Photographing lightning is a misunderstood technique that’s actually quite easy to do… once you learn the basics.
Most people seem to think that you have to have a quick trigger finger. They think that you wait to see the flash of lightning, then quickly press the shutter button. Truth is, this technique might actually work… I’ve never tried it but some forms of lightning seem to linger in the sky for 1/4 sec or more… so if you have a fast enough finger and camera you might be able to catch the tail end of the flash.
But, if you want to learn the proper way to shoot lightning and get the whole flash!-boom!-bang!… read on!
Here are the things you’ll definitely need:
- An SLR or (much preferably) a DSLR or any camera that you can control the shutter, aperture and ISO.
- A tripod
- A lightning storm
Some optional things you might want:
- A cable release
- A neutral density or circular polarizing filter
- A large capacity memory card (or lots of film)
- An interesting foreground to compliment the lightning (buildings, landscapes, cityscapes, etc)
- An umbrella and rain coat
Once you’ve found your lightning storm, set up the camera and tripod. It’s usually easier to use a wide angle lens because you’re never quite sure where the lightning will be.
Now this is the most important part: You want to shoot with as long of a shutter speed as you can. 4 seconds is good, 30 seconds is much better. As soon as everything is set, start shooting successive photos, whether there is any lightning or not. You might end up shooting 10 or 20 or 100 frames before there is another lightning strike, but if your shutter is open for 30 seconds and there’s a lightning flash anytime in that 30 seconds, you’ve got it!
Some more technical tips: I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to shoot with the longest shutter speed that you can. The easiest way to do this is to shoot at night. That way, you can set your shutter to 30 seconds and adjust the aperture and ISO to properly expose the foreground.
If you’re shooting at twilight or during the day, you’ll need a few tricks to limit the amount of light that’s making it into your camera.
- First of all, set your aperture to it’s smallest setting (biggest number) – f/22 or smaller.
- Next, set your ISO to the smallest number (100 is better than 200).
- If you still have too short of a shutter speed, try a neutral density filter – this filter is a type of “sunglasses” for your lens. It allows you to open the settings a stop or more. (If you were shooting at 1 sec, now you could shoot at 2 sec, etc) They come in different powers, -1 stop, -2 stops, -3 stops, etc.
- Use a cable release to minimize camera shake.
- Lock up the mirror, if your camera has that feature.
- If your camera has “long exposure noise reduction,” turn it off. Using this feature causes the time in between photos to take longer. On my camera, if I leave it on, I’ll take a 30 second exposure then have to wait 30 seconds as the camera processes the noise reduction. This is obviously bad if the lightning strikes during that 30 seconds that the camera is processing. If I turn it off, I can take another photo instantly, and apply noise reduction later, in post processing.
Shooting lightning can be frustrating, but will definitely reward your patience with dramatic results.
Good luck, and don’t stand near any big metal things!
Learn lots more about lightning at Wikipedia!