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How to Photograph Lightning for Maximum Impact

Photography is all about capturing a moment in an instant. Nothing is more instant than a bolt of lightning.
Learning how to photograph lightning is not easy. Getting that great shot at exactly the right time takes practise. But there are many strategies to help improve your lightning photography chances and your results.
This article will take through all the steps you need to follow to photograph lightning!

Check the Weather to Predict When Lightning Will Strike

There’s an old adage saying that after three nice days, a storm often follows. That rings true for lightning storms, as they tend to happen after a period of hot weather.
This means that lightning is not common in a lot of places. In Europe, for example, lightning storms are a lot more common towards the end of summer and in the beginning of autumn.
Lucky for us, there are many apps and websites to help us figure out when to go out there and shoot lightning. Windy.com is my favourite, as it has detailed information on lightning strikes down to the minute. No ‘chance of lightning’ with this one, you’ll know for sure that lightning is happening right now. You can also check out your national weather service website.

A lightning photography shot from inside a colorful building
Check the weather forecast ahead of your lightning photography. Choose somewhere that has some cover in case of rain.

Where Should You Photograph Lightning From

When thinking of the location you’re going to be shooting lightning from, consider the following:

  • Find a  good vantage point – It’s no good selecting a location right in front of a hill. You’ll need a clear line of sight off into the distance for your lightning shots. You’ll want to get high off the ground, and see the storm coming in from a distance. Bear in mind there will likely be heavy rain. You’ll want to get your photographs before this rain arrives. Heavy rain will massively reduce your visibility, and as a result the quality of your image. An ideal location can be the balcony of an apartment building.
  • Face the storm – Knowing the direction the storm is travelling is another reason to check the weather forecast. Ideally you’ll be photographing the lightning as the storm approaches, and then get to shelter.
  • Add interesting foreground – As photogenic as lightning is, your photo will be stronger if there is a strong point of interest to compliment that lightning strike. Choosing a location that gives you both a high vantage point, and a good foreground subject is tricky. But it will give you a good picture.
  • Stay safe – Lightning is potentially very dangerous. Make sure to follow safety tips when you’re out in the storm. Choosing a location that ensures lightning safety is also a good idea to avoid any close calls with danger. Stay high but perhaps not on the roof or at the top of a hill. It’s for this reason that the balcony of a high building can work. It will offer you both protection from the rain and any stray lightning bolts.
Fork lightning striking in the distance of a small shelter - how to photography lightning
Including an interesting foreground element can help ground the photo.

How to Keep Your Camera Steady During Storm Photography

Keeping your camera steady is vital for this form of photography. You’re very likely to be standing in strong wind while photographing lighting. And no one wants their pictures to be blurry.
Ideally you’ll want to use a sturdy tripod, and an external shutter release. In a pinch you might be able to use a wall to steady the camera. Or you can balance your camera on top of your camera bag.
A sturdy tripod is still the best solution. Using an external shutter release means that you won’t need to touch the camera while you’re taking photos.

A lightning photography shot taken in an impressive landscape
Flat areas with good visibility are great for lightning photography.

How to Capture That Perfect Moment When Lightning Strikes

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches you can take when photographing lighting. One uses long exposures, the other a specialised trigger.
In both cases, it’s a good idea to have your camera on a tripod.

Setting Up Your Camera

The initial setup for both long exposures, and the specialised trigger approach is the same. Use the following steps.

  1. Once you have established a storm is coming, choose your location and think about your composition.
  2. Set the camera up on a tripod to avoid camera shake. Now compose your photo, and ensure you have an appropriate focal length to capture the scene. With storms that are far into the distance, a longer focal length is better. As the storm approaches and is overhead, a wide angle lens will better capture the entire scene.
  3. Include a large portion of the sky in your frame. You won’t capture lightning otherwise. You may need to recompose if the lightning strikes are not happening inside your pre-composed frame.
  4. Focus your photo using the camera’s manual focus. The best way to do this is to use the camera’s live view setting, and choose a point in the mid-ground. Zoom into this portion, and focus the camera to ensure sharpness. Once focused, keep the camera’s manual focus on, to ensure you retain focus.
  5. Take a photo or some test shots of the scene in front of you at f/8. In some cases, the lightning strike will leave you with an underexposed photo in order to correctly expose the lightning. The photo you take now will allow you to blend the lightning photo, and a regular photo together for a correct exposure.
Night time long exposure lightning photography
In this night time image the long exposure has resulted in star movement across the frame.

