This post is about my recommendations for how to photograph lightning at night with a DSLR.
I remember a few occasions back when I was in high school that some friends and I would chase a storm and attempt to capture lightning shots with a 35mm Pentax film camera. It was rare that we’d capture even one good frame and we wouldn’t even know how the shots were turning out until the film was processed.
Capturing a good lightning shot with today’s modern DSLR’s is quite easy in comparison. Here are some tips for how to shoot a great lightning shot:
1. Be safe – Above all else please exercise extreme caution when photographing storms. No image, no matter how epic is worth losing your life for. The National Weather Service has some great tips for staying safe. Ideally you’ll be able to observe and photograph the storm from a safe distance. Be sure to stay away from tall conductors such as trees, poles, wires and fences. Exercise common sense and be mindful that storms can quickly move putting you closer to lightning strikes than you want to be.
2. Consider the composition – A good clean lightning photograph can be stunning, but you can really push your shots to the next level if you are mindful of good composition. Instead of just zooming in on the storm cloud, is there a foreground object that you could include that would add interest to the scene? Could you include a tree or rock in the shot and illuminate it with a flash, flashlight, or ambient light?
3. Shoot in RAW – The benefits of shooting RAW photographs are many. A RAW image will afford you much more wiggle room when processing to be able to pull up the shadows or add sharpness, contrast, or clarity to the image. This is helpful, especially with a somewhat more challenging subject such as lightning. I love the control that the RAW file formate gives me. When you open a RAW photograph for the first time, photoshop should automatically open it inside the Camera RAW dialog box. Here I usually add a little contrast, adjust the color balance, bump up the clarity, and lift shadows slightly. Experiment with the sliders and remember as long as you save the opened file with a new user name, you can always go back and open and adjust the original RAW image file.
4. Use a tripod – A tripod or other camera support is essential for night time and lightning photography. You’ll typically want to have a long enough shutter speed that you can have a good chance of capturing a lightning strike or two while the shutter is open. If your camera is not locked down while the shutter is open, even small movements will cause motion blur.
5. Adjust your Long Exposure – Experiment with this. I find if you keep the shutter open for at least 10 seconds it’s usually adequate to capture a lightning strike or two. You can definitely go longer or shorter. If the storm clouds are moving at all, a longer exposure can result in a ghosting effect as a strike near the beginning of the exposure will expose the surrounding clouds, then they move slightly and a later strike during the same exposure exposes the same clouds. This is not a bad effect, but just another thing to keep in mind when you are being creative with exposure. If you want the clouds to be sharper, opt for a shorter exposure and compensate with a bigger aperture and/or a higher ISO.
6. Time the shots – Look for the the pattern in the lightning. I’ve noticed some storms seem to have a rhythm to their strikes. For example, it’s common in Idaho to have a storm that only delivers a lightning strike once every 30-45 seconds, or in some cases even longer. Since most cameras have a max shutter open duration of 30 seconds (unless you are in bulb mode and use a remote shutter release) it can be frustrating to make sure your shutter is open during a strike. I’ve found that I can sometimes get a fairly accurate prediction of the next strike by timing the time between strikes, and then pressing the shutter release button just a few seconds before I think the storm is due for another strike. Results may vary, but this method has worked for me.
7. Use a smaller aperture – This may be counter-intuitive, but you should error on the side of having your aperture set smaller. A smaller f-stop will create a larger depth of field and you’ll have a better chance of having any foreground, lightning, and background all in focus. This is something you just have to play with and adjust shutter speed and ISO to compensate.
8. Focusing in the dark – Modern DSLR’s have a really hard time focusing in the dark. They need light to see the contrast between objects. This allows them to lock focus when you press the shutter button. When shooting at night, I recommend trying to find a distant light source. A far away city light or street lamp. Your camera should be able to focus on these small points of light. Once you have focus set on a distant light source, it should also be good to go for any lightning. Again, experiment with this and take the time to zoom in on the LCD screen on the back of your camera to make sure you are getting good focus. Once you feel like you’re focused correctly, switch your lens to manual focus mode to avoid having it try and refocus every time you take a new photo.
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