52813 Lighting Storm 6

Photo Tutorial & Gallery | How to photograph lightning at night

Nick Ulivieri | April 4, 2011 (UPDATED JULY 20, 2012)

Lightning is an “atmospheric discharge of electricity accompanied by thunder … A leader of a bolt of lightning can travel at speeds of 22,000 mph, and can reach temperatures approaching 54,000 °F ” From: Wikipedia.  The rest of the article has even more Impressive stuff.  It’s no wonder I’ve become so engrossed with observing and photographing this natural phenomenon.

The first flash I see or rumble of thunder I hear gets my adrenaline going.  Unfortunately, that also means I’m sometimes awake until 3 a.m. waiting for an approaching storm to let loose. Below the photo set are some of my tips/tricks to photographing this fleeting moment. The key to all of this isn’t a quick trigger, it’s a long exposure! Just try not to lose too much sleep over it.

Before you venture out, I feel obligated to post some sort of safety disclaimer:  Be safe, smart, and  stay dry. If your hair suddenly stands on end, it could mean that you are about to be struck by lightning. To protect yourself, drop to your knees with your hands on them and bend forward. Never lie flat on the ground. Read more: How to Protect Yourself From Lightning. Another mantra to follow: “When thunder roars head indoors”
Check the tutorial after the photos:

The Gear:

This tutorial is geared towards DSLR cameras, but many of these tips/settings can be used with a point-and-shoot camera with manual settings.

Camera: Whatever camera your shooting with these days.

Lenses: Wide to mid focal-length zoom lenses

Tripod: This is a must…no use trying if you don’t have one. If your tripod isn’t heavy duty, hang a weight from it to prevent a spill. Storms are usually accompanied by wind, and you don’t want your set-up toppling over or camera shake while the shutter is open. NOTE: If you do hang a weight on your tripod, make sure it is resting on the ground and connected to the tripod with a taught rope/cord.  If the weight simply hangs, the wind can cause the weight to sway and generate unwanted movement of the tripod.

Remote trigger: Having a remote to trigger the shutter, or a cable release, makes the process much easier and is recommended.  If a remote or release isn’t a possibility, use your camera’s timer.  You can still use the shutter button, but the extra few seconds will cause the vibrations to cease before the shutter opens.

Microfiber cloth/towel: To wipe away any drops on your lens

Rain Gear…for you and your camera: Even if you’re on a balcony or under cover; dripping water, splashes, and wind driven droplets can and will find their way onto you and your camera.  Something as simple as a clear plastic bag with a hole cut for the lens will suffice.


Camera Settings:

1. Manual Mode: Shoot in manual mode and in RAW format if you have the capabilities to process them. Otherwise JPEG will suffice.

2. Shutter speed:  I generally shoot 8-15 second long exposures, but even go up to 20-30 second exposures – catching lightning is all about experimentation, and finding the settings that work best for the effect you want to achieve in your given conditions.  I generally start in the 8 second range for a few reasons.  First, since I live in Chicago, I am inundated with light pollution and the lower storm clouds can quickly become too bright if my exposure is too long. Second, longer shutter speeds could cause the fast moving clouds to become blurred. However, a bright bolt of lightning acts just like an external flash, albeit a giant one that freeze the cloud’s movement – which is a good thing.

I find that 8-15 seconds allows you to preserve some the cloud detail at an acceptable sharpness (when not accompanied by overpowering lightning) as well as let in enough light to preserve foreground details.  Obviously, in darker and rural areas, longer shutter speeds will be needed if there is any hope of capturing foreground detail.

Bulb Mode: I know a lot of people use bulb mode to capture lightning strikes, but I typically discourage that (unless you need longer than 30 seconds to get a proper exposure for the landscape). The reason is this: If you wait too long for a bolt to strike the image may be over exposed. Conversely, if a bolt strikes a second or two into your exposure, you may close the shutter too early and you could be left with an underexposed image.

It all comes down to consistency and repeatability for me. Using the exact same shutter speed (until conditions change) for a set of shots will yield consistent results that will allow you to more easily edit the images in post-processing, and will allow you to more easily create panoramas or even stacked lighting composites.

3. Aperture: I typically shoot between f/10-f/16, but sometimes open up to f/4 or less (for less intense in-cloud lightning), or close it down to f/12+ if the bolts are really bright and close. Again, experimentation is the key.  I generally stop down to keep the long exposure from being over-exposed when a bolt brightly lights the scene.  I also treat these shots like landscapes, using a closed down aperture to ensure a deep depth of field and preserve sharpness.

An important note on Shutter Speed and Aperture in relation to lightning photography:

While the above notes on my settings are general suggestions on where to start, your shutter speed and aperture must work in concert with one another.  As the lightning becomes closer and more intense (or farther and less intense) you need to adjust both settings to compensate for the change in light entering your camera.  When photographing lighting you’re dealing with two different exposures – The exposure of the landscape/ambient light and the exposure of the lightning itself. In this case your aperture controls the intensity of the flash, and your shutter speed controls the ambient light of the scene.

For example, say I’m photographing a night landscape without lightning at 8-seconds and  f/6 and it looks great.  If I shoot the same scene with the same settings, while a close bolt of lighting strikes, the lighting bolt itself will be too bright and you won’t see any detail. So how do you fix this?  First, you need to close down your aperture to lessen the amount of light coming in during that bright event.  However, if you only close down your aperture and don’t extend your shutter speed, the next bolt you catch may look great, but your foreground/landscape will be dark.

