How to Photograph Lightning

Overview

One of the most difficult night time photographs you can take is lightning. Photographing lightning is easy with the assistance of this guide, but predicting where the lightning storm is going to be is difficult due to it’s unpredictability.  Thunderstorm are luckily a common occurrence in the South African high and lowveld in the summer months, and once you’ve mastered the art then looking and finding  thunderstorms and photographing it can become quite addictive. Luck plays a major part of this night time photography hobby, and if you plan properly then you can be safe and have brilliant shots.
A special note: Lightning is DANGEROUS. Do not take unnecessary risks in photographing lightning and thunderstorms, and make sure that you are at all times safe, and be a safe distance away from any Thunderstorms.

Setting-up

What do you need?

The first step in taking great lightning photographs is to obtain the correct gear and software. The following indicates the required gear and software with a short description of each:
Equipment
Description

A DSLR Camera

You will need a DSLR camera with Manual capability.

Manual capability will allow you to set the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Ensure that your camera can operate in low light, and that it has adequate noise filters and ability to handle high ISO values. I personally prefer using Canon cameras.

A Fast Lens

You will require as well a good lens with the ability to set it to manual focus. Manual focus is required because the camera will not have the ability to focus automatically, and you would use manual focus to focus your star to pinpoint sharpness. It would be good if your lens has the ability to have fast-aperture wide-angle lens (ideally in the f/1.4 – f/2.8 max aperture range). I like to shoot in the 18mm range, and any lower mm range would be brilliant, as you would like to shoot as much as possible of the stars.

A Sturdy Tripod

You would require a sturdy tripod due to you shooting long exposures. Ensure as well that your tripod which will not shake when there is some wind.

Ensure as well that your tri-pod’s head can rotate horizontal and vertical. This will enable you to take landscape or portrait photographs.

A remote camera trigger

You would use the remote camera trigger to trigger your shutter without you touching the camera (avoiding camera shake), and to control the exposure time (ranging from a couple of seconds to a couple of hours)

Flashlight

Ensure that you take along a good flashlight and headlamp. You will require the headlamp to see where you are going

Patience

You would require a lot of patience capturing the perfect lightning shot

 
Technique
This section will provide you with the technique for photographing the Lightning. The primary settings to remember is that you must use low ISO, slow shutter speed and varying apertures to compensate for the low light conditions.  The first step in taking brilliant lightning photographs is to set-up your camera. The following are easy steps for this process:
1.         Set you camera to manual exposure (M) mode (this setting is on the top dial of your camera)
2.         Set your lens to Manual Focus (MF) (this setting is on your the lens itself)
3.         Zoom your lens out to the maximum (widest field e.g. 18mm) (my personal preference to capture as much as possible of the night sky.
4.         If your camera has a setting for exposure noise reduction then enable it under the menu – but this step is optional (this will reduce the amount of noise in your photograph)
5.         Set your camera’s white balance to auto (I set this to auto to enable you to modify the mood of the photo later on in light room
6.         My personal preference is to shoot in JPEG mode – but if you are a master at editing RAW photographs then please set it to your preference
7.         Connect your cable release to the camera
8.         Focus your lens to infinity (focusing is discussed in the focusing section)
9.         Mount your camera onto the tripod

Composition

Ensure that you include as much as possible sky into your photograph, this will ensure that the primary focus of the photograph is on the lightning. A good rule of thumb is between 30% and 50% of your photo frame must include the sky. Some of the most stunning pictures usually include a city, or lightning bolts hitting something, but the most important part is to get the lightning into your photo J. Ensure that your foreground can give some perspective of the size of the lightning bolt. Lastly make double sure that your horizon is straight, off centre photographs does not look nice, and distract the viewer’s attention away from your subject

