Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lightning photography tips

By special request of reader Becky, here are some tips on shooting lightning.

First and foremost - be safe! Do not put yourself in danger in a lightning storm in hopes of getting a good picture. I have been too close to lightning strikes a few times and I don't want to know what it's like to be hit.

The basics of shooting lightning (and a lot of this is the same for fireworks) involve having the camera shutter open for a long period of time to capture the strike(s). The camera needs to be on a tripod or at least sitting on a sturdy platform. I use the lowest ISO setting my camera allows. I also usually use a small aperture, f/8 or down to the smallest the lens has, such as f/16 or f/22. These two factors will then contribute to the use of a long, slow shutter speed to hopefully capture several lightning strikes in one photo. Depending on how dark the sky is, how many bolts hit during your exposure and how bright they are, and if there are other light sources in the photo, the shutter speed may be a few seconds to several minutes.

Out here on the South Dakota prairies quite often you can see a storm from miles away and determine where most of the strikes are happening. Choosing an object to put in the foreground typically makes for a more interesting picture than strictly the sky with lightning in it. Here I chose the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre.


Since it's impossible to know exactly when and where the lightning will strike, I usually chose a portion of the sky that seems to be active and frame for that. If bolts happen outside my chosen framing, oh well.

Then it's a matter of having the shutter open at the right time. You can use the self-timer on your camera, which is pretty happenstance, but works. I just keeping hitting the button each time the camera closes and hope that lightning hits while I've got it open.

A better option is to use a cable release so you have control over exactly when the camera begins taking a photo. It still means you have to be lucky at having the shutter open or be really quick to react to a strike. Believe it or not, lightning does usually last long enough for someone with fairly quick reactions to shoot as it happens.

There is also a product on the market called the "lightning trigger," which shoots a picture automatically when a strike occurs, but I've never used one.

Using a very small aperture like f/22 has an added bonus effect if you have other light sources in your photo - it gives you cool starbursts off the lights like in this shot.



Getting shots like this takes a bunch of practice and just the right storm. Many times I've attempted to get lightning photos only to have the storm clouds hide all the bolts.

Good luck out there as the spring storm season approaches, but remember, don't put yourself at risk just to get a photo. It's not worth it.

4 comments:

Becky said...

Thank you!! Hopefully i will be able to try your tips out this year, if it ever stops snowing :)
It sure means a lot to me that you would answer my question too! So Thank you again.
Becky

Chad Coppess said...

No problem Becky, glad to help out.

Jason said...

Love your blog, Chad, and I wanted to share some of my lighting photos, taken by the Missouri down here by Vermillion:
a few lighting photos.

Chad Coppess said...

Thanks Jason, cool stuff on your site as well!