Photographing lightning is a lot of fun, but it can be quite challenging and even dangerous if you do not use a little forethought and planning. This tutorial will outline the necessary equipment, as well as explain the tricks and techniques that can be utilized to safely and successfully capture and post-process electrifying photographs of lightning the next time storms rumble through.
Final Image Preview
Step 1: Equipment
Required: Standard angle zoom or prime lens, polarizing filter, remote cable shutter release, bean bag, lots of patience!
Recommended: SLR camera with continuous drive mode.
Like many subjects in nature, lightning can be extremely unpredictable. Having the right equipment can go a long way toward capturing a successful lightning photograph. Using a standard angle zoom lens, such as either a 30mm prime for APS-C sensor cameras, or a 50mm prime for full-frame cameras, will assist in capturing images of lightning that fill the frame. A wide angle to standard angle zoom lens, such as a 16-35mm or 24-70mm, could be used, but a prime lens will normally capture a much sharper image than a zoom set at the same focal length.
Minimum aperture does not matter, as the aperture setting that is used for lightning photos is slower than most lenses minimum apertures. Instead of a tripod, a bean bag is used to support the camera, as the photography will take place inside an automobile. Bean bags are also sometimes referred to as shot bags and can be bought at most any photographic or video supply store. I made mine, pictured above, by obtaining a suitable, durable bag - in this case, an old lead shot bag. Next, I filled the bag with dry beans and, finally, sewed the open end together so the beans don't spill out of the bag. It's simple and the bean bag is a vital, extremely versatile component of my core photography kit.
To capture the lightning photograph shown above, I used a Canon Digital Rebel XTi digital SLR camera, Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS "kit" lens zoomed out to 35mm, Canon RS60-E3 cable release, and a homemade bean bag for support.
Step 2: Finding Lightning
Finding lightning to photograph can be tricky. Because I am a huge weather-geek and storm chaser I tend to check the weather forecast at least once a day, every day, so that I will know when stormy weather may be expected. The best place to check your local forecast is at the National Weather Service website. Besides the NWS site, another great resource for radar and forecasts is your favorite local television news station's website. Usually, especially on stormy days, news stations will dispaly animated radars on the front page of their websites for all site visitors to view and monitor.
On a day that storms are expected I will pull up the local radar on the NWS site and watch for storms to approach my area. Once the storms get to within 20 miles of my predetermined shooting location, I will head to that location to set up and wait for the storm to arrive. This process is not strictly required, as you could simply setup your camera and shoot through a window or door of your house when you begin to hear thunder. The results should be the same. However, following the process outlined above will allow time to locate the optimal location from which to shoot.
Step 3: Finding the Best and Safest Location
When selecting a location for shooting lightning, you should always keep a mind for safety as well as having a great view of the sky. Local lakes lend themselves quite nicely to lightning photography, unless they happen to be surrounded by lots of trees. Even so, if you can find an unobstructed view in at least one direction, you should be okay.
An open field could work, though your car may be more susceptible to being struck by lightning if there are no other, taller objects nearby. Rest assured, however, that if your car is struck by lightning while you are inside, you will be perfectly safe and unharmed, as the car's metal exterior will absorb the electricity from the lightning and deflect it safely to the ground.
Believe it or not, one of the best places from which to shoot lightning is near tall power transmission lines. The photo shown in this tutorial was captured in just such a location. It may seem absurd, but lightning will be more likely to strike one of those towers than your car, as they let off plenty of charged ions with which lightning will interact. This has the added benefit, aside from safety, of possibly providing more opportunities to capture lightning.
Once you have chosen a shooting location, safety should be the next concern. I would advise to never stand outside when photographing lightning. The chances of being struck by lightning are simply too great to warrant the risk. Remember that lightning is the number one cause of weather related deaths in the United States each year. It is with a mind for safety alone that I always photograph lightning from inside my car.
Step 4: Setting Up for the Shot
Setting up the camera to shoot lightning from within an automobile is as simple as placing the bean bag, or other similar support, on the dash of the car and resting the camera on the dash, with the lens resting on the bean bag. Connect the cable release and that is all that is required! If it happens to be raining when you are shooting, don't forget to activate your windshield wipers. Doing this will not affect the photograph as slow shutter speeds will be utilized, thus causing the moving wipers to disappear.
Now would be a good time to discuss composition. Photographing lightning is different from other subjects in that you have no control over where lightning will strike. In fact, usually, it will strike well outside your lens's field of view, thus rendering a frame empty of any lightning. This can be quite frustrating, which is why I recommend lots of patience. Setting the camera up in the middle of the dash and shooting through the windshield using a standard angle focal length will greatly increase your chances of capturing lightning bolts that strike within your camera's field of view.
Step 5: Recommended Camera Settings
Lightning photography generally requires slower shutter speeds, so as to provide enough time per exposure to get at least one bolt. This is where having at least an entry level digital SLR camera with a continous drive mode setting comes in handy. You can set your exposure settings, activate and lock the shutter release button on the cable release, then sit back and enjoy watching the lightning show while the camera and cable release do all the work for you.
