by Alex W.
One of the first photos to ever take my breath away was a wonderfully composed landscape image with dark and brooding clouds looming ominously over the land. Those things weren’t what caught my eye though – A terrifying bolt of lightning dominated the scene, and it was at that moment I vowed to learn exactly how to photograph lightning.
It’s not an easy task, and in some areas of the world it’s just downright frustrating. First, you have to wait until there’s an incoming storm, and only then can you proceed to try and fail to capture the spectacular money shot time and time again.
Well, that’s what I did anyway. Eventually, though, I cracked it and captured my first bolt of lightning crashing down to earth. Hopefully, these tips on how to photograph lightning can help you succeed much more swiftly than I did.
In case you’re interested – Yes, this is exactly how I ended up learning to love shooting in the rain and bad weather!
Enough anecdotal storytelling (for now, anyway). Let’s get to it:
Before we get to the meat of the subject, it’s important to know a few things before even setting out. Firstly, there’s the obvious task of finding where the lightning will strike, and next is the incredibly important measures you should take to ensure your safety while shooting.
We’ve covered a lot of weather forecasting and photography planning in our Ultimate Guide to Landscape Photography Pt 3, so make sure to read through that if you haven’t already.
Basically, what you need for this part of the process is a few weather forecasting websites and one very cool site specifically geared towards lightning itself.
That’s all there is to the weather forecasting side of things, although you can definitely go more in depth with storm chasing Facebook groups and extremely localized weather forecasts, of course.
So you’ve spotted a nearby storm that you can shoot and you’re excitedly monitoring the lightning situation using one of these excellent apps and websites… But what next?
Well, now you just have to quickly put together a plan for your photoshoot. Hopefully it’s an area you already know quite well, so you might already have some compositions in mind.
However, if it’s not then it’s time to refer back to our Ultimate Guide to Landscape Photography. Here are some quick refreshers for you:
It should come as no surprise that lightning is a pretty dangerous beast. The crack of thunder that comes afterward should be enough to warn anybody that this isn’t something to be messed with.
With that in mind, safety is absolutely paramount when trying to photograph lightning.
Your best bet to stay safe is to shoot from inside a car or building. You can shelter in a building and operate your camera from there, set it up outside with a rain cover and use a remote trigger, or you can do my personal favourite.
Use a car window mount.
These are nifty little accessories that are perfect for storm chasers and wildlife photographers alike. They allow you to stabilise the camera by attaching it to the window of your car, and I make sure to take mine with me whenever I’m trying to photograph lightning.
If you absolutely must venture out into the open, make sure to take precautions there as well. Stay away from trees, pylons, and open water for obvious reasons, and try to get yourself as close to the ground as possible (but with as little of your body actually touching the ground as possible.) This is a great write up regarding lightning safety.
All of this means you might not get the exact composition you were hoping for, but it’s a lot better than being dead.
Seriously everyone – Don’t mess with lightning and don’t take any stupid risks.
Apart from that nifty little window clamp I just showed you, the chances are you already have most of the gear required for photographing lightning.
You’ll need a camera that allows you to set it in manual, preferably one of our recommended DSLR or Mirrorless cameras that you can find below:
No need to go out and buy any special lenses for this. To be honest, any lens will do – However, your best bet is to have a small selection in your bag so you can choose depending on the situation.
Our Best Lens for Landscape Photography has all the lenses you’ll ever need for photographing lightning, but here’s an ideal kit bag:
A good quality tripod is an absolute must-have for lightning photography. We’re going to be using long exposures a lot as we try to get lucky with a lightning bolt, so having your camera steady is paramount.
Any good quality tripod will do really, and since we’re trying to stay close to a safe escape it doesn’t have to be a particularly lightweight one either.
The Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ we reviewed is a great candidate, but we’ve got a more comprehensive guide to buying a tripod coming up very soon.
Neutral Density Filters
These are by no means a necessity, but having a range of ND filters can make your life a lot easier when photographing lightning.
You Might Like… Haida 10 Stop ND Filter Review
If you’re trying to photograph lightning in the daylight hours we want to extend our exposure time as much as possible. A longer shutter speed gives us the most chance of capturing that elusive lightning bolt, making a good quality Neutral Density Filter worth it’s weight in gold.
Of course, if your thunderstorm rolls in during the night you don’t need these, but having them does increase that window of time where you can photograph lightning a lot.
