Photography - Knowledge

How to Photograph Lightning: Understanding the Dynamics

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One of the most amazing subjects to photograph is lightning. It happens suddenly, looks extremely pretty and when captured at the perfect timing makes a memorable picture. One can never get bored of capturing lightning because it doesn’t have any set pattern and can never be the same. The most beautiful part about photographing lightning is its unpredictability. A lightning storm can strike down anytime and can be dangerous too. But like they say a photo speaks a thousand words, a lightning shot that is taken at a unique location with an extraordinary pattern is totally worth the efforts! But are you wondering how to photograph lightning?

Lightning can happen any season and the lightning that occurs in winter is extremely pretty and rare! Don’t let the outside chills kill your thrill. Though it is also said that photographing lightning can be risky too.

You have come to the right place! From tips and tricks to dynamics behind how to photograph lightning, read on to know more.

Top 5 Tips on How to Photograph Lightning

As a photographer, you need to understand the technicalities and methods that will help you capture lightning. Some tips to get that perfect streak are:

1. Stay Safe, Click Happily

It’s important to stay safe while you do this! For photographing lightning, it is always recommended that you stay indoors, like under a shade or cover. It’s always safe to avoid this shoot near water bodies and a lot of trees. 

2. Steady Hand Gives Perfect Click

A tripod works the best when you want to photograph lightning. The key to how to photograph lightning is to use a steady hand and keep the surface firm. Some people also use a bean bag or a pillow but that is for experts who have been doing this for a long time now!

3. Gadgets at your Help

If you are a gadget freak then you can go for remote or cable too! An Infrared remote or a cable release is something that you should keep handy. This will help you in keeping the camera steady and avoid any shakes when you click the picture. There are times when you get a shaky image even while using a tripod. This cable or remote will help you get nice and sharp photos and solve the problem on how to photograph lightning.

Infrared Remote for Camera
Infrared Remote for Camera

4. Right Camera Settings

To set up your camera you will need to the lens on manual focus and set your focus to infinity. 

To test if your setting is perfect, take a shot and then check the clarity of it on the rear LCD screen of your camera. Always remember that DSLRs don’t get the most accurate pictures in low lighting so manual focus is recommended. However, it wouldn't harm learning the hidden functions of DSLR Camera. A perfect tip on how to photograph lightning is to remember and understand the camera settings. The most vital camera setting is the ISO of your camera. To shoot the perfect lightning, it is advised to set the ISO of your camera to the lowest value. 

Let’s help you pick the ISO settings based on the camera you own!

If you are using the Nikon D90/D5000/D3/D3s/D300 then, the lowest value in these is 200; however, in the old Nikon cameras like the D200 or D80, the base is ISO 100. If you are a Canon user, then probably the lowest ISO of your camera is 100. Easy right?

Want to click an award winning lightning shot?

Lightning Photography
Lightning - A beautiful aspect of Photography

Then, to get the best lightning shot set your camera to complete manual mode. This will help you control the shutter speed and the aperture.

Many of us suffer from the dilemma of how to photograph lightning! To begin with, your shutter speed can be of 4-6 seconds and f/8. Thus, it's essential to understand the Shutter Speed for a perfect capture.

You can test it initially and check the image and its quality. If it’s not up to the mark you can reduce the seconds to 3-5 as well. If you are at an extremely dark spot, then you can also bring your shutter speed to 20 to 30 seconds. 

As we all know that lightning is a sudden activity and occurs just about any time. It becomes very difficult to get that perfect capture when the lightning occurs for barely a second! 

There are some gadgets which are controlled by a remote control and click a photo when there is a flash in the sky but they turn out to be very expensive and more importantly they are almost automated which doesn’t solve the purpose of you taking all the efforts of clicking a photo. 

So, if you have a decent camera that can manage the slow shutter speed can work for you. If you plan to keep the shutter of your camera open, the bulb setting will also do wonders for you. 

5. Patience 

Patience is the key to getting your desired best shot and to learn the tricks on how to photograph lightning. Make sure you focus on the same location a good time of span and keep clicking to get an amazing lightning shot. 

Some more interesting tips for capturing a great shot of lightning -

  • This type of shot can be shot the best in manual settings. Make sure that the autofocus is shut when you shoot lightning.
  • The best lightning shot will be captured not very close to a storm. Make sure you have you are not very close to water or moist locations. Capturing this shot in heavy rainfall isn’t possible at all. 
  • Electricity lines, airplanes or other traffic prove to be distractions in getting the perfect shot. Choose a location that is not close to any of this.
  • Make sure that the major light in your photograph should come from the lightning strike. This way you will capture perfect lightning. 

Technical Details to Set Your Camera

Let’s dive into the camera settings that will give you perfect click!

  1. Always set your camera to manual when you want to photograph lightning. Make sure that the camera balance is on auto mode. 
  2. If you are using a cable or infrared remote make sure that you change the shutter setting to BULB, ISO to 400 and aperture to f/5.6
  3. As soon as you witness lightning shut the shutter. Once you have captured the lightning review it on the camera LCD screen and then figure out the changes that you need to make for the next set of lightning photos.
  4. If your picture of the lightning is brighter than expected, then it is because of wrong ISO setting. You can change the ISO to 320 or even 250. 
  5. If the lightning photograph is dull, then it is because of under exposure and you need to change the ISO to 600 or 800. 
  6. You can also use a shoe mounted device that fits in the 10-pin connector port of the camera to get sharp images. With the help of this, the shutter will open as soon as the lightning strikes
  7. However, you will still need to have the manual settings of the ISO, aperture, shutter speed and white balance set for the perfect shot. 

