How to Capture Lightning With Your Camera
What You Need and Don't Need
I'll show you a couple ways to get that perfect lightning shot, starting with how to do it with no gear but your smart phone, then with just a DSLR and which accessories for your DSLR can help increase your luck at catching those beautiful flashes of white light.
Lightning is beautiful, but it is also very dangerous. You will want to make sure you follow a few basic safety rules.
1) Shelter: make sure you are somewhere safe from being struck when you take your photos. The middle of a grass field or on a mountain are not safe.
2) Lightning can strike well outside of the edge of the storm.
3) Pay attention to the storm. If the thunder is getting loud, get to cover.
A couple of quick tips:
1) Shelter: Always set up under cover. It makes shooting a lot more comfortable and safer. Usually for casual shooting from my home, I set up under my patio. (Both photos above were taken there).
2) Stability: This is the key to success. Storm photos are usually taken at night and have long exposure times. The slightest vibration of the camera will ruin the photo.
3) Volume: The key to getting good shots of lightning is to take lots of photos. The more photos you take, the more likely you are to catch that perfect shot.
4) Make it interesting: having an interesting foreground makes for a better photo.
Here's one of mine that shows what I mean by adding a foreground to make it interesting.
- Mill Avenue Bridge Strike
Lightning strike on the mill avenue bridge over tempe town lake.
Taking Photos With Just a Smart Phone
You can get good storm photos with just your smartphone in three easy steps.
1) Location — you will need a spot that you can set up your camera where it will be stable and will not move once you start the shot and where it will have a good view of the storm.
You can do that by mounting the phone on a small table or other flat surface and pin it between two books or any other heavy objects that will allow you to point the lens toward the storm.
2) Make sure you have both shutter speed controls and a time-delay feature. If there isn't one on your phone's main camera app you can download one of several camera apps for both iPhone and Android that have those features.
You will need to play with the shutter speed with your first few shots. I usually start at 10 seconds and then adjust from there based on how bright or dark the photo looks. Once you've set your shutter speed set the camera up to take the photo after a time delay and use that delay to put the phone in the mount you made earlier using the books.
3) Repeat: Keep taking photos. The longer exposure lets you capture any strikes that happen in the camera's field of view during that time but the more photos you take, the better your odds are of success.
Using a DSLR
This is a lot easier then using a smartphone. But that's no surprise since taking photos is the only thing a DSLR does. The rules and technique are similar though.
Stability: A good tripod will serve you here. If the storm has some wind to it you may need to weigh it down. I keep a couple sandbags in my kit (in my SUV or at home anyway). You want to make sure the camera does not move or vibrate while taking your photos.
- Camera settings: Shutter priority, I usually start with 10 seconds and then experiment from there. With the longer exposure you capture every strike that happens during the exposure, increasing your chances of success.
- Stability part 2: Use either delayed release on the camera itself or a remote or cable release. Even the slight touch of pushing the release button yourself can distort the shot on that long of an exposure.
- Keep Shooting: This is where a cable release is a nice upgrade as it lets you set the camera to keep taking shot after shot, but you can do it manually too.
- Wide Angle: Use a wide angle lens or the widest angle on your walk around lens. The more of the sky your camera can see, the better your odds of capturing a good shot.
- ISO: Set your ISO to manual on its lowest numeric setting. The last thing you want is a great lightning shot that is completely distorted with camera light noise from a high ISO.
Must-have accessories for DSLR:
- Sturdy tripod
- Wide-angle lens or zoom lens capable of going wide angle. (18mm at least on a cropped sensor is what I recommend)
Nice-to-haves for DSLR
- Cable release or wireless release (allows you to easily trigger the shutter without vibrating the camera)
- Intervalometer (autopilot mode, allows you to set up the camera to just keep clicking away on it's own, you can program it to take as many photos as you want)
That's It Really
The main thing is volume with lightning shots. I take 300-400 shots per storm when I am photographing one of our monsoons here in Arizona. I might get 3-5 great shots and another 5-10 decent ones out of those 300-400.
As the guys at my local camera shop always say when saying good-bye—take great photos!