So you want to photograph lightning!
Photographing lightning isn’t all that difficult. But if you’ve always thought it was about pressing an eye against a viewfinder and quickly snapping off a shot just as the flash of light in the sky bursts through the clouds, you’re utterly wrong.
That’s not how the professionals do it.
The speed of human reaction (the eye to the brain and then the brain to send a signal to the finger muscles to press a button) is so slow that by the time the shutter is beginning to move, the lightning has already gone. Remember, this is speed-of-light stuff. Unless your finger presses down before the flash of lightning happens, anything you do with your camera will always happen after it. Sometimes you can get lucky and yield some results because, occasionally, in highly charged electrical storms, there is a lot of other activity going on. This means you’re bound to capture something by mistake. Rest assured, the strike you planned to capture wasn’t the one you really got!
If photographing lightning isn’t done this way then how do you do it?
As mentioned, a camera’s button needs to be pressed before the moment of a strike to record that strike. It can pressed be a millisecond before it, or, as the Pro’s prefer do it, minutes before the event.
That’s crazy, isn’t it? How can a photographer know minutes beforehand that an event is going to take place? Is the Pro psychic or a time-traveller of some sort?
No. It’s not about the photographer at all. It’s about the camera. The shutter inside one gives photographers the ability to anticipate the future.
A shutter has two primary movements. It opens. It closes. To most of us it’s just one thing: A sound, a single ‘click’, but it’s actually two primary actions of a shutter blending into one. They are so fast that most of the time they overlap. In actual fact, part one of the movement opens the shutter up, to let light into the camera. Part two closes it down again, to cut exposure off. Pros exploit this gap by expanding it to a timing of their choice, using the manual settings on their cameras. As the shutter time increases, those mechanisms inside the camera begin to separate. (We can even even hear the individual beginnings and ends of each cycle when those longer times are used!)
When photographing lighting, what the pro-photographer does is allow the lightning to come to them during this gap. They’ll find an active part of the sky, point the camera at it, press the shutter down and, somewhere between the opening and closing of its shutter, a strike will happen. and imprint it’s image onto the sensor. Sometimes many strikes will occur during this period and they’ll be captured in the shot too!
Most modern SLR cameras have shutter settings that allow many seconds of exposure time to be selected. Some go into minutes. One setting that suffices for all long exposures is Bulb or Bu. Sometimes it’s simply known as B. This is the magical grand daddy of long exposure photography. When this setting is used, it requires your finger’s pressure to tell the camera when to start the shutter’s cycle. You must then keep it pressed to keep this cycle going… and then lift the finger to end it. Nice eh?
But not all photographers want to keep their finger pressed down onto a button for many minutes at a time. To stop their finger from getting sore, they use a remote lead instead. Remotes often have a lock-down device that keeps the shutter open until it’s unlocked. This is the secret tool to photographing lightning well.
By now, you may be wondering: ‘That’s also an awfully long time to be pointing a camera at one place in the sky too.’
Maybe you didn’t think that but now that I’ve brought it up, a tripod is the answer to a nearby question. That’s what tripods are for. ALL long exposure photography styles need them. Your camera must be dead-still for the duration of its shutter cycle for this to work. If it’s not, motion-blur can or will occur in photos. (Perhaps you like that style of photography but, if you don’t, use a tripod for the crispest photos of the lightning you shoot.)
A basic run-down list of what to have / do when photographing lightning.
- (DSLR) or SLR Camera – Manual shutter, aperture and focus controls.
- Tripod – Sturdy, low windage.
- Remote Lead – Wireless or wired is okay.
- Low Light – Night or near night.
- City Light -Minimal
- Timer – Watch or stopwatch.
(D) SLR Camera is self-explanatory. If you can’t set your camera to the aforementioned timings, then there’s no point into reading this article any further. Point and shoot cameras / phones / iPads and the like, don’t have enough options to control these three elements.
When it comes to aperture, try f8.0 (100 ISO) to see what suits better. Higher numbers will show more detail in a lightning bolt. Lower numbers will brighten and ‘thicken’ it.
When it comes to shutter speeds, start with thirty seconds and then increase the times. If the picture is pale, you’ve gone too long for the amount of light that’s in the sky (See ‘Low Light’ details) and you need to reduce the times again.
Auto-Focus is best switched off when photographing lightning. By switching it off and leaving the lens set to infinity, it stops the lens trying to search for something that’s not there. Lightning will come when it’s good and ready, somewhere in the middle of the cycle – so it’s best to have to fixed at infinity (because lightning will be closer to infinity than anywhere else!).
Tripod and Remote Leads work in unison when photographing lightning. Wireless remotes are better as they have less windage; there is no chance of sending small vibrations from the control unit to the camera body along its lead. Storm fronts ahead of the lightning tend to generate wind gusts and they can blow the remote lead causing minute shakes to go into the camera. (This is also why I removed my camera strap from my camera and always make sure each foot of my tripod is on solid ground!)
Low light times are when the Pros are photographing the most lighting. This is not just because a lightning bolt stands out on a dark background, it’s also because long exposures draw in another major photography concern: Overexposure. (That’s why daylight lightning shots a fewer) When the shutter times lengthen, so does exposure. One way to reduce this problem is to wait for darkness to fall. When the sun goes away, that’s when the long exposure photographers come out to play!
Ambient City Light can be as bad as having daylight. A steady but long glow given off by a city’s lights will overexpose a long nighttime photograph just like the sun does in daytime shots. My tip is to do some test shots before the storm arrives to work out the maximum shutter time and then keep under it when the storm arrives. You can always brighten a dark digital photo later. Overexposed shots will be destined for the waste bin.
A Timer helps keep track of the time of each photo’s exposure when photographing lightning. I don’t use a stopwatch. I wear a mechanical watch instead. It’s second hand ticks loudly enough for me to count off the seconds when I’m in the dark. I don’t need a torch to carry around or with me or to unnecessarily ruin my night vision.
SEETHINGS: A story about a lightning photographer who witnesses more than lightning in the wooded areas around the city. Five women are found raped and murdered on nights of the great storms!