One of the most amazing spectacles of summer is a storm that brings lightning. It can also make for a shockingly beautiful photograph. Capturing such images is a matter of knowing a few simple settings on your camera, watching the weather, and having some patience to experiment until you get that perfect strike.
Lightning may be beautiful but it is also deadly. No matter how taken you are by the sight of a summer storm, don't let your guard down. An average of 49 people are killed by lightning every year in the United States alone. Don't be that person in the middle of a field holding on to a metal tripod as a storm approaches, no matter how great the shot might be. The first thing you need to do before even planning your shot is to figure out what you need to do to be safe. Know the ins and outs of being safe in a lightning storm, and only then figure out your shot.
Get your gear ready
There are two pieces of equipment that are must-haves: a camera with a wide angle lens and manual mode, and a trigger release for the shutter, whether that is a cable or a wireless remote. On top of this, it's best to also pack a tripod or beanbag to stabilize your camera since you won't be hand-holding it for the shot, a fully charged spare camera battery, several empty and formatted memory cards, rain protection for your setup, and of course an escape plan if the storm comes in too close.
There are also gadgets, called lightning triggers, that will trip your shutter for you when it detects lightning. These can be particularly useful if you're photographing lightning during the day. In the daytime, there is typically too much light to allow holding the shutter open in a long exposure and hoping a strike hits while the shutters are open. Instead, you have to have quick reactions to hit the shutter when lightning strikes. Using a lightning trigger ups your odds that you're able to capture a strike in these brighter lighting conditions. You may feel they take some of the skill and fun out of actually capturing your own image, or you may think they're the best way to ensure a few shots for your troubles of getting out on location during potentially dangerous weather. Either way, they're an option.
Your camera's settings will depend on the lighting — is it a daytime storm or is it at night, how much ambient light is there from a nearby city, and so on. But the rule of thumb for setting up your camera is:
- Set your lens to manual focus and focus it at infinity.
- Set your aperture to f/8 or f/11.
- Set your ISO to 100 or 200.
- Make sure any flash settings are turned off.
- Set your camera to "Bulb" so you can determine your own shutter speed.
Bulb mode allows you to keep the shutter open for whatever amount of time you want. Depending on the amount of ambient light and the distance of the lightning from you, this could be anywhere from 10-15 seconds to several minutes. You'll want to have your shutter open long enough to be able to capture the strike, but also not so long that you overexpose and make the scene look bright.
It will take some experimenting with your settings, and also some great timing and luck on your part to get a strike in the frame.
Scout out possible locations for great lightning photos before storms roll in. That way you're ready when the weather shifts. Make sure it is a safe location! (Photo: Anna Omelchenko/Shutterstock)
Frame the shot
Getting just a strike of lightning in the sky isn't enough to make a really compelling photo. You want to give a sense of environment and a sense of scale. This means adding in other elements to your composition, such as houses, the skyline of a city, an old shed in a field, a long country road, a tree or plants, or anything else that can provide an anchor point for the eyes beyond the lightning.
It's great to scout out locations before storms arrive, so that you have a good idea where you want to head when the weather starts to cooperate. Again, consider safety — stay out of areas where there could be flash flooding, or where it might be hard to get help if you need it. Make safety your first priority, and a great shot second.
Once the lightning storm rolls in and you know where the storm is heading, get out in front of it and get into position for your photograph. Compose your shot with as much of the sky in the frame as you can get — because that increases your chances of getting a lightning strike in your frame — but also interesting elements on the ground. Think about not just getting a picture of lightning, but making a photograph of a lightning storm within context.
You can capture multiple lightning strikes in a single frame by leaving your shutter open for a single long exposure, or stacking several frames together in post-processing. (Photo: Heath Doman/Shutterstock)
Take your image and experiment with settings
The next step is to dive in to taking shots. Try a few shots with different exposure times and make sure you aren't capturing too much or too little light. You can add more light to your shot by opening up your aperture (making it a smaller number like f/3.5), bumping up your ISO to 400, or keeping your shutter open longer. You can reduce the amount of light you're capturing during your long exposures by stopping down the aperture (making it a larger number like f/16) or shortening how long you leave the shutter open while waiting for lightning strikes.
When you're ready to begin shooting, trip the cable release or wireless remote trigger to begin the exposure, and as soon as the lightning strike ends, release your shutter to end the exposure. Repeat for as long as the storm lasts (and you are safely out of the middle of it).
Much of lightning photography is a matter of luck, waiting for that perfect strike in the right place in the scene, or with lots of little fingers reaching out into the sky and lighting up the clouds. You'll want to have patience and a sense of fun at trying again and again for the shot you want. Remember to get your settings pretty close to perfect but don't overthink them too much. You can make small adjustments for an overexposed or underexposed landscape in post-processing, but you can't add in your perfect lightning strike. So get your settings close, but don't focus on adjusting them to the point that you're missing the show Mother Nature is putting on for you.
If you're interested in getting multiple strikes in the same frame, there are a couple of approaches. If it is a really dark, cloud-filled night sky, it may be dark enough to leave your camera's shutter open while waiting to capture multiple strikes in the same frame. However, to minimize too much movement in the scene (such as trees that look blurry from blowing around) you may want to take one shot per strike and combine the strikes captured in multiple frames during post-processing. Most photographs you see with multiple lightning strikes in the same frame were created by taking multiple images with the camera in the same position, and then stacking images to get all the captured strikes into a single electrifying frame.
Remember that lightning is random
It takes a good deal of trial and error to capture shots. You might not get anything usable from your evening out in a summer storm, or you may capture something truly spectacular. The excitement that comes with bringing home a great shot is usually worth all the waiting, worrying and deleting of images that have nothing but dark clouds in them.