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Lightning Photography Tutorial

Mike Hall 2012 Lightning 274 small.jpg

I love lightning. It is by far my favorite subject to shoot. I started capturing lightning shots in 2008 and have over 1,500 photos so far. There are several reasons why I enjoy lightning photography. Lightning is one of the most powerful and unpredictable forces in nature. You never know exactly where the next strike is going to hit. That makes it a challenge. Also, lightning is very much a 3D object and every strike is unique. Even if someone else in a different location captures an image of the same strike, it will look completely different from their perspective. Also, since most people head indoors during storms, most lightning strikes end up being unseen, especially ones late at night. In many cases, you may be the only person to ever see that strike. One of the things I love about photography is being able to show people something they missed. I love it even more when I can show them something they missed that they can't get from anyone else. Below is one of my first lightning shots from Maceo, KY in June of 2008. It was shot with a Canon XT DSLR using a 28-90mm kit lens.

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I have been asked many times about how I shoot lightning. I wrote a brief tutorial a few years ago in a Flickr group. Now, having a few years more experience, I thought I would share a bit more. I'm not saying that this is the only way to shoot lightning, or even the best way. This is simply how I do it. There are no real step by step instructions on how to do anything that will be a perfect match for how you shoot. It's best to read several sources on a subject, adapt bits and pieces of each person's technique, and develop a system that works for you.

Before I go any further, I have to make something perfectly clear. Even though I take precautions to make shooting lightning relatively safe, shooting lightning can potentially be very dangerous, even deadly. It's not something to simply go outside and shoot from a tripod. You are going to eventually get struck and/or killed that way. I have had a healthy fear of lightning since I was a child. My father has been struck three times in his life. He is lucky to still be alive. Two of those strikes were while working on a farm. The third was while indoors. Back then, houses had large antenna towers for TV reception. He was sitting near a window as a storm came through. He was unaware that the TV antenna wire ran out the window he was sitting by.

The difference between he and I is that I've not only had Skywarn weather spotter training, but I've been spotting and chasing storms since 1988. Like anyone else, I probably took some stupid risks early on, but I've been fortunate enough to have a perfect safety record up until now (knock on wood). So to be clear, I DO NOT recommend you photograph lightning. However, if you are like me and tend to ignore people telling you what to do and are going to take the risk anyway, then keep reading. If you decide to accept the risks and shoot lightning, please, ALWAYS shoot from either inside a fully enclosed structure that has a grounded electrical & plumbing system or from inside a hard top metal vehicle.

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As for the tutorial, I'm mainly going to cover shooting lightning at night from inside a car, which is far easier than capturing strikes during the day. Also, daytime strikes just don't look as dramatic as night shots anyway. Don't let your focus on lightning distract you from your surroundings. Before attempting this, I recommend you take at least the basic weather spotter training courses, have a weather radio, and have access to at least a weather radar app (and know how to properly read it). Skywarn classes are free and offered in most areas during the Spring and can even be taken online.

First, I need to cover the gear you need. You do not need an expensive camera or even a DSLR to capture good lightning photos. Any camera that has a manual mode will do. You need to be able to adjust your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture (f/stop) seperately. You need the ability to manually focus as well. I have two DSLRs, but I also have a Canon SX130IS point and shoot that I also carry. I tend to run all 3 cameras at the same time, pointed in different directions. The image shot below was taken with the SX130 and it is one of my favorites.

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Second, you need a camera mount of some kind. You are going to be using long shutter speeds, so the camera needs to be secure. A suction cup mount for smaller cameras can work fine. For DSLRs, I prefer to use a clamp style mount with a ball head that attaches to my driver side window. It is also better to have the car turned off and to move around as little as possible to prevent camera shake. If using a DSLR, a shutter release cable can come in very handy, especially one that has a button lock. A rain cover for your camera can help, but if it is raining, I tend to roll my window up and shoot through the windshield. If you are getting wet, you are making yourself a better conductor for electricity and the metal cage of the car may not protect you if it is struck.

Since you can never predict where a strike will hit, you want to shoot as wide as possible. This means zooming out as far as you can. This is one of the few cases that higher megapixels can help you. If need be, you can crop in tighter later on and still have a large enough file to print. Manual focus is one of the key settings for a great lightning photo. Autofocus is never fast enough. You want to manually focus out to infinity, or as far out as you can focus. The way I check the sharpness of my infinite focus is to focus in on a distant street light, one that is at least a half mile away. If it looks sharply focused, then my focus is set.

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Mike Hall Shutter Cables 02-23-15 small.jpg

I always shoot lightning at ISO 100. Lightning will turn night into day for a brief moment. You don't need to increase the sensitivity of your sensor for that. As far as shutter speed is concerned, it depends on how much ambient light there is in your area. If you are shooting in an area where there are a lot of street lights, you will want to use a faster shutter speed than if you are in a rural area. My point and shoot is limited to a maximum shutter speed of 15 seconds. After the shot, it takes another 15 seconds for it to process the image before it can take another. This means that if I only shot with that camera, I would miss half the shots I could capture with a DSLR. It is still better than nothing though. With my DSLRs, I normally use 30 second shutter speeds with the camera in continuous mode and the shutter release cable button locked down. This allows it to simply keep shooting repeatedly until either the memory card fills up or the batteries run down. You can also shoot in "BULB" mode on a DSLR. Simply, the shutter will stay open as long as you have the shutter button depressed. You can wait until a strike hits, then close the shutter manually. I don't use bulb mode very often since I am usually keeping an eye on 3 cameras at once.

Other than manual focus, the most important of all camera settings for night lightning shots is your aperture, or f/stop. This is the setting that I have to adjust constantly depending on how far away the lightning is from the camera. The closer the lightning is to the camera, the higher the f/stop you need to prevent the brightness of the flash from completely blowing out the image. For example, if lightning is around 10 miles away, I may use f/5 - f/6.3. If the strikes are around 5 miles away, I may use between f/10 - f/13. If closer than that, f/16 or even higher. One of the most frustrating things is being set up for strikes 10 miles away and getting a surprise strike a mile away. If this happens, most likely the surprise shot is going to be nothing but a sheet of white. Get used to it. It happens. There is nothing you can really do about it. Sometimes, since I run 3 cameras, I will point them in the same direction and use different f/stops in hopes of getting a good exposure in case a shot creeps up on me. This is also where shooting in RAW format over jpeg, if possible, can really help you recover a strike that may be a bit under or over exposed.

Lightning photography is a lot like fishing. You will miss more strikes than you capture. You can never avoid that. Don't beat yourself up over that awesome strike you missed because you were changing a battery or adjusting your f/stop. Instead, take pride in the shots you did capture. Go shoot, Have fun, but most importantly, be safe. Use common sense and stay aware of your surroundings. You can sit back and enjoy the photos after the storms have passed. No photo is worth dying for. Please feel free to leave comments or any questions you may have.

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