I love thunder and lightning storms. The energy that it creates in the atmosphere is electrifying. When I was living in Virginia and New York, it seemed like there was a storm at least once a week. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I would see one every other year. Sad. So when there’s a storm, I wanna make sure that I take advantage of it or else it’ll be another 2 years before I get another chance. Here’s how to photograph lightning.
First you’ll need a tripod because you’ll be shooting with a long shutter time, so there will be camera shake if you try to hold it. If you don’t have a tripod handy, any surface that can keep your camera steady will work.
Use either a wireless trigger or a cord. If you press the shutter and your tripod is not sturdy enough, there will be slight camera movement.
Lightning is unpredictable. You won’t know where it will strike, so you’re best bet is to find the best composition and hope that lightning will strike in that general area. If you’re lucky, it’ll hit a tree in the middle of nowhere like the image above.
Set your camera to manual focus. Prefocus the shot to what’s in your composition, like buildings or trees. Lightning shots are more interesting when the viewer can get a sense of reference instead of just lightning bolts in the sky. If you don’t prefocus, your camera will hunt for something to focus on when you press the shutter button and it won’t find anything because you’re shooting in the dark.
Shutter, Aperture and ISO
Set your ISO to 100, next set the shutter speed. I find that anything between 15-30 seconds is good, anything over 30 seconds will increase noise in your photo. Let’s say you opted for 15 seconds, you will now need to adjust the aperture to expose for the environment. Use the metering in your camera. When shooting lightning storms, you don’t have to worry about depth of field because of the distance between your camera and the subject (buildings, trees, and lightning bolts). If you open your lens up all the way and the image is still underexposed, increase the shutter speed to 30 seconds. If it’s still underexposed, increase the ISO to 200. There will be many different combination, mix and match to see what works but use the outline above as a basis.
Chances are you’re not going to get one shot that’s perfect. Good news about shooting on a tripod, is that you can composite the lightning bolts together into one single image. Select the images that you like and combine them in Photoshop. Use the layer masks to reveal the bolts that you like.
Have fun and don’t get struck by lightning!