Livingit Tip
Want sharper lightning photos? Then keep the shutter open for shorter time only.

 how to photograph lightning
 Dive into Camera Settings

How to Photograph Lightning Storm with a DSLR camera

If you are a proud owner of DSLR camera, then these steps will help you click the right way:

  • Set your camera to manual and aperture to F8 
  • The focus ring of your camera should be set to infinity to get the best shot
  • Make sure you are in the BULB mode so that the shutter stays open. Make sure your DSLR doesn’t have a time limit to this. 
  • Once the lightning strikes, close the shutter and have a look at your photo
Lightning Photography using DSLR Camera
Lightning Photography using DSLR Camera Source

Different Lenses

You can use a lot of different lenses to photograph lightning. 

A lot of photographers like to use AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. But if you are looking out for using a lens with good focal length (long) you should use AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. 

If you want a zoomed in-shot of the lightning, you can use the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED.

Different Types of Lightning

Well, learning about how to photograph lightning can be interesting. However, we suggest that you also know the different types of lightning as this will help to understand the subject better.

Studies and experiences state that there are four types of lightning that occur. This is with relevance to photography only. The four types are: 

  • Type of lightning
  • Temperature of lightning
  • Pattern of lightning 
  • Shade of lightning

Let’s get into the details of the various kinds of lightning and what do they mean:

1. Types of Lightning

Yes, shutterbugs, you should know the science of how to photograph lightning and to click awestruck photographs!

There can be three types of lightning that can happen when you are photographing; first being intracloud, crawlers – also called as cloud to cloud and the last one cloud to ground lightning.

how to photography Lightning
Cloud to Ground Lightning

2. Temperature of Lightning

This is the key factor of the lightning photo. 

The more the jerk or bolt the better the visibility and hence the photo. A bright jerk in the sky will help you understand which setting that your camera should have. A proper ISO, exposure, shutter speed etc. will all be defined because of this. Study two or three lightning so that a pattern is defined and then set your camera.

Temperature of Lightning
Temperature of Lightning

3. Pattern of Lightning

This is something most of the photographers love to capture.

The shape of the lightning. Getting a single, long, sharp lightning captured is a great experience. The other shapes that one captures in this kind of photography are zig-zag, multiple jerks, and branch type lightning. These three patterns are very common. 

4. Shade of Lightning

It’s the hue that creates the magical touch in the photo!

There are many colours that can be seen when lightning strikes. It is not necessary that lightning is only white in color. It can be yellow, red, blue, purple and sometimes even green. 

These colours are a result of the toxins, chemicals, and gases in the atmosphere. The temperature of the bolt also defines the color of lightning. 

Shade of Lightning
Shade of Lightning

If you see red or dark orange colour lightning it happens because of heavy dust elements in the atmosphere. 

If you witness purple lightning it is due to hailstorms and if you see blue or green lightning it is due to increased sodium vapor lamps! 

How to Protect your Gear

Now the worrisome question is - how can you protect your prized possession? 

If you are using a Nikon camera, then you need not worry because these come perfectly sealed and with one of the best rain covers. 

If you love to photograph lightning in a storm (not heavy rainfall), then using a lens shade is perfect for you. It will help you keep the rain off the lens and will give you clear shot. 

Just in case if your camera gets wet, use a cloth to dry it off. It is not recommended that you shoot when it rains heavily because if your camera encounters water there are chances that it might get spoiled despite having a rain cover on it.

Camera Lens Cover
Camera Lens Cover

Editing your Lightning Photo

Now that you have clicked the perfect lightning photo, it’s time to give a final touch with editing!

Wouldn’t you want to know how you could get the perfect photo? 

Well, the best photos come when you click them in the RAW mode. It is important and necessary to click them in this mode because any lightning photo you click will require some edit and enhancements. 

Getting the perfect white balance is difficult in the original photo that you click and if the format you click on is JPEG then it is a lot tougher. You can choose cool white balance to bring an attractive touch to your lightning shoot. 

The software that can be used for editing the photos are Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw for Photoshop. When you edit the photos in either of this software it becomes more vibrant, looks real and the lightning stands out than the original click which makes it look more prominent. 

Editing In Adobe Photoshop
Editing In Adobe Photoshop (Source)

It is important to take precautions while you shoot a lightning photo. This is a dangerous activity and must be followed with a lot of safety. Photographing lightning can be very exciting and the photogenic. Hopefully, you now have an idea of how you can get a great lightning shot with the help of your DSLR. You can even learn more about the 7 tips to capture the right picture.

So, when you think there is a thunderstorm on its way, get your photography gear on, wear your raincoat and set out for getting the perfect click and don’t forget to be safe! 

Have an electrifying photography session with lightning!

Have any more tips and tricks to share? Please share with us in the comments below!

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