How to photograph lightning

One of nature’s most exciting (and challenging) displays is that of a lightning storm.  Sitting in the garden last night as a small storm began, I decided to try and capture the show on display, with very little success as my view of the sky was limited.  However, if my guests tonight allow me(!), I may take a short trip out into the storm to see what I can capture and here’s how I intend to do it:

You will need:

  • A camera with manual control
  • Tripod
  • Shutter release cable or a 30 second exposure setting on the camera
  • Something to keep you and your camera dry (NOT an umbrella!!)
  • Compacts, simply set up the camera on a stable surface and set to fireworks setting and use the composition tips below

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Take great lightning photos

Boom!
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Have a large areas of sky to capture the drama but keep added interest such as houses in the horizon. Image from sciencereflections.com

  1. STAY AS SAFE AND AS DRY AS POSSIBLE!!  I know, you are in the middle of field in a storm but do take as many precautions as you can!!  See here for keeping your camera dry!
  2. Use a tripod or sturdy surface to hold your camera still
  3. Make sure you have a  fully charged battery as this will drain your battery quickly, as will the cold.  If taking a spare battery with you, keep it warm so it won’t drain in the cold
  4. Set your camera to ‘M’ or manual
  5. Set your focus to M/Manual as well, you don’t want your camera ‘hunting’ for a focus point in the dark!
  6. Set your aperture to a half-way point c f8 or f11
  7. Set your shutter speed to 30 seconds (not 1/30th of a second BUT 30 WHOLE seconds!)
  8. Set your ISO to 100
  9. If you don’t normally shoot in RAW but have a way of processing it afterwards – then now is the time to shoot RAW rather than just JPEG
  10. Set the white balance to ‘incandescent/tungsten’ so that your images have a cool, blue cast to them.  The camera’s auto white balance will probably cast a warm tone otherwise which won’t be as dramatic
  11. Have a wide lens to take in as much of the landscape as possible – you can crop later
  12. Compose your shot to make it interesting.  Yes, the lightening will add drama but if all you have is sky and a lightning bolt, well….
  13. Have mostly sky framed in your shot (2/3rds) and add points of interest along the horizon to add scale, such as trees or buildings, which will come up as silhouettes
  14. Focus on a far point as best you can in the dark in order to give your lightening the best chance of being in reasonable focus
  15. BE PATIENT!!  It really is hit and miss,  press the shutter when you see lightening and it will be too late, you’ll need to keep pressing the shutter for 30 second exposures (or using your cable release on B (Bulb) setting) and hope that the lightning strikes during that time.  Sometimes it will, other times it won’t!

Editing your lightning images

You may want to darken your images to make the drama of the bolt and the sky even stronger.  To do this in Photoshop:

(On the top menu) Image>adjustments>selective colour > adjust the black % until you are happy with the result.

Use curves to adjust the brightness of the lightning bolt

Image>adjustments>curves creating a classic ‘S’ curve to brighten the lightening at the top and the darkening other areas at the bottom.

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use curves

Create an S curve
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info:
Find this in photoshop: Image>adjustments>curves

You can ‘stack’ your lightening images (like the one above) to create one dramatic image.  Open all the images in either Photoshop or Bridge, stack one on top of the other (Bridge does this for you) so you have a number of layers.  Blend each layer together using the ‘lighten’ mode and flatten.

Have fun, stay safe and remember to post your images onto our facebook page – let’s have a fabulous storm cover page for next week!