Want to know how to photograph lightning and digest some unique stories about photographing storms?
It’s easy. Let’s start with the lightning part first. My new novel can wait.
Photographing lightning isn’t all that difficult. With minimal effort (and some creative experimentation and basic equipment), you too can be shooting shots like these within seconds!
A tripod. You’ll need one.
The camera needs to be dead-still when taking these super-fast flashes of light. A steady hand isn’t enough to do the job.
If you’ve always thought it was about quickly snapping off a shot just as the flash bursts through the clouds, you’re wrong. You’re too slow. The lightning comes and goes before the muscles in your finger react to your brain’s impulse to press a button. The shutter never has a chance to capture what you saw.
Professionals and amateurs alike use tripods and have their camera set-up to take a photo BEFORE the lightning occurs, not AS it occurs.
What, like they use ‘action mode’, motor-drive, fast-action or multi-frame shoot modes?
They take a single shot at a time. Just one. Only one.
They wait for the lightning to come to them by preparing their camera on a tripod – to take a single shot before each strike.
The shutter is open for many seconds (sometimes minutes) before lightning arrives. After it has presented itself and the photographer was sure it was in-frame, that’s when they’ll close the shutter and stop the picture process. That’s how these photos are taken.
They ready the camera to take the next shot in the very same way. One photo at a time before the lightning strikes, closing the shutter after the strike is over.
Yes, it’s a different way to shoot but in no way an unusual one. We’re so used to using our hand-held cameras and phones during the daytime that we’ve forgotten that there are other ways to take photos. Photographing before-a-scene is not weird, nor is using a tripod to help make it happen. That’s what they’re for.
We’ve seen tripods before. Most of us easily associate them with photography… but not when or why they are used.
They’re an essential tool for whenever the shutter’s action is slower than a human’s ability to stop camera-shake. Nobody wants to take fuzzy photos, right?
It just so happens that lightning photography uses very, very, very slow shutter speeds.
Slower shutter-speeds give lightning photographers the ability to capture what hasn’t yet happened. They don’t know exactly where or when lightning will strike but they’ve increased their opportunity to record one by doing it this way. By pointing and focusing their cameras at the active area of an approaching storm, they can count on something happening at some point. It’s just a matter of widening the time it takes to make the photo (widening the lens also helps) and letting opportunity take its place during the sequence.
Slower shutter speeds? How long are we talking?
In suburbia, where the streets and homes spill light into the lower-level cloud, not long. Two minutes is more than enough to accumulate all that soft, almost insignificant light. Anything more than this and the risk of over-exposure is great.
But if you’re out camping in the woods and miles from civilization, get ready to go for anything up to half an hour.
It’s even possible that several strikes will appear at different times during these longer sequences. When this happens they’ll accumulate. To anyone who views the finished photo, they look as though they’ve all struck at once!
I see you’re salivating now. Nice.
My character quivers at lightning too. He quite literally goes bonkers chasing that perfect lightning photo. It’s an obsession. He drools whenever he hears the rumble of thunder. Then again, he should, he’s a psychopath whose alter ego is triggered by lightning.
Umm, I digress… you’ll probably want to know more specifics on how to shoot lightning.
For the more technically minded:
Most modern SLR cameras have shutter settings that allow many seconds of exposure time to be selected. Some go into minutes. One setting that suffices for all long exposures is Bulb or Bu. Sometimes it’s simply known as B. This is the magical granddaddy of long exposure photography. When this setting is used, it requires your finger’s pressure to tell the camera when to start the shutter’s cycle and when to end it. Nice eh?
But not all photographers want to keep their finger pressed on a button for many minutes at a time, they’ll use a remote lead instead. Remotes often have a lock-down device that keeps the shutter open until it’s unlocked. Remotes are the secret tool to photographing lightning well.
A basic run-down list of what to have / do when photographing lightning.
- (DSLR) or SLR Camera – Manual shutter, aperture and focus controls.
- Tripod – Sturdy, low windage.
- Remote Lead – Wireless or wired is okay. With a lock is super!
- Low Light – Night or near night.
- City Light -Minimal
- Timer – Watch or stopwatch.
(D) SLR Camera is self-explanatory. If you can’t take control of your shutter timings then there’s no point in reading this article any further. Point and shoot cameras, phones, iPads and the like, don’t allow users access to the shutter or aperture controls.
On that point though, when it comes to choosing apertures, try f8.0 (100 ISO) as a starting point. Higher numbers will show more detail in a lightning bolt. Lower numbers will brighten and ‘thicken’ it.
As for shutter speeds, start with thirty seconds and then increase the times. If the picture becomes pale, you’ve gone too long for the amount of light that’s in the sky. Shorten the shutter time or wait ’til the sky gets darker. Perhaps finding a darker location from which to shoot will fix this problem.
By switching auto-focus off and leaving the lens set to infinity, it stops the lens from trying to search for something that’s not really there and stops the photo from being taken. Lightning will come when it’s good and ready anyway. Focus on infinity because lightning will be closer to infinity than anywhere else in the scene!
Tripod and Remote Leads work in unison when photographing lightning. Wireless remotes are better because they have less windage. Storm fronts tend to generate wind gusts and they can blow a wired remote lead causing tiny shakes in the camera.
Low light times are when the Pros are photographing lightning the most. This is not just because a lightning bolt stands out against a dark background, it’s also because it allows longer exposures. The longer the shutter times are, the better the opportunities to get good bolt/s of lightning in their pictures.
A Timer helps keep track of the time of each photo’s exposure when photographing lightning. I don’t use a stopwatch. I wear a mechanical watch instead. Its second-hand ticks loudly enough for me to count off the seconds. I don’t need a torch to carry around or with me or to unnecessarily ruin my night vision.
-Michael Forman (Photographer/Author)
SEETHINGS: A dark adult story about a lightning photographer who witnesses more than lightning in the wooded areas around the city!
If you like lightning or taking pictures of lightning, you’ll love the story in SEETHINGS.
Five women’s bodies are discovered after the nights of thunderstorms. Their spouses are suspected of the crimes, but it becomes clear that someone else is responsible. There’s no blood and few clues. A storm photographer who specialises in taking pictures of lightning may be the only witness.
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