The following is an outline and explanation of the recommended exposure settings for photographing lightning. As you may have guessed, you should be using the full manual setting for your camera so that you may independently set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
ISO: 100 - I set my camera's ISO setting to 100 and leave it when photographing lightning. This allows longer shutter speeds with the minimum possible noise.
Aperture, or f-stop: f/11 - As with the ISO setting, I set the aperture to f/11 and leave it when photographing lightning. The main reason for this is to ensure as great a depth of field as possible without sacrificing sharpness of the photograph, or requiring shutter speeds that are too long. Setting the aperture to f/16 will give an even greater depth of field, but the required shutter speed would be 10 seconds or longer, introducing the risk of a lightning bolt blowing out the frame, or overexposing. Likewise, f/8 has similar issues. However, having said that, I have successfully photographed lightning at both apertures, but with less success than if I had shot at f/11. I would recommend that you start out with an aperture of f/11, capture a few shots there, then experiment with other apertures to see what can be achieved.
Shutter Speed: 4 to 6 seconds - The best time to attempt lightning photography is after dark, thus requiring long shutter speeds. Lightning photography can happen as early as magic hour, but better results will be achieved close to or after dark. The fastest shutter speed to be used for lightning photography is 4 seconds. This allows the shutter to be open long enough to capture a strike if the lightning activity is fairly frequent. The optimal shutter speed setting is 6 seconds. This allows the shutter to be open long enough to capture lightning without over- or underexposing the image in most cases.
White Balance: Auto - Again, I set my camera's white balance to the auto setting and leave it because this gives the greatest flexibility and control when post-processing in Lightroom, where I can fine-tune the white balance to suit my preferences for each individual image.
Image Format: RAW - Shooting in RAW format is best so as to allow the most editing options when post-processing, or "developing", photographs in editing software.
These recommended settings will allow the smallest margin of error and largest chance of success. The only remaining setting is to set your camera's drive mode to continous. By utilizing this setting you can activate and lock the shutter release button on the cable release. On most cable releases this is done by pressing down the shutter relase button and simultaneously sliding it forward so that it remains depressed.
This causes the camera to continuously capture images, one after the other, with barely any delay between exposures. This is advantageous because it requires no further interaction from you. I would advise using a CF or SD card of 4 GB or greater, however, as images will quickly accumulate on the card when shooting this way, especially if shooting in RAW format.
Step 6: Developing Lightning Photos in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
Pictured below is a screenshot of the Basic and Tone Curve settings that I used in the Develop module of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
When post-processing lightning photos in Lightroom, there really is nothing different to be done compared to any other photo. I use Lightroom to develop all of my RAW photos, since it's basically the same as Camera Raw in Photoshop. With all of my images, I set the contrast curve to the Strong Contrast setting. Every image I have ever developed in Lightroom has needed this specific adjustment.
The one specific thing to note is something that really is a matter of taste, more than a rule of thumb, and that is the matter of color temperature in a lightning photo. I prefer my lightning photos to be much cooler than normal, giving them more of an electrical feel. As you can see in the screen capture above, for this lightning photo the only other adjustment I made is a slight darkening of the black levels. This pushes the saturation of the image up just a tad as well as darkening the already black areas in order to bring even more focus to the lightning.
Below is an example of the finished, developed lightning photo. These bolts were captured from underneath power transmission lines along the shore of Mountain Creek Lake at the eastern edge of Grand Prairie, TX during a late summer thunderstorm.
Below are 5 additional images for your enjoyment and to inspire you in your lightning photography pursuits.
Captured from the same location as the finished photo above, these bolts flashed just a few minutes before the previous photo's bolts.
This photo was captured near the intersection of two major highways in Grand Prairie, TX. The "spider lightning", as it is commonly called, seen in this photo, was a precursor to the main light show that would unfold several mintues later, with huge, brilliant, fields of lightning "crawling" across the entire horizon in all directions at once. A better example of this can be seen further below.
The following two photos were also captured from along the shore of Mountain Creek Lake, at the eastern edge of Grand Prairie, TX. The late summer thunderstorm that produced the lightning in these photos "rained out" and, as it weakened and slid to the south, proceeded to put on a magnificent show of CG (cloud-to-ground) lightning bolts.
This final photo, seen below, portrays a magnificent example of "spider lightning", and was captured from near the intersection of two major highways in Grand Prairie, TX. Not easily seen in the photo, this particular spider lightning display stretched, literally, to both horizons to the left and right.
As with most things in the world of photography, the method I have outlined here is not the be-all and end-all for photographing lightning. Hopefully it offers a good starting place and, if safety is of the utmost concern, this method will work very well. So, the next time a thunderstorm rumbles through, get out with your gear and try your hand at some electrifying lightning photography!