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How to Photograph Lightning in 10 Easy Steps

I promised way back in the middle of the summer that I would get back to offering photography advice again as soon as possible.  Well, this is as soon as possible. My intent is to post one “how to” photography article a month from here on out.  So here it goes.

 How to Photograph Lightning


how to photograph lightning


Did you ever want to know how to photograph lightning? Lightning is one of those awesome and unpredictable forces of nature that we as a society still don’t know a lot about. It is beautiful and mysterious. Even though I grew up in the mountains of Colorado, a place where intense summer lightening storms are common, I don’t think I ever had the respect for lighting I should have until the summer of 2004.  Twice that summer found my just months-old daughter and myself caught out in a rather shocking lightning storm while hiking in the Colorado high country.  The first storm came on us in just minutes – from blue sky to black before I knew what was happening. It was over fast but the lightning strikes were so close that my hair stood up. I held Isabella tightly under my raincoat. She seemed bored. I was flipped.  Sadly, that one had tragic consequences.  A young woman just a mile or so up the trail from us was struck and killed.  Just a few weeks later another storm caught us by surprise on yet another trail. I guess I wasn’t current with the weather patterns that summer. Anyway, we hid in a cave. I could see the strikes hitting the ground just about a hundred yards across the canyon.

While Isabella slept through it all, I found the whole experience rather…electrifying (just humor me) and was determined to learn how to take pictures of lightning.  So…..What did I learn?


how to photograph lightning


My step-by-step guide to score your own great lightning shots goes something like this:

1. Watch the weather. Photographers tend to be weather nerds anyway given that we are always seeking the right light for our creations.  That said, you can amp it up and stay current by tuning into NOAA satellite websites, checking #wx Twitter feeds (for example I’m always watching #cowx for Colorado and #nmwx for New Mexico) or downloading apps to your smartphone such as MyRadar to help you track storms.  Of course, walking outside, watching the clouds build, looking towards the horizon and tuning your ear into the low rumble of approaching thunder can never hurt.

2. Safety.  Generally, I like to follow the rule that if you can hear thunder, you’re chances of getting struck by lightening go up significantly. Keep that in mind while shooting. You might want to stay in your car and use a window mount for your camera or set up a tripod outside and sit in your house or car using a remote to trigger the shutter.  Just don’t put yourself at risk. Don’t hesitate to bolt for safety if the strikes get too close.  Be aware and be smart and maybe even check out these lightning safety tips.

3. Steady your camera. You’ll want to set up your camera on a tripod or some other steady surface as your shutter will be open for a long time to capture the shot.

4. Horizon. While it may be shockingly obvious, the most electrifying action is going to take place in the sky.  So orient your camera to take in as much of the sky as possible while still getting the horizon in your frame for contrast.  Also, think about what you want your final image to be.  Do you want an up close shot of a single bolt or do you want a wide-angle shot where you can capture many bolts at once.

5. Something interesting.  Give some thought to getting something interesting in your frame.  A telephone pole, an old tree, a building….something striking that will give your shot perspective.

6. Focus. Set your camera to manual focus, pick your focal point and get it set.  This way your auto-focus won’t be hunting around for something to focus on when you need to be taking the shot.

how to photograph lightning

7. ISO.  Try 200 or 400.  I don’t go higher than that because my Nikon D3000 creates a lot of noise in the image if the ISO is too high. If you’ve got a better camera than mine you’ll have less to worry about.  I swear I’m upgrading next year….

8. Shutter speed.  You cannot predict the exact moment when lightning will strike and you will never be fast enough to hit the button when you see a flash. So, set your shutter speed to something in the range of 8-30 seconds.  This setting is going to depend on how much background light you have.  If you’re in a place with no city lights, set it to 30 seconds. The longer you leave it open the more strikes you will capture. But remember that the shorter time your shutter is open the sharper your image of the bolt will be. So again you have to decide what you’re going for. If there is a lot of background light like you’ll want to set it to something more like 8 or 10.  Take a few sample snaps just to see what you are getting and adjust accordingly.

9. Aperture. Set your aperture to something pretty wide since the storm is going to be, hopefully, somewhat distant to you.

10. Take a breath.  Or a beer.  The main this you need to remember if you want to know how to photograph lightning is that you’ll never capture thunderingly awesome images of lightning without spending some time out in the storm.  Success requires patience and practice.  Keep at it.  Watch the way the storm is moving over the landscape.  Play with the shutter speeds and try again and again and again. In the end, you’ll be shocked at how easy this is.

As always, my final word of advice on any of this is…..HAVE FUN.

how to photograph lightning


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