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How to Photograph Lightning

Lightning is one of the most powerful forces in nature. For all of its potentially destructive power, it's also one of Mother Nature's most captivating and beautiful sights. With an estimated 100 lightning strikes per second worldwide, this gorgeous phenomenon is common enough for almost any photographer, anywhere, to have opportunities to capture it. 

The results can be incredibly rewarding, but great lightning shots aren't usually accidental. This article will give you some pointers to increase your chances of successful - and safe - lightning photography.

Safety First. Safety First. Safety First.

The above heading is not a typo. There is nothing more important in taking lightning photos than ensuring your personal safety. Let's put that in perspective: a lightning bolt can hold as much as 1 billion volts of potential energy and the air around it can be many times hotter than the surface of the sun. Cloud-to-ground strikes can strike the earth anywhere, even arcing miles away from their point of origin. As many as 2,000 deaths occur every year from lightning strikes. Don't become one of those statistics.

No matter how tempting it may be, being outside in an electrical storm is risky, and standing next to a metal or carbon-fiber tripod only increases the risk. There's no sure way to avoid being struck, but common sense will help. If it's raining where you are, you're under the storm and your chances of being struck are greater. If possible, stay indoors. A vehicle is a better choice than standing in the open. Better yet, stay far away from the storm and increase your chances of capturing some great wide-angle shots.

How it's Done

Alright, now that we've covered safety, let's move on to the fun part. There are two basic ways to photograph lightning. One involves the use of a lightning trigger and is a fairly sure way to get the shot. The other is my personal favorite and is more of a matter of luck, but doesn't require any highly specialized equipment. Let's start with the more sure method:

Using a Lightning Trigger

A lightning trigger is a very sensitive light detector connected to a very fast electronic shutter release. Most triggers are designed to mount on your camera's flash shoe and connect directly to the electronic shutter release socket.

A lightning strike actually consists of several flashes in segments that occur within milliseconds of each other. A trigger detects the first flash and opens the camera shutter immediately. The duration of the exposure depends on the camera settings, and many triggers on the market can actually work with your camera's auto-exposure settings. The procedure for using one depends on the brand and model you purchase, so I won't go into details.

There are many high-quality triggers on the market today and most deliver great results, even though they can be purchased at a surprisingly reasonable cost. I recommend searching on Amazon.com and comparing features and pricing to find the one that suits your needs.

The Old-Fashioned Way

If you're old-school like me, and enjoy surprises, taking lightning shots doesn't require anything more than a tripod and an SLR or DSLR. The trick is to stabilize your camera, point it in the general direction of the lighting activity and hold the shutter open to let those ultra-bright flashes record themselves on your film or sensor.

The down side to this method is that it involves a lot of guesswork. Since lightning is unpredictable, there's no way to know how long you'll need to keep the shutter open to capture one or more strikes, so there's no real way to calculate your exposure. Too many strikes may overexpose the whole image. If you're framing buildings, a skyline or something else in the shot, it could be silhouetted by the bright flashes. You may also end up with a lot of frames with no strikes at all.

Despite all of the above, it's possible to grab some really spectacular lightning shots with just some basic steps:

  1. Find a safe location to photograph the storm.
  2. Mount your camera on a tripod, bean bag, etc.
  3. Use the highest resolution setting and shoot RAW if possible. 
  4. Set your ISO as low as possible.
  5. Turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction (if possible)
  6. Set your exposure to Manual.
  7. Turn off autofocus and vibration reduction/image stabilization.
  8. Set your aperture at f/8 – f/11.
  9. Connect a cable release or remote release.
  10. Use a wide enough focal length to increase the odds of capturing strikes.
  11. Frame your shot.
  12. Set your focus at infinity or focus on the object(s) you're including in the shot.
  13. Take several multi-second exposures, waiting for lightning strikes.

Obviously, the longer your shutter is open, the more light will be recorded, so you'll want to limit the exposure time. I prefer to use Bulb shutter mode, but you can set your shutter speed to 2 – 3 seconds and then judge the results as you capture lightning.

Processing the Photos

Regardless of which method you use to take lightning shots, post processing will help you create even more spectacular images from your original photos. It's important to be able to adjust exposure, sharpen, reduce noise, and crop your photos to get the most out of your efforts in the field. You may also be able to add some impact by adjusting the White Balance of an image.

High-end photo editors like Luminar, with RAW file processing and a comprehensive tool set are a necessity for processing lightning photos. Both offer everything you need to create high-impact images from your lightning photos. Take a look at this great set of tutorials for Luminar for some ideas on how to take great pictures.

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