Don’t worry, lightning bolts are bright enough to show up through your ND filter as well.
We’ve already discussed the window clamp, but there are a few more accessories you’ll want to bring along with you.
These include a remote trigger for your camera, a good quality rain cover, and a lot of lens cloths. All of these are covered in our Best Photography Accessories article here.
Or, if you want to get a bit advanced, you could always invest in a high speed trigger for your camera that will trip the shutter as soon as lightning strikes.
Hopefully you’re not actually in a field for this, because that would be dangerous, right?
So you’re all clued up on the safety aspects of photographing lightning, you’ve got the gear ready and a storm is on the way. Now it’s time to think about actually getting that elusive lightning shot.
First things first, don’t sacrifice composition in these scenarios. The lightning may be the main event, but tie that in with an excellent composition and you’re well on the way to a really special image.
I won’t bore you with all our photography composition advice again, so I’ll just leave you this list of articles for you to peruse at your leisure:
One thing that is worth mentioning is that, often, we’ll want to include more sky in the image than your typical landscape image.
Lightning, obviously, occurs in the sky, so including as much of the dramatic sky as possible both enhances the mood of the image and increases your chances of capturing lightning.
As with every type of photography, the exact camera settings you should use depend on the conditions you’re photographing in.
That being said, there are some guidelines you can refer to when setting your shot up:
Manual all the way for this one. I recommend shooting in manual anyway, but for lightning photography it’s especially important to have full control over all your settings.
This is the most important factor in your camera settings. The longer your shutter is open, the higher your chances of lightning striking during your exposure.
Obviously this results in a balancing act between the overall brightness of the final image and the chances of capturing lightning.
What I recommend is altering your aperture and ISO to produce the longest shutter speed you can, and possibly even recruit the help of a neutral density filter.
Aperture and ISO
As mentioned above, use the aperture and ISO as tools to prolong your exposure time.
Bear in mind that a smaller aperture will also reduce the amount of light getting through to your sensor from the actual lightning bolt. So, if your resulting image has rendered the lightning too bright, narrow down the aperture.
If most of what you’re shooting is a good distance away from the camera, then I recommend switching to manual focus and focusing at infinity.
This stops any possibility of your autofocus getting confused and lightning striking while your lens is hunting for focus.
I use one of my cameras burst modes for lightning photography. This allows me to attach a remote shutter release and keep firing continuously without having to touch the camera.
This means I can set up my composition, test the camera settings, and then just keep shooting away until I get lucky with a lightning bolt.
You’ve probably seen incredible images with multiple lightning bolts illuminating the scene.
The chances are that the photographer wasn’t witnessing some once in a lifetime flurry of lightning, but instead stacked multiple images in post processing.
You’ll be happy to know it’s pretty straightforward to do this yourself.
All you need to do is set your shot up according to the timeline below and then keep firing away. Don’t move your camera and don’t change the composition.
Hopefully you’ll end up with a series of identical compositions, with a number of them containing lightning strikes in them. Once that is achieved you can do the rest of the work in post processing. I use Lightroom and Photoshop.
Nothing special here. I just make some standard adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, and then make sure to sync the adjustments over every image I’m going to use in my stack.
If you don’t already know how to use Lightroom, make sure to check out our beginner’s guide to it here.
Now, it’s time to take the work into Photoshop. Select all the images you want to use, right click and choose “Open as Layers in Photoshop.”
The first step is to change every images Blend Mode to “Lighten”, which basically does all the work for us. It makes the parts of each layer that are lighter than the below layers visible.
The only problem here is clouds. It often starts to blend the clouds in as well as the lightning, which results in a pretty shoddy looking image a lot of the time. The solution to this is to apply a Layer Mask, select the Brush tool, and paint over the parts of your layer that you want hidden. Do this on every layer, and after some trial and error you should be there!
Flatten your image by going to Layer > Flatten Image. Make any final adjustments and then save.
You can finish it off in Lightroom and make any fine tuned edits, and Voila!
Now you’ve got all the information needed, it’s time to put all that together and see how it actually works in practise. To help you do that, here’s my timeline of a typical lightning photography shoot:
Hopefully you should have all the skills you need to capture that breathtaking lightning image now, so all that’s left is to wait for the next storm and get out shooting!
Just remember – Don’t neglect the composition, and most importantly don’t neglect your safety!
About Alex W.
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.