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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.