Photography has allowed us to be able to capture and share the images of so many natural and man-made phenomena in the world. Through photography we have been able to show beautiful places, events, and things that are happening at one point in the globe to someone on the opposite side. Our capability to capture, document, and interpret the beautiful things also fueled our curiosity and drove us into learning more about the world that we live in.
Perhaps one of the most interesting natural phenomena that happens anywhere in the world are extreme weather conditions. To be more specific, there is nothing more electrifying than images of lightning. (pun intended) However, much like any other marvelous thing, it involves quite a considerable level of difficulty to seek them and actually be successful in capturing them. Lightning and thunderstorms are some of the most dynamic environmental conditions that create such powerful landscape images. With the right preparation, precaution, the right gear, and a good amount of luck, one can successfully photograph the striking split-second phenomena.
The Challenges of Capturing Lightning
There are various factors at play when going out to shoot thunderstorms with the hope of capturing lighting. For one, lightning storms are quite unpredictable. There are various ways to have a general idea of when and where lightning may strike but amidst that, the odds of actually having your shutter open for that split second event have to be raised. In addition to the relative rarity of lightning striking within your field of view multiple times, factors like rain, wind, and cloud cover make shooting even more challenging. For you to be able to overcome these challenges, preparation is key and behind it is understanding the science behind the involved elements.
Why lightning strikes and where it happens are perhaps the most important things to understand to be able to photograph them better. In the simplest sense, the movement of air and water molecules in the sky causes a build-up of an electrical gradient in the clouds. Lightning happens when an electrically charged cloud expels this electricity to achieve a more neutral state. The electricity either travels towards another adjacent cloud or onto the ground. With winds of greater velocity such as during a storm, the build-up of the electrical gradient happens at a much faster and repetitive rate and such is the reason why lightning happens more often during a storm. During a storm, your location relative to the storm itself plays such a big role. Your distance from the storm affects your safety and the presence of heavy rain and/or cloud cover hinders visibility.
Another crucial step to overcome the challenges of the unpredictability of lightning is generally knowing where and when they are happening. With the idea of where a storm will hit, one can prepare by seeking a good and safe vantage point. This is best done using various lightning monitoring and lightning tracker apps. Once you find a specific area nearby with consecutive lightning strikes happening, there is more likelihood of being able to successfully capture them.
Safety When Photographing Lightning
The most absolute way to avoid lightning is to stay away from any exposed open space altogether. However, that also absolutely hinders you from being able to photograph it. The next best thing is to photograph the storm from a distance. Through this you are able to stay outside to shoot as long as you can without significant risk of getting struck. If the storm is moving towards your direction you will have significant time to get to safety. If within significant proximity from the storm, there are a number of situations to avoid. The most obvious is to avoid shooting from or near any body of water. Experts say that it is also best to avoid overhanging cliffs, lone trees, and any singular tall structure.
Along with the lightning storm comes a significant chance of rain so it is also best to pack rain gear for both yourself and your camera gear. With significant rainfall comes an added risk of getting struck by lightning due to the attraction of electricity to water and even then, of course it is very likely that your camera gear will not stand the heavy rain for very long.
Essential Equipment for Photographing Lightning
Any camera can capture lightning. Lightning in this sense is just a very bright light source. However, the difficulty arises in the fact that it happens very quickly. The goal of gearing up for photographing lightning is increasing your chances of being able to catch it in frame while your sensor is open. This is why it is most advantageous to be using a camera that has full manual functions. Cameras with bigger sensors such as a full frame or medium format camera would also have an edge in keeping the images clean and detailed especially when working with a dim foreground.
The requirement for lenses varies entirely on how far you are from the storm. If you are shooting from within the general area of the storm it would be best to be using a wide angle lens with your camera pointing further up (assuming there isn’t any significant rainfall). Shooting outside the general area of the storm (around 2-4 kilometers away) would be most successful with a standard zoom lens. This includes lenses that are commonly at 24-70mm or 24-105mm and yes, that also includes your kit lens. Any farther away from that you would need a longer telephoto lens if the lightning strikes are not covered by rain or any clouds at this distance.
