How to photograph lightning

I really love storms.

You know how some people get excited for the first snow of the season? Well, I get excited for the first thunderstorm of the season (and all the subsequent ones, too).

Nothing beats the smell and feel of rain, the sound of the raindrops hitting the windows, and the crackle of thunder in the distance. And when I can get a chance, I love to photograph the storms and here I’m going to share with you how to photograph lightning.

Safety first!

Before we dig in, remember to BE SAFE when photographing lightning. Lightning is dangerous and can cause harm.

You want the lightning to be striking in the distance and not close to you. Even if you’re not the tallest thing around, you can still be the target. Lightning can strike up to 25 miles away (although there was a 200 mile lightning strike recorded in OK in 2007) so make sure you’re plenty far away.

Also, since I usually photograph lightning in a dark place at night, I always bring someone with me for safety purposes. I always go in ‘the zone’ when shooting and if someone tried to sneak up on me, I wouldn’t know it until it was too late.

lightning photography by April Nienhuis

What you need:

  • tripod
  • remote (if you don’t have one, you can use the self timer on your camera)
  • a clear view of “the show”

Your settings:

The reason you need a tripod and remote is because you need to use a slow shutter speed to capture lightning. With a fast shutter speed you might get lucky with a shot here and there but a slow shutter speed gives you much better chances and allows you to use a lower ISO to reduce grain and get richer colors.

I start with a shutter speed of 30 seconds, ISO around 200, and aperture around 7.1. I take a test shot and then check my LCD screen and histogram and then make any necessary adjustments. Metering can pretty much be thrown out the window since you’re in a dark situation and the lightning will significantly increase the amount of light in the frame.

Focus:

Focusing in this situation is not the easiest thing in the world. Because it’s so difficult, you want to work with a smaller aperture.

To focus, first put your lens on manual focus (autofocus is out of the question here). Then find something in the distance that is close to where the lightning is striking and focus on that. If you need help, use liveview and zoom in to what you’re focusing on (you can always bump up your ISO to get a clear exposure too while you focus and then adjust it back down when you’re done focusing).

Lastly, when you run the test shot above to make sure your settings are good, don’t forget to zoom in on your preview image to make sure your focus is good. Then adjust as needed.

Oklahoma lightning storm by April Nienhuis

Adding interest:

There are a few things you can do to add interest to your images…

  • I always bring a wide angle lens – my Canon 16-35L – and telephoto – the Canon 70-200L – lenses so I can switch up how wide or tight I’m able to frame the photo.
  • Include the tree line in the frame. Working with a slow shutter speed is going to make the clouds feel really soft and show their motion so there’s no stability in them. However, a tree line will be clearly in focus and offer a sens of stability to the scene.
  • If there’s an intriguing structure around, keep it in the foreground. Again, for the stability and visual interest.
  • If you really want to get creative (and this is next on my list to do) use some off camera flash to light a person in the foreground. How cool would it be to have a bride and groom kissing in the foreground with lightning going off in the background?!

Editing:

If you get a few small bolts but nothing that stands out on its own, try stacking the images together. You can do this in Photoshop or you can purchase special software that will do this quickly for you.

Editing lightning is much different than portraits.

Feel free to play with the colors in the frame more extremely than you normally would. Bring up your highlights and pull down your shadows to add contrast. This is also one of those times where I really use the contrast and/or clarity sliders in Lightroom.

If you want some extra help, I highly recommend these presets from Dave Morrow. They were made for star photography but they work just as well with lightning and they’re only $10.

When I can get a chance, I love to photograph the storms and here I'm going to share with you how to photograph lightning.

Author: April Nienhuis

Lover of thunderstorms and despiser of socks, I live in rural Oklahoma with my firefighter/EMT husband and our 3 homeschooled kids. I spend my days deep in blogging, SEO, and social media as I teach photography to others, helping them capture their memories more beautifully, as the Director of Online Media for Click & Company.

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