How to Photograph Lightning

Capturing lightning isn’t as tricky as one would think, provided you have the right equipment. The hardest part is finding the lightning and having said equipment with you at the time. My wife and I were in Cancun with my brother and his wife last summer and were lucky enough to have quite a light show the final night of our stay. Being on vacation, my brother’s wife Tina and I both had our digital SLRs so we were prepared when a surprise tropical storm rolled through on the final night of our trip.

What you’ll need is a camera you can control manually, a tripod, a cable release or timer, at the very least a semi-wide angle lens, and some serious cojones, balls, courage, machismo, chutzpah, or whatever your word for it may be. You may even call it absolute stupidity since we serve as electrical antennas when out in the elements during a lightning show. Always remember that any time you’re outside in a thunderstorm, you are risking your life. If it’s possible to be inside some type of shelter this would be ideal, but sometimes that’s just not possible. It’s also just fantastic, I might add in the most sarcastic of ways, that astrology books say I’m at risk of death by fire, explosion, or being struck by lightning.

So here we are sitting in the pool, enjoying some margaritas and tequila shots when the weather started getting a little weird. You could feel the electricity in the air and before long some rather ominous clouds could be seen on the horizon. As soon as I saw lightning I got out of the pool, grabbed my camera and since I didn’t have my tripod with me, found a hollow inverted pole I set my camera on so I wouldn’t have to worry about shake. At this point the lightning was far enough away that I wasn’t nervous about being wet and out in the open. This first shot was taken at this location. I had to take over one hundred shots before I was lucky enough to catch this since there was so much light I couldn’t use long exposures yet. This was taken with my Nikkor 18-200VR lens at ISO 100, f/11 – 1/3 of a sec at 18mm.

As the storm approached and the thunder grew much louder, we decided to get in doors. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed upstairs to near the top floor where my brother and Tina had a balcony with a perfect view. This time I had my mandatory tripod since it was starting to get dark. One of the first shots is the intro photo for this blog post. This shot was taken with my other lens, the Tokina 11-16 ATX at ISO 100, f/11, 7 seconds at 13mm.

how to photograph lightning

Here’s a guide for reference, just adjust your shutter speed for correct light:
For dangerous lightning that is very close – 100 ISO, f/16-f/22
Relatively close, up to a mile – 100 ISO, f/11
Distant lightning 3-5 miles – 100 ISO f/5.6
Distant lightning 5-8 miles – 100 ISO     f/4
Far away lightning 8-15 miles – 200 ISO     f/4-f/5.6

Once it was totally dark, I was able to leave the shutter open for 30 seconds and since there were times where strikes would occur every 5-15 seconds, I would capture lightning just about every time and sometimes multiple strike in one exposure. Shooting lightning in conditions like this is not at all difficult. The camera and nature are really doing all the work, leaving you to sit back and enjoy the show, just be safe. At the very least, try to have some cover and only sometimes drink cocktails when shooting lightning. 😉

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