalometer to be able to automate the process of shooting consecutive exposures. On a night when there are a lot of lightning activity happening around, you can simply point your camera to the direction of where the lightning is happening and shoot consecutive exposures until the storm ends. Doing this will give you hundreds or even thousands of consecutive exposures never missing a single second. Within these exposures, only a fraction will have images of lightning on them and that number will increase depending on how frequent the lightning strikes were. In any case, it is expected that you will get a lot of empty exposures where lightning didn’t happen. 

Lightning Photography at Night 2

The other method is using a dedicated lightning photography trigger. This handy device shifts your workflow from a time and storage space consuming process to a more precise process that will save you from a lot of wasted exposures. A typical lightning photography trigger has a light sensor that aligns with the camera’s lens. This sensor is made to detect drastic changes in the light environment that would be typical of how light changes when lightning occurs. When the sensor detects a large enough change in luminosity, it triggers the camera to start an exposure. This means that photos will only be taken if and when a strong flash of light happens.

To be able to get the right exposure while also increasing your chances of capturing lightning strikes, the exposure time should be just long enough to give time for a few strikes and short enough that the details will not be cancelled out. Essentially, one can do shorter exposures and because lightning is typically bright, luminosity would not be a problem. However, doing so would also mean taking way too many consecutive exposures.

Lightning Photography at Night 3

To increase your chances of capturing lightning as well as a well balanced exposure, you can shoot with an exposure time of about 6 to 10 seconds depending on how frequent lightning strikes. If lightning is striking rather frequently, a shorter exposure is preferred as having too many strikes in one shot might cause for one strike’s brightness to cancel out the others. Aperture can be quite flexible however, the goal is to achieve a wide depth of field to make sure that both the foreground and the sky are in focus. Typically, an aperture between f/8 to f/11 should be enough. Since you are shooting with relatively prolonged exposures, there will be very little need to increase ISO and for the purpose of having as clean a shot as possible, an ISO sensitivity of 100 to 400 will be enough. 

Daytime Lightning Photography 

As mentioned earlier, photographing lightning during the day can be slightly more challenging. This is simply because the abundance of light might prevent the camera from seeing the lightning strike against a brighter background. However since lightning happens with very cloudy weather, even commonly with very thick and dark clouds, the probability of the sky being dim enough allows for lightning to be seen. 

Daytime Lightning Photography

Even with darker clouds, there will be some limitation on how much you can prolong your exposures to achieve the same lengths as shooting at night. This is where an extra tool can come in handy. By using a 2 or 3-stop neutral density filter, you can potentially extend your exposure time enough to better capture lightning strikes. Without an ND filter, even on a dark stormy day, your camera might only be able to do exposures of about 1/10 to 1/3 seconds and doing so will result in way too many images in very little time. Using an ND filter will allow you to shoot exposures of about 4 to 10 seconds depending on the situation which will give you more chances of catching the lightning strikes within the duration of time. 

When using a lightning photography trigger, you can lessen the number of wasted exposures but the limitation of ambient light will still be there. In combination, the use of an ND filter with a lightning trigger can give you better results in the pursuit of capturing elusive lightning during the day. With the said adjustment, daytime lightning photography settings will be relatively the same. The goal of shooting exposures up to 10 seconds is achieved with the use of an ND filter, at the same time, because of the abundance of light, there is more room to use even smaller apertures for wider depth of field and detail and ultimately since light is not a problem, an ISO of 100 will be enough. 


Post Production

The different approaches to photographing lightning yield multiple photographs depending on how many times lightning actually struck while you were shooting. If fortunate enough to have been shooting during a storm with a lot of pulses, one specific shoot can give you a good catalog of lightning photographs that you can either use individually or combine. The benefit of shooting continuously as the storm happens is that it will give you a good collection of images that you can later on combine to illustrate the experience of watching the thunderstorm in one single image. 

Post Production

Photographing lightning, whether simply to document and record the weather condition, or to use them as visual elements in landscape photography, is definitely worth the meticulous and lengthy shooting process. Whether during the day or at night, a lightning strike on a photograph always catches attention and conveys a dramatic mood. 


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.

How to Photographing Lightning

How to Photographing Lightning

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.

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Chasing Thunderstorms and Photographing Lightning

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.

How Lightning Happens

*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.

Where Lightning Happens

*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. 

Chasing the Storm Lightning Photography

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. 

Lightning Photography Nicco Valenzuela

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. 

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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.

Camera Settings for Lightning Photography

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. 

Shooting A Storm-lapse

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. 

Lightning Photography by MIOPS Smart Trigger

*Instagram: @baseballsizedhail

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. 

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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.

Tips You Need To Get The Best Lightning Shots

Tips You Need To Get The Best Lightning Shots

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.

ligthning on the horizon

Equipment

  • 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.

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  • 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.

man looking at the the lightning bolt

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.

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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.

a powerful lightning group

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.

group of horizontal lightnings

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.

Related Article: 5 Best Real Time Lightning Strike Map Apps and Websites for Photographers

About The Author Manuel Delgado:

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. 

Manuel Delgado Instagram Profile

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[faq q1="what is lightning photography?" a1="Lightning is an amazing subject to try and photograph. Dazzling. Unpredictable. Lightning can occur during any season, even winter." q2="how to choose a location to capture lightnings?" a2="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." q3="what are the required gears for lightning photography?" a3="Sturdy tripod - You'll be using long exposures (perhaps 30 seconds or more), so some sort of camera support is essential."]