How to Photograph Lightning: a Safe Guide to Getting the Shot
When it comes to creating images that are dynamic, exciting, and eye catching, it’s hard to beat storm photography. And when it comes to shooting nature and extreme weather, lightning photography is particularly stunning.
However, lightning is unpredictable and can be very dangerous. Capturing a lightning strike takes a fair amount of both preparation and plain ole luck. Capturing it in a way that makes an effective photograph takes practice and experience. But when you nail that perfect lightning photography shot, you walk away with something truly extraordinary.
When and Where Does Lightning Occur?
Lightning happens most often when there is a large amount of atmospheric instability, particularly when the ground is significantly warmer than the upper atmosphere and there is a lot of moisture in the air. Most lightning happens during thunderstorms. Because lightning is often fed by warmer surface temperatures pushing hot, moist air into a cooler atmosphere, areas that frequently have these conditions (such as the southeast and particularly Florida) tend to have more thunderstorms – and they are most common during the summer. Thunderstorms are also common along mountain ranges where air is being forced up. Lightning is least common along the Pacific coast. However, while these are well-established lightning trends, the reality is that storms producing lightning can happen just about anywhere at any time.
Factors to Consider with Lightning Photography
If you are planning to go out and shoot lightning photography, there are a few things that you should think about. The first is that you need to have a realistic expectation of what’s going to actually happen out there. There are a number of apps as well as resources from the National Weather Service that track storms and can help you predict when lightning is going to happen. Once you decide that conditions are right to shoot lightning, find a place to set up and start thinking about how you want to handle the conditions you’ll be facing.
A storm can produce a few different types of lightning. Cloud-to-ground lightning is what most people envision. This type of lightning makes for particularly appealing pictures, but it’s less common. Cloud-to-cloud lightning (also called intra-cloud lightning) happens more frequently and can be incredibly dramatic, particularly if the lightning bolts are heavily forked, but you might not have that compositional option. Lightning may also stay within the same cloud, obscuring the actual bolt, but can light up the cloud in interesting ways that you might be able to composite into other shots.
Start your shoot knowing that you might end up with only cloud-to-cloud lightning and how you want to try and make that interesting. Lightning is almost completely unpredictable, so you want to control what you can in order to walk away successfully. This can include finding really interesting foreground subjects so that you can at least get a dramatic vista.
How to Stay Safe When Shooting Lightning Photography
Technically, no outside space is fully safe when lightning is occurring. While you always hear tips about counting the seconds between rumbles and strikes, know that hearing thunder at all could mean lightning is close enough to strike you. For example, 10 seconds between strike and clap gives you only about a 2 mile distance. Not to get too scary, but lightning can – and often does – strike upwards of 3 miles from the center of the storm.
You may have also heard tips about staying dry and running for any kind of cover, but also know that hiding under a tree is not a great bet. Being under an object like a tree puts you at risk for a side flash, which is when the lightning strikes a taller object and a portion of the current jumps to you. It can happen when you’re around a foot or so from the struck object. According to Weather.gov, strikes while sheltering under a tree are the second-leading cause of lighting-related casualties. So what’s the leading cause? Well, it gets scarier: ground current. This is when lightning strikes something like a tree and the current travels from the strike and along the ground to you – and it can cover a lot of ground!
Ok, so being around trees is out. Maybe you want a nice, open area to shoot from for good coverage of the sky? That’s safe, right? Think again. Lightning tends to strike tall things, pointy things, and, well, isolated things. Laying on the ground is not good because of the aforementioned ground current. If you’re out in the open, the best bet is to keep moving, which is not at all conducive to contemplative landscape photography.
Really one of the safest places to be other than at home is in your car. Metal doesn’t attract lightning (that’s a myth) but it will conduct it. So if you happen to get unlucky enough (or lucky enough depending on your appetite for risk) to have your car struck, it will go through the frame and into the ground. If you want to capture lightning but also want to play it mostly safe, shooting from inside a building with easy access to the outdoors (think a balcony or simply an open sliding glass door) is a decent compromise. Stay away from any metal railings. Don’t run out there excitedly, camera in hand, if the storm is right above you. You want to be on the edge of a storm looking in, not in the middle of it looking up.
For this reason, it might not actually be the best tactic to use your wide angle lens, despite it maybe being your normal go-to for landscapes. If you’re doing lightning photography “safely”, then it’ll be from far away. Have a telephoto on hand for this. Another thing to consider is shooting remotely. Put your camera in harm’s way (poor thing) and use a remote trigger/tether system. Remember, though, that these things can conduct. It would be incredibly unlucky but it’s not impossible for lighting to strike your gear and conduct all the way to you, holding a wired trigger or a tethered monitor. You’re really not supposed to be handling electrical equipment at all. If you can work wirelessly, that’s of course better.
Shooting a Lightning Time Lapse and General Settings Advice for Lighting Photography
So is there really any way to do this with zero risk? Well, no. Lightning simply is just not a zero-risk phenomena. Many photographers take calculated risks and walk away, more times than not, with really cool shots and are just fine. But I can’t stress enough how dangerous it really can be. One of the least-risky tactics would be to set your camera to interval shoot, walk away for awhile, and just hope it caught it something. It’s not the most artistic or immersive ways to approach it but if you set up your system well, it can be quite effective. For storms in general, a time lapse interval of a maximum of 1 second is your best bet for catching some strikes. A lot of cameras these days have interval timers built right into them.
To do this, you’ll need a lot of space on your memory card. If you end up wanting to actually built a time lapse from all of your frames, and not just pluck out individual winning frames, know that 30 individual frames will equate to about 1 second of cinematic footage – so you need a lot of frames to make up a decently-lengthed time lapse video. If you’re not doing that, don’t worry about it. Just set your interval timer to something really quick and let it run until the storm opportunity ends, your memory fills up, or your battery dies – whatever comes first. Quick tip: if you’re using the interval timer on the Canon 5D Mark IV, it gives you the option of 1-99 shots in the menu system under “No. of Shots”. If you put in 00 instead, it will keep shooting until you manually stop it.
You might want to try and get multiple strikes in 1 frame (without compositing, which is also certainly an option if you like post production work), so a slower shutter speed will be needed. Avoid autofocus, it won’t be very effective here. Infinity focus on your lens is a quick solution but not fool-proof. Try and focus on a very distant light ahead of time, if possible. Then set it and forget it. If you’re shooting lightning that is occurring in heavy rain, that can make your strikes look soft so don’t despair if that happens – it might not be your settings.
The strikes themselves will be quite bright so when considering what aperture to use, take a strobe approach: aperture affects the brightness of your lightning (same as when using a flash or strobe), while your ISO and shutter will affect the brightness of the surroundings. It’s really hard to predict just how bright these strikes can be. Sometimes an aperture as stopped down as f/8 will still result in overexposed strikes.
A last bit of compositional advice is to definitely involve your environment in your shot in some way. Don’t just point your lens at the sky. There is no rule against it – it’s just that it’ll probably be more, well, boring of a shot if you just only capture lightning without any context.
A collection of links to help give you the resources you need to shoot lightning as safely as possible:
• NSSL Experimental Warn-on-Forecast System
Running in real time since 2016, this research project forecasts the likelihood and severity of threats such as tornadoes, severe hail, damaging winds, flash flooding, and lightning within thunderstorms.
• Storm Prediction Center
A daily convective outlook from NOAA’s National Weather Service showing the thunderstorm predictions for the United States with 10, 40, and 70 percent probabilities in 4 or 8 hour time periods.
• Lightning Photos Collection from the National Weather Service
Get inspired, submit your own!
A weather-tracking site with companion apps for both mobile and desktop.
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