Focusing

The next step is one of the most important parts: how to focus onto the Lightning strikes. It is important to take the time to focus your photographs to pinpoint clarity, and it is one of the few times where you cannot rely on your camera’s autofocus system. Your camera’s auto focus system will not be able to focus on the Lightning as there is too much light coming in from the lightning strikes.
Follow the following steps to focus on Lightning:
1.    Set your lens to MF (there are two options AF (Auto Focus) and MF (Manual Focus)),
2.    If your lens have image stabilization, then switch it off,
3.    If your lens has the infinity symbol on the focus ring (∞) then set move the focus to there. But if your lens do not have this setting then do not stress, just continue to the next step,
4.    Switch your camera’s live view on,
5.    Move your camera that it points to the direction of the storm,
6.    Zoom your lens out to the minimum (widest field e.g. 18mm) ,
7.    Turn your focus ring until you can see the lightning storm with pinpoint accuracy. You achieve pinpoint accuracy when the foreground and lightning strikes do not look like blobs. This can be a painstakingly slow process, but well worth it,
8.    Once you’ve achieved the perfect focus, and then lock your focus on your lens (another flip button on your lens. This will ensure that you have perfect focus for the whole evening’s photos.

Settings

 Overview

In the beginning it is difficult to remember all the camera settings, and hopefully this guide will make it easier for you to get to the right setting for your camera. Always remember that your camera will pick up more light than what your eyes can see, and thus you must always take test shots until you are happy with the outcome of your photo. I recommend that you take quite a few test shots because the image ay look fine on the live-view, but on a computer screen it may look totally different.
Taking your first test shot:
1.    The first step would be to set your camera to the following settings: ISO = 100, Shutter Speed = 25 Seconds and Aperture f/7.1, continuous shooting mode
2.    Point your camera to the direction where the most lightning occurs
3.    Press your cable release, and take the photographs
4.    Do NOT touch the camera in any way – as this will cause vibrations, and much up your photograph. If you touched your camera by accident in this step, then please redo from step 1
5.    When the photo sequence is finished then look at it in playback
In Playback make sure that all the lightning bolts have pinpoint accuracy. If they are not very sharp then re-focus your lens until the ultimate sharpness can be obtained. If your photo is sharp then sit back and admire your first photograph (dint sit back too long – lightning storms does not last longs, thus use the time to take as much as possible photos).
 

Settings

Now what are the right settings into taking the ultimate lightning photograph? Follow the following guidelines and you will be able to photograph brilliant lightning Photos.
Exposure
If you like controlling your camera’s settings then set your camera to M (Manual), but if you are not so confident then set your camera to TV (Time priority) and play around with your shutter speed. If your camera is in TV mode then it would allow you to change the ISO as well, thus I would suggest reading the next sections as well. If your camera is in M (Manual) then this will provide you with greater flexibility to set the right conditions to your favour.
There is no one “right” setting to take sunset photo, as your light conditions changes constantly. And the following sections will provide you with a guide how to get the ideal settings.
I would suggest that you set your camera as well to continuous drive, to capture as many as possible photographs. You can later on sift through all the duds, and only keep the photos with lightning on it.
 
White Balance
I would suggest setting your camera’s white balance to Auto White Balance, as this will give you flexibility if you want to edit your photo later on.
Aperture
I would recommend using a wide aperture range to increase the depth of field – from f/7.1 to f/11. I would first suggest using an aperture of f/7.1 and working your way slowly to f/11. This will allow you to evaluate the depth of field to take into account any of your foreground objects in relation to your background (lightning) and how it affects your focus of the different objects.
Metering Mode
I always set my camera to centre weighted average for lightning strikes, due to the unpredictability of where the lightning is going to strike, and I want to use the camera’s default light detection as much as possible.
Shutter speed
It is essential that you use a tri-pod for shooting lightning is a dry place, as this will assist your camera in shooting photos in low light. This allows you to take photos at the correct ISO and shutter speed. I usually use a shutter speed of 25 seconds to open your shutter long enough to capture a lightning strike. If it is not very dark then I would start decreasing the shutter speed, until your photo comes out nice and crisp and not just a white blob.
ISO
Set your camera to a low ISO (100) – depending on your light. The low ISO will compensate for the white flash of the lightning, and would allow as well for lower noise levels.
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