Lightning photo ©Matt_Schroderus. All rights reserved.

Lightning Photography: Pros, Cons and Basic Techniques

Lightning is one of the most spectacular natural phenomena on the planet. Consequently, capturing lighting images can be both exciting and rewarding. If taking photographs of lightning is still one of your “bucket list” items, we hope to help you mark that one off with the information in this article. In fact, we hope you’ll find it easy and enjoyable enough to make it one of your regular projects.

Opening Image: Long-exposure lightning photo, captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens on a Canon 70D. ©Matt Schroderus. Used with permission.

The Cons of Lightning Photography

Though it may seem backward to list the negative aspects first, it’s important to know a few things about lightning before you start chasing storms:

  • Lightning is dangerous. A bolt of lightning is a discharge of electrical energy that may have a potential of up to 1,000,000,000 (Yes, that’s one billion!) volts at 30,000 amperes. What’s more, it can reach temperatures of around 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than the surface of our sun. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that getting struck is a bad thing.
  • It doesn’t have to strike you. When lightning strikes, it creates massive electrical charges in the ground that spread radially. These areas of varying potential energy cause more injuries and deaths yearly than direct strikes.
  • Lightning is unpredictable. Not only do you not know when lightning will strike, it’s impossible to know where. It’s been known to strike the ground as far as 10 miles from the storm that generated it. It also most certainly can and does strike multiple times in the same place.
  • You could get wet, or worse. Rain, hail, dust, mud and wind are some of the things you may encounter along with lightning. You may want to think twice about this project if you and your photo gear aren’t prepared for rough conditions.
  • Lightning is dangerous. Yes, we know we already said this. It’s important to keep personal safety in mind.

The Pros of Photographing Lightning

Are you discouraged yet? No? Good! Now, let’s look at the positive aspects:

  • Lightning is abundant. According to the National Weather Service, lighting strikes more than 25 million times per year in the United States alone! That means your chances of having an opportunity to photograph it are pretty good.
  • It’s good cardiac therapy. Watching a good thunderstorm is a great way to increase your heart rate, especially up close.
  • Every capture is a surprise. Did we mention that lightning is unpredictable? That’s half the fun, since each image you capture is going to be unique!
  • Successful shots are exciting. A good lightning shot is almost guaranteed to draw “Oohs” and “Ahhs” from viewers. If you’ve been wanting to up your game, adding a few lightning photos to your portfolio is a good way to do it.
  • You don’t need sophisticated equipment. You certainly CAN invest in a lot of high-tech gear for lightning/storm photography, but the most basic equipment will do the job very well.

Are you Ready?

If you’re like most photographers, the reasons to get out and shoot lighting aren’t going to outweigh the reasons NOT to. As photographers, we agree! Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, we can move on to how it’s done.

Lightning Photography Equipment

Let’s take a look at the basic gear you’ll need to capture lightning. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about full-time storm chasing, just taking advantage of opportunities to get out and shoot lightning.

Required Equipment

  • Camera: You can use any camera that will allow you to lock the shutter open or take long exposures. The ability to use a remote trigger will be very beneficial, but it’s not an absolute requirement. A good DSLR or mirrorless camera may make things easier, but a point-and-shoot with long exposure capabilities will work.
  • Fast lens(es): You’ll never know what the duration of a strike will be. Some of the most dramatic “light shows” actually happen behind or inside the clouds and that light can be much less intense than an exposed lightning bolt. Chances are you’re going to be shooting in very low light, too, and you’ll need that lens speed to capture details in the frame.

    When it comes to focal length, the distance to the storm will certainly make a difference. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that wide angle lenses inherently have great depth of field, and vice-versa. The extended depth of field of a shorter focal length means you won’t need to stop down as much to achieve good front-to-back sharpness in your shots.

    The Irix 15mm f/2.4 and 11mm f/4 wide angle lenses are both excellent choices for lightning photography. If you prefer something closer to a “normal” field of view, we recommend the super-fast Irix 45mm f/1.4.
Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone wide angle lens Irix 11mm f/2.4 wide angle lens Irix 45mm f/1.4 Dragonfly
Irix 15mm f/2.4 Lens Irix 11mm f/4 Lens Irix 45mm f/1.4 Lens
  • Stable mount: You’re going to need something to keep your camera steady for long exposures. A tripod isn’t the only solution; there are clamps, pads and other devices you can mount your camera to. Use the one that best suits your location and situation, as long as it’s stable. Keep in mind that wind may be an issue, too.
  • Spare batteries and memory cards: Don’t miss the best shots because you ran out of storage space or power.
  • Protective gear: You’re going to want to keep yourself and your equipment as dry as possible and be prepared for nasty weather. Use a protective rain hood for any gear that isn’t waterproof and make sure you’re wearing rain gear, too. (If you’re shooting with Irix lenses, you’ll worry less. They’re weather sealed!) If you’re out in the field, avoid wandering too far from your vehicle, so you’ll have shelter if you need it. Keep some dry towels on hand.

Recommended Equipment

  • Shutter Release/Intervalometer: Lightning shots should be a hands-off task, if possible. Regardless of which of the methods we’re about to describe you use, vibrations aren’t your friend. An intervalometer, a.k.a. shutter timer, makes taking repetitive shots much easier and allows you to create time-lapse footage, too!
  • Supplemental lighting: You’ll probably want to have a small flashlight for checking your settings in the dark. A UV light will avoid scattering unwanted white light and possibly disturbing any other photographers in the area. Don’t forget that you might want to do some light painting if you’re shooting near or after dark, so bring along suitable light sources for that.
  • A “lightning locator”: There are a number of websites and phone apps available to help you track storms. Not only can these help you find the lightning, they can also help keep you safe. (Lightning and severe weather, including tornadoes, go hand in hand.)

