Lightning is dramatic, extremely fast, a challenge to photograph and potentially dangerous. There are various techniques involved with capturing great photos of lightning. Since lightning is extremely fast, (30 microseconds or 30/1000000s) you must be quick. Above all, be safe, as lightning kills.
Find a Good Location
When photographing lightning, it’s important to realize that the conditions you are shooting in are unpredictable and dangerous, and there will always be an element of chance and luck involved. Since we cannot see the lightning coming, we need to predict where it will strike. How do we do this? By observing the lightning pattern and using a wide-angle lens we are covering enough area to hopefully catch an image of the lightning bolt. By keeping the shutter open for several seconds we might get lucky.
Set the Lens to Infinity
You’ll want to disengage the autofocus on your lens, and set it to Infinity (the sideways 8 on the lens barrel); this isn’t always apparent on some digital lens, so you have to figure this out for your given lens. Manual focus is better than autofocus when you’re photographing lighting, because the lightning will definitely fool the autofocus sensor. Setting the lens to infinity gives your maximum depth of field, such that when the lightning does strike in the distance you’ll have the lightning and the deep background in sharp focus. Objects closer to the camera will definitely be out of focus, but they’re not your main subject any way – so don’t worry about them or frame them out ahead of time.
Timing is Everything
If you are attempting to photograph lightning with a specific object in focus, in this case a pylon, then you will want to get the item in focus first. Place your camera on a sturdy tripod to avoid camera shake and use a remote release device (cable or RC unit) to ensure that your camera is rock-solid when releasing the shutter. Set the f-stop between f/5.6 - f/8 and set the shutter speed to B “bulb” mode. Bulb mode allows the camera operator to hold open the shutter for as long as the shutter release button is held down. If you are inexperienced, this scenario could be a good time to try the mirror lock up mode so you don’t have to predict exactly when a lightning bolt will strike. Mirror lock up, a feature available on most DSLRs lets you engage the mirror well before the shutter releases, so there is no mirror slap vibration. Set up your remote or cable release before hand, frame the image, and hold down the shutter release button to open the shutter. Wait for the lightning to flash and disappear then immediately end the shot.
Composing the Photo
Shooting a streak of lightning in the sky and nothing else may look pretty but it gives no sense of perspective. Use a wide-angle lens and think about how the image has been composed. Include features of the landscape; a tree, buildings, moving cars etc. to give context to the photograph. Ultimately your composition will depend on where the lightning is appearing, but always consider what other elements you can bring into the shot. .
How to Protect your Gear
With lightning comes rain. Although it is better to be under some kind of shelter when photographing lightning, this isn’t always possible. You need to protect your camera and lens from the rain; liquid can affect the mechanics of your camera and if it gets onto the lens, it distorts the finished image. Always use a lens filter to protect it (regardless of what you are photographing) and you may have to use a soft lint free cloth to wipe away any droplets regularly. Use a protective plastic case, or buy one of the plastic sheet covers made for cameras; these will protect the body, lens and the top half of your tripod. Keep all other lenses and accessories in a closed bag and avoid changing the lens outside when it’s raining.
As lightning normally occurs in low light situations, generally you will want to choose a shallow depth of field, from f/2.8 to f/5.6, so enough light reaches the camera. Set the camera at ISO 200, set the shutter speed to “B” for bulb, and you’ll want to use a cable release to hold the shutter open to wait for the lightning to strike. If your camera doesn’t have a bulb shutter speed, then set the exposure for 10 to 30 seconds; that should be sufficient to capture the super fast lightning strike. However, you have to observe the lightning strike patterns to determine the best long exposure setting to use. The various types of lightning strikes (cloud to ground, pulse bolts or anvil) are of different speeds and require different exposures. The pulse bolts probably last about 2 seconds, so you want the exposure to be maybe 10 seconds to capture the sharp detail of the strike. If the storm is near you, you don’t want an exposure longer than 15 seconds. If the storm is far away, then 20 seconds to 2 minutes will be more effective. At the longer exposures, you need to stop down the aperture (f/8 or f/11). The mirror lock up mode is very useful, since we can wait for the lightning to strike before closing the shutter. Always use a cable release with mirror lock up mode and remember that this function is only effective if used in fairly dark conditions.
When taking photographs of lightning, it is important to have a sturdy tripod that is also light enough to pick up and move around with, should the weather take a turn for the worse. Protective gear for the equipment; covers and cloths are important to have as well. You will need a shutter release cable or a remote so that you avoid touching the camera when taking long exposures. If you can’t find either, use your camera’s self timer (although this can be difficult to use if it’s dark and rainy).
On average, lightning strikes the earth 100 times every second, but to have lightning near you requires the right weather conditions. When the opportunity arrives you have to be ready to move! Obviously keep yourself safe and don’t expose yourself to violent weather conditions. That aside, the photograph of a lightning trail is unique, and a once in a lifetime shot – no two lightning strikes will hit in exactly the same place in exactly the same way. With that in mind, be prepared for the next time it pays you a visit.