Perhaps the most non-negotiable piece of equipment would be a sturdy and heavy duty tripod. Shooting a storm would mean having to withstand significant winds and considering the necessary exposure settings, even the slightest shake of the camera would ruin what could have been a nice dramatic image. There is no exact measure of how heavy the tripod should be just as long as it wouldn’t shake when being blown by the wind. An added way to secure this would be to hang a heavy object such as a sandbag onto the center column of your tripod to keep it steady.
Lastly, the most helpful tool that you can have for such a challenging photographic task is a smart camera trigger. Camera triggers range from as simple as a remote, while some of the most advanced triggers also feature intelligent sensors to help you automate your shooting process. The MIOPS Smart+ Camera Trigger is an app-controlled device that serves as your best companion for shooting lightning photography. It features many automated triggering modes such as a remote timer for specifically controlled long exposures, interval shooting for timelapse, as well as a sound and laser motion trigger. Of course the most perfect feature of the MIOPS Smart+ for this workflow is a lightning sensor that detects strong flashes of light in front of the camera and triggers the camera to shoot as it happens.
How to Capture Split-Second Lightning
As said way too many times in the earlier parts of this tutorial, lightning happens very quickly in an unpredictable manner. To manually try and wait for lightning to strike and then press the shutter button would be like trying to catch a fly in a hurricane. That is why instead, the more effective method is to do consecutive long exposures with hopes that the lightning strike would happen while the shutter is open. To do this, the most basic way is to shoot in interval mode using a built in interval timer or through an intervalometer trigger. This would lead to hundreds of images with the majority of them probably with no lightning at all. To cut down that number of wasted exposures, using a lightning trigger would lead to getting only images with actual lightning strikes on them.
Settings for Shooting Lightning Photography
Exposure settings vary depending on the time of day and the presence of other light sources in the frame. Typically, it would be futile to try to capture lightning during daytime because the sky wouldn’t give the strikes much contrast. Instead, lightning photography can happen during twilight and of course, during the night.
Shooting at twilight would mean shorter exposure times. This also applies to situations wherein there are a lot of artificial lights in the direction that you are shooting. A range of about 4 to 8 seconds should be good enough to capture the lightning and give the background enough luminosity. This also avoids the possibility of other light sources (even those less bright than the lightning strike) to cancel it out.
Lightning photography at night allows for the possibility of longer exposures. This would essentially give more room to doing exposures to also brighten up the foreground depending on how many lightning strikes happen within the exposure time. When shooting in an area away from any major cities, long exposures of over 30 seconds can capture multiple lightning strikes in a single exposure but in otherwise bright locations, shorter exposure times lead to multiple images that need to be stacked to achieve the same effect.
Given the conditions for shutter speed, the settings for ISO and aperture remain similar to principles applied in shooting landscape images. A lower ISO is desired for less noise on the images, and a relatively small aperture for having as much of the frame in focus. With shutter speed kept as a priority the two other parameters are relatively flexible.
Another PRO tip to follow is to focus manually. Most lenses and cameras have relatively slower focusing in the dark. The short fractions of a second that the camera focuses could mean missing a lightning strike. By using manual focus for lightning photography, that delay is skipped, the risk of missing is lessened, and focus is assured.
Post Processing Lightning Photographs
There is a wide range of possibilities when it comes to post processing a lightning image. In a near-perfect condition where all details were captured in a single exposure then post production will probably only require contrast and color adjustments. For shooting scenarios that give multiple lightning strikes in frame within different individual exposures, stacking would be a very effective method. Stacking exposures means putting together multiple images with the same angle and composition. This method combines all your desired lightning strikes into a single and more dramatic image.
Another method is by creating multiple image composites. This method combines lightning images with landscape photographs taken from other locations taken at a different time. Through this, the lightning photographs drastically enhance a night time landscape image by giving a dramatic luminous element.
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.