So in practice, the lightning bolt’s bright intensity needs to be choked down by a smaller aperture to preserve the details of the bolt itself. While the longer exposure will allow your sensor more time to gather the now lessened ambient light of the scene your shooting. The opposite is true when the lightning is farther away and less intense – shorter shutter speed, and larger aperture.

4. ISO: Keep it  low – usually under 200.  Long exposures inherently add noise and I like to start off with the least amount of noise possible.  The low ISO also helps keep bolts from being too blown out –  especially the excruciatingly bright close strikes.

5. Focus: Manually set your focus to infinity.  This is probably the most important part of capturing bolts because it will allow your shutter to release instantly every time without having to re-focus.  If you’re using a point-and-shoot, you should be able to choose an infinity focus setting in your camera’s focus menu.


General advice/tips:

1. Once everything is about set you just need to be patient and wait for the lightning storm.  Track your local radar to get a better idea of when the storm will arrive, the general direction it will be coming from, and the storm’s severity.  Know what’s approaching before you venture out!

2.  Stay dry – Try and capture the lightning as the storm approaches, not once it’s already bearing down on you.  Your most crisp bolts will be captured when there isn’t a heavy amount of rain between you and the lightning.  My rule of thumb:  If it’s already raining heavily it’s not necessarily too late.  Stay inside and wait until after the rain passes, and you can usually catch some good lightning as the storm departs the area. Some very interesting clouds and lighting conditions can present itself if the sun comes out behind a storm too.

3. If you do catch a good bolt of lightning but think the image is too over/under exposed, adjust your aperture – and then your shutter speed.  Like most of what I’ve said, this is just a suggestion, not a rule.  If you think the clouds could be sharper, increase your shutter speed by a second or two.  You have to experiment with what works best for the environment you are shooting in.

4. Wide angle shots are killer: I feel that wide angle lightning shots give you better context and depth when you do capture a bolt, particularly when they are close.  In some instances, the lightning will brilliantly illuminate the clouds above the bolt which may add a lot of texture and detail.  Wide shots also cover more sky, which means more chances to catch the lightning.

5. Don’t “set it and forget it”: It’s easy to set-up your camera, dial in your settings, and let it run by setting an intervalometer, but if you aren’t there to tend to the changing conditions you may be disappointed by the results.  Storm clouds move, the area of the most intense lighting changes, etc. The entire storm system is a constantly evolving mix of lighting conditions and you need to make sure your camera is correctly set as those conditions change.

6. Don’t wait for the lightning to strike before pushing the remote trigger, you’ll usually miss it. Regularly click the shutter and hope lightning strikes while the shutter is open.  If you must, you could set up an intervalometer or in-camera timer to take pictures at set intervals.  But as I noted in the previous tip, it might not work out that well. Personally, it is more fun and rewarding to try and catch it “on my own”…Even if I’m just clicking a button.

7. Another thing to consider (though I have a hard time heeding my own advice) is to not go through and delete all the missed shots. Its tempting to do, but I can’t tell you how many bolts I’ve missed when I was hurrying to try and delete the bad shots and review the good ones.

8.  Post processing:  I find that these settings generally make for a well exposed image. However, I do post-process all of my lightning shots in Adobe Lightroom.  I do most of my post processing to bring out the intricate details in the clouds.  It’s easy to overlook, but sometimes this is where the most interesting details are hidden.  The gradient tool coupled with the clarity slider are your best friends for teasing these details out.  I also rely on the highlight slider to help reign in blown-out bolts.  Due to the light pollution, I often find myself with a lot of reds/yellows/magentas apparent in the clouds, while having heavy blues in the bolts.  Trying to find the perfect white-balance is tricky with different light sources/color temperatures.  Instead of trying to mitigate this, I embrace it and make it a contrasting color element of my images.  Lightning lasts for such a brief second in time that it’s hard to know for certain what the scene “truly” looks like so have fun with it. All of the fine details and colors were caught by the camera as you see them above.  I merely made what was captured more apparent.

9.  With great power comes great responsibility. In the digital age, snapping off hundreds, or thousands, of shots is easy – especially when trying to capture lighting. If you happen to catch a good storm with a lot of activity, take a breath before you upload every photo that has an inkling of lighting in it. Edit them down so that you have a concise yet great set. A handful of great photos will have a more memorable impact on your viewers than if those same great shots were sprinkled in amidst a mass of mediocre images.

10. The key here is patience.  Sit outside, enjoy the storm rolling in, and just keep clicking the remote.  The best feeling is hitting the trigger then seeing the bolt a second or two after you hear the shutter open. It nearly guarantees you’ve captured a strike (assuming your camera is pointed in the right direction). Each storm will vary in the type of lightning it produces, the intensity, and the amount of strikes. You just need to practice, experiment, and exercise patience…which isn’t necessarily easy when you’re counting on mother nature to give you the ideal light show.

Here’s a time-lapse look at my  process of shooting a storm. As you can see I change angels, the direction my camera is facing, and the camera settings dictated by what the storm is doing. On this particular night i shot 327 frames. Most of which were not very exciting. but the more frames you take, the more chances you have at capturing something awesome!


Good Luck, happy shooting, stay dry, and most importantly…don’t get struck!

Quick guide:

Shutter speed: Start around 8-10 seconds

Aperture: f/10-f/16

ISO: Low, < 200

Focus: manual focus to infinity -or- auto-focus on distant object, switch to manual

Check out my updated, and ongoing, storm photography set on Flickr