Photographing Lightning

Skyline-Lightning-w I used to marvel at pretty much anyone who could get a photograph of lightning. The reality is it's not nearly as hard as I originally believed.

When I was picture editor at the Rocky Mountain News (R.I.P.), we'd occasionally need a photograph to illustrate severe weather. Most newspaper photographers dread the "weather art" assignment, but I was amazingly fortunate at the Rocky to have a staff that would put their best into pretty much anything…regardless of how they may have felt.

Because I always struggled when it came to photographing lightning, I was always impressed when a photographer could, on command, go out and create a nice lightning photo. I shared this once with one of our photographers and asked how he did it. I imagined his answer was going to have to do with using a tripod & a selection of other tricks.

"Actually, I just wait for the lightning & then shoot it," he said nonchalantly.

"What? That's impossible," I thought…and said.

What he told me is that, oftentimes, lightning strikes comes in combinations. So, by choosing a composition, and being a little patient, you actually can just wait for the lightning & then shoot it.

That's exactly how this picture was created. I'd gone over to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on my way to pick up my son from his karate practice. It was that time of day when the lights downtown and the ambient light balanced just right for an evening skyline photo. I was just there for fun, but noticed there was some lightning hitting the foothills. So, I chose a composition, steadied my camera on a stairway railing and waited.

I saw two lightning strikes in the five minutes I was there. I missed the first one because it was a single, isolated burst. The second strike was a quick succession of two strikes…I caught the second one.

There are a lot of good, even great photographs, that owe their success to happy accidents…like this one. You've got to be out there making lots of pictures, though, if you're going to be on the receiving end of a happy accident. I had no intention of making a lightning photo when I set out. I'd just decided to go out an make a picture with the few minutes of free time I found myself with one night…and got this…but I digress.

QUICK LESSON: So, if you'd like to add some lightning shots to your collection of photographs, here are two approaches. First, try the "wait & shoot" approach. You'll need to steady your camera on something (preferably a tripod), then set your shutter speed to something slow - below 1/8 of a second. The longer shutter speed is an important part of the equation - the longer your shutter is open, the better your chances. If you can add a cable release, or any other hands-off approach to releasing the shutter, even better. This photo had the following settings: 1/5 sec; f/7.1; ISO 320; 70mm. Take some test shots, once you're set up, to make sure you have a good exposure. I always shoot lightning in Manual mode, so the lightning (or anything else) doesn't affect the overall exposure. Now just wait and react. Expect this to take a little practice, but you'll be surprised how many lightning shots you can get in a reasonably active lightning storm. If you'd like to really improve your odds, try this second approach. Put your camera on a tripod & arrange the composition you want. Set your camera to an exposure of 2 seconds or more and put the release setting on "motor drive" - continuous release. Now, just press and hold the shutter release and wait for the lightning. It's not a guaranteed approach, but it's unlikely you'll not get something if it's an active storm and you spend 15-20 minutes shooting. I'd also recommend setting your camera to capture in JPEG mode, not RAW. The reason is that RAW captures are so large, your camera's buffer may fill up with this approach and prevent your camera from firing when you need it to. Most cameras should be able to handle this approach if you're capturing in JPEG. The final tip is to get a feel for the timing between strikes. Start shooting when you feel like the lightning will be coming soon. Once you've seen a strike (especially if it's a big one), it's highly unlikely you'll see another strike any sooner then 20-30 seconds later, even in the most active storms. So, it's just wasting space on your disk to fire immediately after a strike.

TECHNICAL NOTE: Because of this long shutter speed, this second approach requires that you either photograph at late dusk or evening (most storms are in the afternoon & evening), or that you add a 3x neutral density filter. It's unlikely that you'll be able to get the slow shutter speed you need during daytime hours, even at your lowest ISO and smallest aperture opening (e.g., f/22, f/32, f/45, etc.). If absolutely have to photograph lightning during the day with this approach, you'll probably have to stack a couple of 3x neutral density filters together. If you do this, be aware you may get some vignetting with wide-angle shots.

Good luck!