How To Photograph Lightning and Live to Tell About It

by
Jeff Colburn

The wind blew at over 40 MPH as lightning hit the ground about two miles away. It was getting closer than I liked.

My only emergency warning system, the hairs on my arms standing up, was useless in this wind. Suddenly, the wind died down to about 20 MPH, and my arm hairs were at full attention. That means that a charge rising from the ground was going through me, and attracting lightning.

I grabbed the camera and tripod and jumped into the car. Two seconds later there was a blinding flash and deafening thunder clap about 100 feet away. I had cheated Death, and my own stupidity, again.

Photographing lightning is the most amazing type of photography you will ever do. And probably the dumbest thing you can do with a camera, but I love it. Here are some tips on lightning and safety:

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  • Being struck by lightning can cause many problems, including: neurological issues, memory loss, chronic pain and death. That last one’s a real bummer.
  • Count how many seconds between when you see lightning and hear the thunder. Thunder travels at about 1 miler per 5 seconds. So, 15 seconds means the lightning struck 3 miles away.
  • As a rule, if you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning. Remember the phrase, “A bolt from the blue?” It refers to the fact that you can have a clear blue-sky overhead, and still be struck by lightning. The bolt can come from a storm that’s over the horizon.
  • In the United States, hundreds of people are struck by lightning every year, and about 55 of those people are killed. I have personally met three people who have been struck by lightning.
  • A car can offer protection from lightning if it has a metal roof and is completely enclosed. Convertibles or open cabs offer no protection from lightning. In a storm, be sure not to touch anything inside the car that may be in contact with the outer body, such as door handles or window cranks.
  • Buildings must be completely enclosed too, so no carports or covered patios.
  • Want to know where the lightning is? http://www.lightningmaps.org/realtime?lang=en

Now for the tofu and lentils (meat and potatoes for you carnivores) of lightning photography.

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Whether you’re shooting in daytime or nighttime, set your camera to Manual and do the following to ensure the sharpest images.

Turn off

  • Noise reduction – It takes too long to process an image after a long exposure.
  • Image stabilization – It will change the focus during exposure.
  • Auto focus – It’s too slow to focus on lightning. Focus on infinity.
  • Remove filters – They can cause a “ghosting” effect to the lightning.

When shooting at night, set the shutter on B, and hook up a wired cable release. You can use a wireless release too, but you usually need to be in front of the camera to trigger it. And always use a tripod.

Set your ISO to between 100 and 200, and using a lens between 28mm and 135mm works best. But select a focal length based on your shooting conditions.

Set your f-stop to between f/8 and f/16. For close storms you can shoot at f/8, and use f/16 when they are farther away. You don’t want to wind up with blurry lightning bolts because your depth of field is too shallow, so lean toward f/16.

If you’re shooting in daylight, there are a few things you will need to do differently. Use your camera’s light meter to determine exposure, but keep your f-stop the same as for night shooting. Take the longest exposure possible to increase your chance of getting lightning in the image. You can extend your exposure time by using neutral density filters, or a polarizer and you can go up to f/16 if you want.

Set your camera to shoot sequentially, and then lock the release button on your wired/wireless shutter release. The camera will take pictures until the chip is full. You will often fill your chip several times without getting a shot of lightning. If the chip is full, and there aren’t any lightning shots, then format the chip and start over. If you get even one lightning shot on a full chip, change the chip. You don’t want to waste time during a storm selectively deleting unwanted images.

If possible, have an interesting foreground. A tree, building or rock formation can add interest to your images, and give the lightning a sense of place.

There are a few other items you should consider buying

  • A rain cover for your camera. I use the Op/Tech RainSleeve. They’re made of thin plastic, cost $8.25 for two and work great.
  • An umbrella to keep rain off of the front of your lens.
  • A headlight, the kind that attaches to your forehead with an elastic band. Mine has a white light and a red one. The red one is great for seeing what’s going on without losing your night vision. The headlight is adjustable so I can point it down, which makes it easier to see if a rattlesnake, scorpion or tarantula is coming over to me with a photography question. For added comfort there’s soft foam on the back of the light, where it’s against my forehead. I paid about $15 for this at a Big Box store. Be sure it uses AA or AAA batteries, and not those expensive button batteries.
  • A remote trigger is nice too, and makes lightning photography safer. They’re about $200, but as long as your camera isn’t being rained on, you can sit in the safety of your car while this device does all the work. I use the Lightning Trigger at www.lightningtrigger.com

One thing I did early on was to get a map of my area and drive around looking for places to shoot. On the map I marked all the places where I could safely pull over to take photographs, and which direction I would be facing. Storms can go through an area quickly, and you don’t want to waste time trying to figure out where to properly position yourself, especially at night.

Go on out and try your hand at lightning photography, but always keep safety first.

And if you’re driving around the Sedona, Arizona area during a lighting storm, and on a high spot on the side of the road you see some crazy photographer standing a few feet away from a metal car, and a few inches away from a metal tripod, while holding an umbrella over a camera, that’s me. Just wave, and enjoy being in your dry and safe car. Shaking your head in disbelief is optional.

Have Fun,
Jeff

 

If you’re interested in Fine Art Prints or stock images of Arizona, visit JeffColburn.comhttp://www.JeffColburn.com