Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography


Photographing Lightning Storms

A few people have asked me about how to shoot lightning storms, so I thought I'd put up a post with some pointers. The good news is that you don't have to have super-fast reflexes and try to press the shutter when you think lightning is about to strike, and it doesn't require any expensive special equipment like a lightning trigger. The only thing you'll need is a remote shutter release, which you can pick up for $20 or less, and you'll probably want one anyway for all long exposure shots whenever you're out shooting, day or night. Here's the procedure for lightning:

* First and foremost, the process simply involves keeping the shutter open for a long time, and closing it once you see a lightning strike. That's really it. Now you just have to work out the settings so the picture will actually be exposed correctly.

* Set the ISO to 100.

* The first step is to determine the best aperture to use for the ambient light wherever you're shooting. The aperture setting will be very different in a city environment where there is a lot of ambient light vs. out in the desert in Arizona, where there is virtually none.

* You're going to want to set the Aperture closed down enough so that you can have the shutter open for about 20 seconds before the ambient light overexposes the whole photo, but open enough that you still get some foreground picked up after about five seconds. For example, in NYC, from a balcony in a high-rise building, if you set the aperture to about F7.1 to F8.0, you can keep the shutter open for about 20 seconds and the "city itself" will look pretty good. It doesn't have to be perfect, since the primary subject will be the lightning, but you want it to be "good". With an aperture any wider than 7.1, too much light enters the camera and you're overexposed in about 10 seconds, which is too quick. If the aperture is closed down more than F11, the picture will be too dark and you won't capture any of the city, unless you keep the shutter open for 30+ seconds, which is too long. The sweet spot around F7 is just enough to allow you to keep the shutter open for about 20 seconds. To do your testing to set the right aperture for your location, first set the camera's shutter speed to "B" or "Bulb" mode. Just about every D-SLR has bulb mode -- you usually get to it by setting to the longest shutter speed you have, and then going one more. That's Bulb. Once your camera is set to Bulb, this is where the remote shutter release comes in. The remote probably has just one button. When the camera is in Bulb mode, you press the button once to open the shutter, wait as long as you want while the shutter stays open, and you press the button again to close it. Set the aperture on your camera to about F8, press the remote button once, wait about 20 seconds, then press the button to close the shutter. Take a look at the picture on the LCD. Is it dark? If so open the aperture to F5.6 and repeat the process. If it's too bright, close down the aperture until the setting you're in looks good at about a 20 second exposure. Now you're ready for the lightning...

* This is the easy part. Use your widest lens and point in the general direction of where you see lightning strikes. Press the remote button to open the shutter and wait. If you see lightning strike, immediately close the shutter and you're done. The best result will happen if the lightning strikes between 10 and 15 seconds after you've opened the shutter, so that some ambient light will have entered the camera and you'll have captured the location, but the sky will still be dark enough to show off the lightning. If no lightning strikes after the shutter has been open for about 20 seconds, press the button, erase that frame, and start again (if you have enough space on your memory card, you may want to erase all the shots at the end, so you don't miss a strike while you're busy erasing). If the lightning is particularly far away, you may need a wider aperture, and then you'll have to keep the shutter to shorter speeds (10 seconds). These settings are meant to be a general guideline, and to get you familiar with the "procedure", rather than to specify exact settings. All situations and locations will be different, and you'll have to adjust the settings as necessary to get the best result.

Lastly, don't forget to always be safe when in storm conditions. You'll always have another opportunity...

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Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Hi Paul,

    This is so funny… Yesterday we had an unexpected lightening storm, and I wanted to shoot it – but had no idea how to…. I sure wish you had a book I could buy! This tutorial is a day late and a dollar short for my storm yesterday, but I will print it out and keep it in my notes for future use!! Thank you again – I just love how well you explain, in detail, how to take pictures!! Have a wonderful Day!


  2. Ha, thanks Felecia for the kinds words! Even though you didn’t have the info for yesterday’s lightning storm, I’m sure they’ll be another one along sometime, and you’ll be prepared! Thanks again…


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