How to Photograph Lightning

We have had a lot of lightning around South Africa of late and I have seen some excellent lightning photos. I have also seen lots of people asking how they were taken. So I will attempt to explain and at the same time show you some of my lightning photos.

But first have a look at this photo taken by Pretoria photographer Tsephe Letseka. This is a great example of a stacked lightning photo. Tsephe merged 35 photos for this image.

Tsephe Letseka Lightning

Photographer: Tsephe Letseka

I take photos of lots of different subject but taking photos of lightning is really exciting and rewarding mainly because you never know what you are going to get. Lightning is random and it happens in a split second. If you do it right, lightning photos are absolutely spectacular. So, let’s see how it is done.

Equipment

First you will need a sturdy tripod. Bear in mind that if you are taking photos of lightning you will be outside, most of the time. There will be wind and rain. You must keep your camera dead still while shooting or you photo will be out of focus.

You may also want to stack photos so it is best to have all of your shots exactly the same or you will spend ages trying to align them later. Some of the best free software for stacking doesn’t allow you to align the shots. Just keep your camera still and your lens dry, and you will have no hassles.

You don’t really want to touch your camera while you are shooting for the same reason as above. Your shutter will be open for a while. So pressing the shutter button is not an option. It is best to have a remote shutter release. They are not expensive and you will use them a lot, trust me on this.

The lens that you use will depend on how close you are to the action. If you are close you could be going as wide as 18mm or wider. You will want to have a fairly fast lens, say f/4 or f/2.8 mainly for focussing.

Don’t forget your umbrella and something to cover your camera with.

Weather Photography

A single massive strike in Steelpoort, Limpopo

Focussing and DoF

Focussing is pretty tricky. You definitely want to make sure that your lightning is sharp. There is nothing more disappointing than seeing a great shot on your camera only to find that it is out of focus.

If you are in a city and you can see distant lights you should be able to focus on them. However if you are far from any decent lights you might have a challenge.

Ideally you want to focus your lens to infinity. On most lenses there is a little line to help you with that but it isn’t always accurate. If you are planning to shoot lightning you might want to check your lens during the day and make you own infinity mark.

Alternatively, you can auto-focus on a distant light and then switch your lens to manual focus.

Depth of Field (DoF) should not really affect you since the lightning is (hopefully) relatively far away from you, you are focussed to infinity and your aperture isrow enough.

Sunset Lightning Photo

A lucky shot of lightning at sunset. This was handheld shooting high speed.

Exposure and ISO

So now we are just about ready to shoot. If you have looked at lightning photos you will have noticed that most of them are shot at night. The reason is that you are able to keep your shutter open for longer without over exposing the shot. You could use a lightning trigger but I am writing this article for people that would like to shoot lightning without great expense.

You will want to set you camera to manual mode.

ISO
I am starting with the ISO first because when you are taking lightning photos at night you do not want to have your sensor trying to create light. It diminishes the quality of your final shot.

I set my ISO to 100 to make sure that noise is reduced completely. It is also easier in post-processing to get sharp photos without having to use noise reduction.

If you want to use a higher ISO you will get noise. And if you are planning to use your in-camera noise reduction, you will miss a lot of lightning.

Shutter Speed
I normally set my shutter speed to around 15 – 30 seconds. You can set it faster but then you will just fill your memory card and have a lot of photos to delete later.

It is really is up to you. It will depend on how much movement you want in the clouds but also how wide you want you aperture.

Aperture

Ideally you want you aperture between f/8 and f/16 but I often go as wide as f/5.6 (when I use a wider angle like 18-35mm).

You just need to trade off your shutter speed and aperture until you have the exposure that you want.

When you have taken a couple of test shots and you are happy with your exposure, set your camera to continuous shooting, press and lock the shutter release button and enjoy the show.

Mega Lightning Photo

This is a 6 image stack. Each exposure was 30 seconds.

Stacking

I am going to quickly discuss 2 methods of stacking your images for those amazing multi-strike photos. These are the ones that I use there are others out there.

Photoshop
Import all the photos you want to stack in to a Photoshop file on separate layers. Set the blending mode for all layers, except the bottom one, to Lighten. It’s that easy. You may find that you do get some anomalies if you have a lot of photos stacked. You could use layer masks but it is such a bother.

StarStax
This is free software that you can download off the net. Simple drag your photos into the Starstax window and click on the process button. Starstax handles a lot of photos better than Photoshop.

Stacked Lightning Photo

This was 2 x 15 second exposures with power lines. Lots of electricity in this shot.

I hope that this has been helpful. If you have anything to add please leave a comment below.

weather lighting

A single 15 second exposure. Sometimes lightning can be just awesome.

2 Comments

  1. Colette van Loggerenberg 23 March 2015

Leave a Reply

Subscribe for Updates.

You will only be notified when a new article is posted.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by Google FeedBurner