How to Photograph Lightning: 10 Tips for any Photographer

howtophotographlightningPhotographing lightning takes skill. If you try to catch it just as it’s flashing, you’re likely to miss it. The human body has a delayed reaction when attempting to do something. So, if you’re waiting for that strike of lightning you’ll likely press the button just as it has already vanished. So, how can you catch that amazing natural phenomenon onto your film? Try using these ten tips.

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1. Finding Your Lightning

Lightning is a natural phenomenon and doesn’t answer to the call of humans. If you’re wanting to photograph lightning, you’re going to have to wait for a lightning storm. Richard Gottardo wrote a nice, little PDF document to help you find that lightning storm you want to shoot. If you’d like to do it on your own, just watch your local weather channel, or use The Weather Channel online. You also have the option to use a weather app on your phone to help you.

2. Safety First!

This cannot be stated often enough – Lightning is a natural phenomenon, and it happens unexpectedly. You can be struck by lightning if you aren’t careful. The National Weather Service has good lightning safety tips to follow. Photographer Jim Reed suggests staying inside a hard-topped vehicle and shooting with a window mount. He also suggests setting up your tripod-mounted camera outside and using a remote from inside your house to take your photographs. Whatever you decide to do, just remember to do it safely.

3. Set the Proper Exposure

Without the proper exposure, you will find yourself photographing something far too overexposed and bright to even be made out or something too underexposed and dark to be viewed. The proper exposure for your photos will depend on the practice photographs you take. Jim Reed suggests starting at 400 ISO then changing the exposure to 320 or 250 for overexposure. If it’s underexposed, he suggests 640 or 800.

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4. Don’t Go Automatic, Go Manual

When photographing lightning, you’ll want to focus your camera manually to get the best shot. If you choose automatic, your camera will likely have a difficult time finding something to shoot in the darkness, and you’ll miss that perfect shot. Once you set your camera, however, you likely won’t have to set it again unless you don’t like the shot.

5. Include Something to Frame the Lightning

Photographing a sky of lightning is great if you can capture the lightning racing across the clouds. However, if all you can capture is the lightning striking the ground, you might want to include some of the ground to show greater power behind the storm. City scenes and buildings are a great favorite among lightning photographers, but you can also use empty fields or lightning striking over water. You’ll want to avoid items that might cross in front of the lightning to avoid distraction.

6. Remember that the Action is in the Sky

If you photograph the lightning striking in a city or behind buildings, don’t forget to include the lightning’s origin. Not many people know this, but lightning strikes down from the sky, hits the ground, then makes the return journey back up to the sky. If you capture the whole picture – ground, lightning, and sky – you might get a great shot of the lightning forking across the clouds as well as striking the ground.

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7. Patience is Key

Lightning photographers are not impatient people. They know that lightning doesn’t happen on command, and they know that getting that perfect shot could mean hundreds and thousands of bad photographs. If you’re going to be shooting lightning, you have to sit and wait it out. One of the best things you can do is keep practicing and familiarize yourself with your gear and camera settings so that when you do get that chance to photograph the perfect shot, you don’t miss it.

8. Prepare for the Weather

Lightning storms don’t usually happen during sunny, warm days with no rain. If you have a camera that isn’t waterproof, you’re going to want to prepare for that. If rain is already falling as you start photographing, you might want to use a lens shade to protect your lens from droplets unless you’re looking for that kind of shot. You’re not going to want to walk out into a storm like that wearing shorts and a t-shirt so dress appropriately too so that you can get all the shots you want.

9. Practice, Practice, Practice!

No one does anything perfectly the first time. Just as you learned how to shoot the camera for regular photographs, photographing lightning is going to take time and practice. You might get lucky and get that perfect shot the first time you go out, but it’s likely going to take you more than one outing. Also, the practice will help you get more familiar with your camera’s settings and the best setup for your lightning photographs.

10. Don’t be Afraid to Edit

In this digital day and age, it’s easy to fix up that lightning shot to make it just a little more perfect. You can adjust lighting, crop the photo if the lightning’s too crowded by everything else, and you can layer photos to create a great shot. If you’re looking to edit your photos, Adobe Photoshop is a great, popular software that many photographers use.

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Photographing lightning can create great photographs, but it’s important to remember to do it safely. If the thunder rumbles loudly overhead, it’s a safe bet that you’re likely too close to the lightning. Always remember to listen to your gut. If you feel like you’re in danger of being struck by lightning, there’s a high likelihood that your body’s trying to tell you that you are in danger of being struck.