In this Lightning Photography how-to guide, I will cover the equipment needed, camera settings, and some composition top tips. This will help you get the best out of this niche landscape photography genre.
Safety always comes first!
You wouldn’t walk around in a lightning storm with an umbrella, or play a round of golf. Also, the rumors are true, it’s not a good idea to shelter from Lightning under a tree. When you are photographing lightning storms, you ideally want to be inside a building or a car. Basically anywhere that you are safe from a lightning strike, and remember, if you can see the lightning, then the lightning is in striking range of where you are watching from.
Sorry if all of that was stating the obvious, I just wanted to put the statement out there! Ok, with that done, let’s get into the article. First of all, what equipment is needed for Lightning Photography?
Equipment needed for Lightning Photography
Now you can, in theory, shoot lightning with any camera. However, to get the best shots you need something with low light sensitivity. So ideally a DLSR or equivalent mirrorless. Unfortunately, this is an area of photography where the better the camera you can afford, then the better chance you have of getting a better result. But hey, if you don’t have the latest and greatest camera model, don’t let that put you off. You can still give things a go. One note of caution though is weatherproofing. You ideally want a camera that doesn’t mind getting its case wet.
My current go-to camera is the Canon EOS 5D mkIV and is great for low-light situations.
We are going to be shooting long exposures, so a tripod is a prerequisite. Also, your camera may be in the rain and wind, so the more robust the tripod the better; to avoid disaster! So, no lightweight tripods or travel tripods are recommended. Go for something full-size and substantial. I have a Manfrotto 190X Pro with a ball head fitting.
A final thing about tripods is that it is useful to fit a hanging clip for the center section. It means you can hang a bag from the clip to weigh everything down.
The good news on lens selection for Lightning Photography is that you don’t need fast glass (expensive prime lenses). We are shooting pictures with our camera on a tripod, and we are shooting long exposures, so having a really low f-stop is not going to impact the success of the photo.
As far as the type of lens, I recommend shooting with a wide-angle lens. In fact, the wider the better. Obviously though, if you have a nice fast and wide-angle prime lens, then great! The reason is, we don’t know where in the sky the lightning will strike. So the wider our perspective on the scene, then the better chance we have of getting a great Lighting shot. I use a Canon EF17-40 USM.
I am guessing at the point you read about the camera being on a tripod, with a bag to weigh it down, and the camera sitting out in the wind and rain. You were thinking wait, what about safety first? Well, a remote trigger comes into its own here; you can be away from your camera.
Neutral Density (ND) Filter
Some people try and trigger their cameras at the point a lightning bolt strikes. I prefer not to rely on human reflexes. Putting an ND filter on your lens and capturing the night sky over a few seconds or even minutes, is a great way to get multiple lightning strikes… If you are lucky!
For those unaware of what an ND filter does, it fits onto the front of your lens and reduces the rate of light penetration through the lens. It allows you to shoot longer exposures for any given f-stop.
1) If your camera has it, set it to capture in RAW rather than JPEG. The reason for this is that JPEG is compressed, and we want to get as many high-quality pixels captured as possible.
2) Use the lowest native ISO setting that your camera will allow. Again, because we are in low light, we need to capture high-quality pixels. The basic rule of thumb is the higher the ISO, the more noise you are likely to see in your final image.
3) Set your camera to Bulb with an aperture corresponding to the depth of field you want. i.e. the higher the f-stop the greater the depth of field. Just bear in mind though that the higher the f-stop, the longer the exposure will be required. I tend to work in the f5.6-8 band.
Lightning Photography Composition Tips
1) Location Location! This is probably the most difficult part of the Lightning Photography Genre. You basically need to plan ahead of time, find a visually appealing scene, and decide where you are going to shoot from.
2) Go wide! Because you don’t know where the lightning will appear in the sky, compose your shot as wide as your lens will allow.
3) Because lightning is the subject of the photo, it makes sense to compose the photo with the sky as the major component in the scene.
4) Focus the scene with the ND filter off of the camera, then set autofocus on the camera off. Note, this is often a switch on the lens itself, particularly if you are using prime lenses. Set the camera is set to Bulb, with the corresponding f-stop you desire. Now mount the ND filter onto the lens. Using your remote trigger, experiment taking different exposure lengths until you get the scene exposed to your liking. If there was no lightning when you did this, you will want to slightly under-expose the foreground to compensate for when lightning does light the scene.
5) Next, keep shooting away. Don’t be afraid to take lots of photos, and bear in mind you may need to keep adjusting your exposure length. Basically keep experimenting, and with luck on your side, you will get a great shot!
In conclusion, Lightning Photography is not an exact science and will need more experimentation than some other genres of photography. However, with the hints and tips above, you should have a good grounding to start from.