How To Capture Lightning Strikes

A quick tutorial on how to capture lightning strikes

I have been asked multiple times in the last few weeks how I manage to capture lightning and if I could provide some useful tips. That's why I decided to add a blog, where I will from now on release tutorials and useful tips about capturing, editing or even designing content!

A lot of people always tell me how hard they think it is to capture lightning, as you never know when a lightning strikes. I often hear comments like "Wow, you have timed thats shot perfectly" or "You've got so much luck when it comes to capturing lightning strikes". But I'm telling you now, after this tutorial, you will look differently at the matter. When you know what you are doing and how to set up your camera, the task of capturing the electric surges will be as easy as anything! 

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(1) Storm over the Baltic Sea, 25 sec f/9 ISO400

What you need to photograph lightning

- A camera, preferably a DSLR or mirrorless camera where you can set manual exposures 

- A tripod, to keep your camera steady and shake-free during long exposures, especially since it might get really windy in a storm

- A remote trigger, if your camera doesn't have a built in one. This is useful if you don't want to press the shutter every time or want to seek shelter in the car/house. The remote tigger is optional.

- You will need a storm with some decent lightning!

As you can see, you won't need too much equipment for shooting lightning. Maybe some of you reading this might wonder, why I didn't include any lightning sensitive devices, such as lightning triggers (they automatically release your shutter when there is a lightning strike). That's because, especially for beginners, they will be way too complicated and not really necessary in my eyes. If you aim to shoot pictures at daytime you might need to look into them, as you can't really expose the sky for very long. Since I don't really like to shoot lightning storms at daytime, as the pictures will look flat and boring in most times and rather shoot at night, they really won't be of any need! 

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(2) Storm over the Baltic Sea, 20sec f/10 ISO400

GETTING STARTED WITH YOUR LIGHTNING PHOTOGRAPHY

You will usually begin by setting up your gear. You will have to make sure that your tripod is stable. In case there is strong winds from the thunderstorm, you really don't want your tripod to tip over and your camera to break. You should also be fairly distant to the thunderstorm, I usually recommend to set up your gear when the storm is about 15-20 km away from your position. (Thunderstorms are dangerous and lightning can strike as far as 10km away from the storm itself!

After you have set up your gear, you will have to change the settings of the camera accordingly to the thunderstorm. This can be tricky if it is your first time shooting a thunderstorm, or if you have never really used long exposures. I will now give an insighton how you should set your shutter speed, aperture and ISO in different situations.

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(3) A storm over Melbourne, There was lightning strike about every 2 minutes. 30 sec f/11 ISO 500

SHUTTER SPEED (EXPOSURE TIME)

It is actually a really easy task to determine how to set your shutter speed. It all depends on how much lightning the thunderstorm produces. If the lightning rate is very high and there is constant lightning, I wouldn't set the shutter speed very high. If lightning flashes multiple times during one exposure you will start to get unsharp structures and ghosting. If you look back at Image (2) above you can see that some clouds appear twice in the image. That's something you don't really want, as it somehow looks fake and unrealistic. So if you are facing a storm with a high frequency of lightning, keep your shutter speed lower. If the lightning isn't very frequent or even rare, you can easily expose your photo to 30 seconds or higher!

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(4) Storm in Germany, 30 sec f/9 ISO 400. The settings for this image weren't perfect! FIND OUT what went wrong below.

APERTURE

The way you should set up your aperture very much depends on how bright your lightning strike is. Basically, the closer the bolt strikes, the lighter it will be. So for close lightning strikes you will have to choose a high f- stop number/small aperture. I would usually recommend to have it set somewhere between f/8-f/16.  If the storm is far away (usually more than 20km) you can slowly increase your aperture.I have personally shot storms on an aperture up to f/1.4, but the storm was also more than 60km away.  So if you look back at picture (4), what do you think was wrong with the settings? Yes, you are right, my aperture was too high. It should have been around f/14 or smaller! 

If you shoot at small apertures, you will often get a lot of dark frames in between, but I'm telling you that's perfectly fine, because when the big bolt strikes, your whole picture will be illuminated. If you didn't change your settings, because you thought everything is underexposed, the lightning won't be blown out like it is in my picture. 

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(5) Storm in northern Germany. 30 seconds f/4 ISO 200

ISO

Last but not least we will have to talk about the ISO. As you probably know, ISO represents the light sensitivity of the sensor of the camera. I usually try to keep my ISO low, especially when the lightning strikes are close, as they will illuminate the surrounding landscape. Similar to the aperture, with a high ISO you tend to overexpose lightning eventually. If you've got thunderstorms far away, you can increase your ISO accordingly, which will get you some nice detail of the landscape. But be aware how your camera handles noise and check your ISO limits beforehand!

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(6) Lightning storm in Queensland. The storm was about 50km south of my position. 30 sec f/4 ISO3200

FOCUSING 

Especially when shooting at night, focusing can be tough! Here is how I handle focusing during night time.

- Find a bright object along the horizon, it could be a lantern or a distant house. 

- Put your camera into manual focusing. 

- Open Live-View on your camera and use digital zoom. 

Focus on the object till it looks sharp 

If your camera doesn't support Live-View, here is another option. It is called Infinity Focusing. Go and have a look at your lens now. Almost all lenses have an infinity mark on their focus ring [Pictures (7) and (8)]. Just set the camera to infinity. With some lenses the infinity mark is not absolutely correct (i.e. Samyang/Rokinon lenses). What I suggest is to take a shot, see if you are happy with the sharpness, and if not, slightly adjust the focus ring and check again. If you found the sweet spot, I would use a little bit of tape to mark the spot, that you find it easier for the next time. You can also do this at daylight of course, so that you don't have to worry about this at night. 

(7) Infinity mark on a Samyang lens 

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(8) Infinity mark on a Canon lens 

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PATIENCE

You will definitely need to be patient. It can take a while to get a shot. If you are not a patient person, then lightning photography probably isn't a thing for you. For example, Picture (1) was probably one of the hardest for me. The storm I was looking at only had a lightning rate of around 1 strike every 15min. Most of the lightning strikes were in the clouds. I waited around 1 1/2 h for this lightning strike to happen. Of 900 photos taken that night, this was the only one with a bolt. But I tell you, being patient can be so rewarding in the end!

Sometimes though, you will also come back empty handed! Don't be discouraged by that, there will always be another chance!

SAFETY 

As already stated, lightning is very dangerous and a lot of people die every year. DON'T risk your life for a photo! I am talking from personal experiences. I have already almost been killed by lightning twice. Once in Germany and once in Australia, where lightning has struck closer than 50m to me. One time even closer than 20m. When I was younger and inexperienced I was really reckless in terms of thunderstorms. Nowadays I am very careful and all I'm telling you is to have the same attitude! So use common sense and stay close to a shelter, like a car etc. 

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Close lightning strike in Germany. 20 sec f/13 ISO500

FINAL THOUGHTS 

Lightning photography is fun. I often see myself jumping and screaming when I managed to capture a lightning strike, but sometimes it can also be extremely frustrating when come home empty handed. Over all, you don't have to be that lucky to capture a shot, especially at night when you use long exposure, you're almost ganrantueed a lightning strike during an active thunderstorm. The rumor that you have to be quick really only applies to daytime shots. With what you have learned in the tutorial, you should be able get some fantastic shots.  

 SO HAVE FUN, GET SOME AWESOME SHOTS, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY BE SAFE!

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Was this quick tutorial any help for you? You are still confused and want to know more? Let me know in the comments below!

Steffen Eisenacher8 Comments