The Long Exposure Approach

The idea behind this approach is to make your camera settings expose for an extended period of time.  The aim is to capture a lighting strike during this long exposure.

  1. Set your camera to underexpose the scene at -1EV. You may need lower if the lightning strikes are nearby. You’ll want your exposure time to be at least 5 seconds. The longer, the better. Set your aperture and ISO accordingly, so you get this exposure length. If you’re photographing during the day you may need to use a strong neutral density filter in order to make these long exposures.
  2. Use an external shutter release or cable release, and keep the shutter locked so the camera continues to take photos. This means you’ll be taking a series of photos over the course of several minutes.
  3. Continue taking photos until you are able to capture bolts of lightning during one of these exposures. Taking photos this way, especially as you’ll want to use RAW, will use up space on your memory card quickly. Ensure you have a large memory card, and replacements.
Impressive shot of lightning striking over a sprawling cityscape - how to photograph lightning
A good vantage point from the balcony of a tall building is ideal for lightning photography.

The Trigger Approach (This One Is Better)

The other method for taking good shots of lightning is to use a specialised trigger. These work by detecting a big change in the light levels, and this change will trigger an exposure.
This instant trigger is a definite improvement on the long exposure technique. Here’s why.

  • One frame – You no longer have to take many photos in the hope of getting the one frame that includes a lightning strike. This saves space on your memory card. And it prevents your camera from deteriorating from taking many photos.
  • Better definition – Lightning bolts often look like trees. Lightning is branching out from the main bolt. Using a trigger that gives you a better chance of capturing those detail elements of the bolt of lightning. You’ll be able to use a larger aperture too since you no longer need a long exposure.

There are plenty of trigger systems on the market to choose from. Some of the best ones are the Pluto, and the Nero triggers. The nice thing about these triggers is they can be used for other forms of photography, not just lightning.
Let’s look at how to photograph lightning using a trigger.

  1. Set up your camera.
  2. Your camera should be set to expose at around 1/15th second. Use the aperture to get the correct exposure level for the scene you’re photographing. During the day you can have your camera on shutter priority mode. At night, it’s best to have the camera in full manual mode.
  3. Attach the trigger to your camera. Now adjust the sensitivity of the sensor according to the conditions you find yourself in. It’s often the case you’ll need to use some trial and error before you find the sensitivity sweet spot.
  4. Now wait, and allow the camera to take exposures as the lightning storm passes by.
Impressive shot of lightning striking over a busy city street scene - how to photograph lightning
Getting an elevated position is not always possible. As long as you can see the sky though, you still have a possible photo.

How to Edit Your Lightning Photography

First things first, photograph your lightning in RAW. This will allow you most control in post-processing.
You can follow your usual workflow here. And adjust highlights and shadows as necessary.
The two techniques that will enhance your lightning images are stacking, and blending. In both cases you’ll need multiple images taken from a tripod, with the same composition.

Blending Lightning Images

This technique uses a set of bracketed images. It then blends them together to get the correct exposure. With lightning you’ll be able to use this technique to blend lighting photos, and non-lightning photos together.
Be careful though. Make sure that the lighting that lightning introduces feels real in your scene.
Using the blend mode “lighting” found in the layers tab can be a good method for merging lightning into your standard frame. Keep the standard photo as the background layer. Place the lightning photo as a layer above it with a black layer mask.

Stacking Lightning Photos

A step further on from blending, is stacking. You’ll stack layers of photos on top of each other in order to merge them.
Why do this? To create a more dramatic lightning image, that appears to have multiple lightning strikes happening at the same time.

Conclusion

Now you know how to photograph lightning. It’s time to put that knowledge into practice. You’ll need practice and patience to get the best result, but it’s very rewarding when you get it right.
Have you photographed lightning before? What have your experiences been like? Are there any strategies you’ve used, that have been successful?
As always please share your thoughts and any photos you have in the comments section.

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