Optional Equipment

  • Lightning Trigger: This device triggers your shutter electronically within microseconds when a strike is detected. Some detect an infrared emission that occurs just before the strike, to activate the shutter even sooner. You can purchase a multi-function controller or a dedicated lightning trigger. We’ll discuss using them one of the methods.

    A trigger or a controller with lightning mode can be very useful when shooting lightning during the day, due to the sensitivity of its sensor and fast response.
  • Cinema Camera and Lens(es): You can opt to create video of a storm. With a high-quality camera and lenses, you can use frames from the video as stills, if desired. If this is your preferred technique, be sure to check out the Irix Cine line of top-notch, affordable cinema lenses.

Initial Settings

Most of the methods we’ll describe below will start with the same camera settings. You’ll need to make adjustments, but to make things easier, we’ll give you a few good starting points here:

  • File Format: Save your image files in the native RAW format to allow more room for adjustment in processing. This, in turn, may help increase the number of useful images.
  • Exposure Mode: Manual should be your first choice. Several factors will affect your camera’s ability to judge the correct exposure.
  • White Balance: Daylight or Auto. If you save your images as RAW, this is easily adjustable during the editing stage.
  • ISO: The lower, the better, but high enough to expose less intense strikes. Ambient light is also a consideration. ISO 400 is a good place to start. Adjust as needed for the situation.
  • Aperture: Start with a setting somewhere in the middle. Lightning is very bright, and you’ll want to maximize your depth of field. F/5.6 to f/8 is a reasonable starting point. Adjust as needed.
  • Shutter Speed: This will depend on the method you use.
  • Flash: Turn it off and let Nature do the work.
The extra-sharp details from the foreground to the horizon add much to this lighting image. Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4. ©Josue Borges (Instagram: @josue0890). Used with Permission.

The Methods

There are several ways to capture lightning. We’ll cover the most common in this article. Each of these descriptions is meant to be a set of guidelines, to help you get started. Practice and perseverance will be the key to perfecting your images.

Using a lightning trigger is often considered one of the easiest methods. One distinct advantage is that you should have fewer wasted exposures at the end of your shoot. Since the shutter only opens when a strike is sensed, each frame should, theoretically, have lightning in it.

In practice, this method means knowing your equipment well, particularly the lightning trigger you choose. Sensitivity should be tested and and tested before you start. Remember, you never know how bright a strike will be.

Mount your camera and compose your initial shots. Start with the settings described above. In most cases, you can start with a shutter speed of 1/4 second or so and preview the result. Adjust your shutter, ISO or aperture setting, according to the desired effect. Once you’ve found the right settings, let the trigger do the work, and check the preview occasionally as conditions change.

Some controllers with a lightning mode may also provide the option to take multiple exposures for each activation. This may be beneficial, since a strike may have several segments and a return stroke.

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

Bulb Mode
This is the “old school” method and still the most popular with many photographers. While luck is a major factor, the challenge, and the reward when it all comes together, make this technique particularly fun.

Use the settings above and set your shutter to Bulb (B) mode. Compose the shot and make sure everything is stable. Try to point the camera at an active area.

If you’re using a mechanical cable release, you can press it to activate the shutter and release it to close it. If you’re using a remote release, your shutter may lock open when you press it the first time and close when you press it again. (Many cameras will display a timer on the LCD while the shutter is open.) Test this in advance.

To begin, open the shutter and wait for a lightning strike. When it’s done, close the shutter and check the image. If it’s badly over or underexposed, you know you’ll need to adjust your aperture or ISO setting, or adjust the exposure time. Trial and error should get you “zeroed in” fairly quickly.

Once you’ve determined the settings, just continue shooting, using the approximate exposure time from your tests as the maximum time. If you don’t see a strike in that amount of time, close the shutter and start again. If you do, you can close the shutter after the flash and reopen it.

Reframe your composition as necessary. Be prepared to adjust your settings as the light changes. Don’t be afraid to experiment as you shoot, checking the results as often as you like. Keep in mind that this method is all about surprises, so have fun with it.

Timed Exposures
This technique is simply a matter of using the basic preparation for the previous one, then using the exposure time to setup an intervalometer. You can then just sit back and watch, unless conditions change or you need to reframe the shot. You might consider it “the lazy photographer’s method”.

This method has some drawbacks. You’ll end up discarding more shots because of incorrect exposure. For example, a particularly bright lightning bolt or several in one frame may blow out the entire frame. You’ll also need to stop your intervalometer to change settings, then restart it, if lighting conditions change.

On the other hand, while the results are highly unpredictable, you can also use the images to create one or more time lapse sequences. Depending on the storm activity, time of day and other factors, this can stretch your editing skills, so be prepared if you decide to try it.

You can also select multiple images to stack and blend, to show the activity of the storm over time:

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Finally, you may want to try your hand at recording the storm, then selecting individual frames for photos. We won’t go into detail with this one, since the differences in equipment will significantly affect the way the footage is recorded. We may offer a separate tutorial for this in the future.

In the meantime, if you’re a cinema shooter, You should know that Irix offers the same focal lengths in our Cine line, with identical optics and all the features you’d expect in a professional cinematographer’s lens. Check them out below and see what you’re missing:

The Irix Cine Line

Show us what you’ve got!

Now that you’ve got the basic technique, we hope you’ll take the first opportunity to get out there and put the knowledge to work. We’d love to see what you get!

Tag @irixusa on Instagram or Facebook.
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Post to the Irix Shooters group on Facebook.

We love to see and share the work of our loyal Irix shooters!

Written by Dana Crandell

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