How to photograph lightning and thunderstorms 2.0

I decided to have a re-look at the lightning article, so that I can make some corrections and some enhancements to the article. Hope you enjoy the new and updated version. P.s. I’ve added more photographs as well for your enjoyment. 

1.1        Overview

One of the most difficult night time photographs you can take is capturing lightning during thunderstorms. Hopefully photographing lightning will be easy with the assistance of this guide, but predicting where the lightning storm is going to be, is difficult due to it’s unpredictability.  Thunderstorms are luckily a common occurrence in the South African high and lowveld in the summer months. Once you’ve mastered the art of photographing lightning then 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.

1.2        Composition

1.2.1          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:
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 Wide angle 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) You can use as well an Intervalometer.
Ensure that you take along a good flashlight and headlamp. You will require the headlamp to see where you are going and to see the back of the camera when setting up. The lamp will as well be used to perform focusing your camera at low-light conditions.
Extra Batteries
Always take extra batteries with you, as taking photos over a long time period will drain your owner, and it will be a pity if you have to stop shooting because you do not have enough power with you. (No – red bull will not give your camera extra power :-))
Extra Memory Cards
Always take along an extra memory card. Especially if you shoot in RAW mode. Raw mode always eats up a lot of storage space, so it is better to have extra memory cards in your repository.
To have something to sit-on during the process
You would require a lot of patience capturing the perfect lightning shot

1.2.2          Composing your photo

Mount your camera as well on the tri-pod and take a test photograph or two to ensure that you got your desired composition correct. Ensure that you place your tri-pod as well on a solid surface – which will ensure that your photograph comes out very sharp. Another tip is to connect a 2 litre water bottle to the bottom of your tri-pod (there is usually a hook onto where you can connect the water bottle) this will assist your tri-pod to become more stable. Connect as well your cable release, as this will ensure that there is no camera movement when you activate your shutter. Camera movement will cause your photos to display blurry, no matter how well you focus on your landscape and stars.

Ensure that you include as much as possible sky into your photograph, this will ensure that the primary focus of the photograph is in the direction of the lightning storm. A good rule of thumb is between 33% fore-ground image and 66% sky. Ensure that your foreground can give some perspective of of your planned scene, for example to include a tree, car or a house. 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.

Composition is one of the most important parts of shooting any type of photograph, and thus plans your photograph, and this will make the difference between a good photo and an awesome photograph.  

1.2.3          Setting-up

This section will provide you with the technique for setting up (usually in a hurry or very fast) to photograph the lightning storm.
The following steps show you how to get ready:
1.       Connect your camera to your Tri-Pod
2.       Remove your camera-strap (the wind may cause the camera strap to move and thus have an negative effect on your camera)
3.       Connect your cable release to your camera
4.       Set your camera to M- Manual mode
5.       Set your camera to continuous shooting
6.       Set your shutter speed to 30seconds 

TIP: If you’ve forgotten your remote trigger or cable release then you can do one of three things:
1.       Put your finger on the shutter for one hour – ouch
2.       Take an elastic band and an eraser (rubber) and rig the eraser on top of the shutter button
3.       Take masking tape and a small round rock and rig it on top of the shutter button
These solutions are not elegant but it works.
Check as we how you mounted your camera onto the Tri-Pod. You may need to change batteries during your photography session, and if the tri-pod mount is situated in front of the battery door then you will have to move the camera’s direction, and trust be you will never get the exact same direction of your camera again.

NOTE: When you mount your camera onto the tri-pod mount, then leave space open for you to open the battery door.

1.2.4          Focusing           How to Focus

The next step is one of the most important parts: how to focus onto the night time scene. 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 – due to the speed of the lightning bolts.

Follow the following steps to focus on the scene for lightning:
1.    If you have a UV filter fitted to your lens then remove it,
2.    Set your lens to MF (there are two options AF (Auto Focus) and MF (Manual Focus)),
3.    If your lens has image stabilization, then switch it off (the reason for this is: in the evening your lenses will constantly try to stabilize due to the low light conditions, and may soften your sharpness of your image),
4.    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,
5.    Switch your camera’s live view on,
6.    Put a light source (your flashlight) approximately 7 meters in front of the camera,
7.    Point your camera to the light source,
8.    Zoom your lens out to the minimum (widest field e.g. 18mm) ,
9.    Turn your focus ring until you can see the stars with pinpoint accuracy,
10. Do not touch your lens again,
11. Point your camera to the lightning storm and re-frame
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.           More Information

Note: For more information please refer to the following article:


1.3        Settings

1.3.1          Overview

Now what are the right settings into taking the ultimate lightning photograph?

The two primary settings to control in astrophotography are shutter speed and aperture. These two settings manage how much light will be captured by your camera. The amount of light is important because most lightning bolts are extremely bright. But there are other factors to consider as well, e.g. what is the correct white balance to use. 

1.3.2          Some settings considerations:

Delay: Make sure that there is no delay or interval between your shots, as you may miss a lightning bolt. The two kinds of delay is the delay setting on the camera (set it to 0), and the delay between the shots is only cause by how fast your camera can write the photo to your memory card.

Live View: Switch off the Live View functionality, as this will reduce your battery power.

Noise Reduction: Turn OFF your camera’s Long Exposure Reduction setting (consult your camera manual to do this). I found that if a photo has been taken consisting of thirty seconds then the camera usually process it between 2-5 seconds, and this causes as well delays between your photographs.

Metering Mode: I always set my camera to: centre weighted average for lightning strikes. This is 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. 

1.3.3          Primary Settings to set

White Balance: Set it to Auto or Fluorescent to create a more natural looking photo.

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.

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.

1.3.4          Taking a Test Photo

It is always important to take a test shot first to see if your composition and settings are correct. Thus click away and take your first photograph. When you completed review the photo and see if you have the correct composition and exposure in your photograph. If you are not happy then play around with the aperture, and move the ISO a little bit up to 200 for example until you have the desired effect.

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 long, thus use the time to take as much as possible photos). 

1.3.5          Taking the photographs

Set your camera to continuous and start the cable release. Let the camera shoot the whole duration of the lightning storm (remember to be safe) and only review your images afterwards.

When the storms passed then download your pictures and review and enjoy it! Usually 90% of your pictures will not have a lightning bolt in it, thus you can discard them and only keep the relevant pictures.

That is it in a nutshell!
As always please feel free to comment on the article.

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