Photographing Lightning - Electrifying Tips! (Get It?)

            There are so many fascinating aspects to photographing storms, but I believe that lightning is my favorite subject matter to document. At only one inch wide, five miles long, and 10 times hotter than the surface of the sun, being able to document this electrical energy as it reaches from the sky down to the Earth’s surface, is simply addicting. Each bolt is so incredibly different from the previous, it’s this uniqueness that makes documenting this weather phenomena so much fun. It has been 18 years now of photographing storms and lightning, from film to the digital era, and I’m excited to share with you all my top tips for photographing Thor’s artwork.

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Safety First:

It’s pretty obvious but I need to say it, BE CAREFUL! I’ve had a few close calls over the years while out photographing storms and needless to say, no shot is worth being turned into a crisp for. Although you can’t plan for where lightning will strike, there are a few things you can do to lessen your chances of becoming a human lightning rod.

·      Don’t make yourself the tallest object around. It’s as simple as that. Lightning usually strikes the tallest object, so make sure you are photographing from a sheltered location. The worst place to be is photographing in the middle of a field. Examples of a sheltered location could include beneath an awning or from inside your vehicle. Beneath a tree is NOT a safe location.

·      Try to avoid standing in puddles. Electricity from a nearby strike can easily shock you by traveling through the water.

·      If you feel the hair on your arms start to stand up, immediately seek shelter. Leave your gear and get inside as quickly as possible as you are becoming electrically charged. As cool as that sounds, it’s not, you’re becoming lightning’s best friend.

·      Know your limit. As you see a storm approaching, the lightning will be striking closer and closer. Don’t wait until the lightning is right next to you are behind you, at that time, you have increased your odds of getting struck. Lightning can actually strike up to 80 miles away from a storm!

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The Gear Needed:

So now that you are safety conscious, what photographic gear do you need to create awesome images? It’s quite a simple set up actually. When I’m out, I carry with me my Nikon D850 camera body, a Nikon 14-24mm F2.8 lens, a Nikon 24-70mm F2.8 lens, a cable release, a Strike Finder Lightning Trigger, and a sturdy tripod. All of these pieces of gear play an important role in helping me capture my images. The Nikon D850 gives me 45.7 megapixels of goodness to work with within my frame. This incredible amount of resolution allows me to crop in a bit in case the lightning is a bit distant while maintaining excellent resolution and a safe distance. The Nikon 14-24mm and Nikon 24-70mm lenses allow me to have flexibility in my framing. Obviously the 14-24mm is a much wider lens, so the lightning needs to be a lot closer to be prominent in that frame, while the 24-70mm gives me a bit extra reach to photograph distant strikes. If I am shooting lightning with the 14-24mm, I’m usually hunkered down in the car with the tripod outside the car door with the cable release coming in through the car window.

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Know The Different Types Of Lightning

If you’ve ever seen a thunderstorm, you have probably been amazed at all the different ways that lightning can present itself. It’s important to be able to identify the kind of lightning in which your storm is producing to better set yourself up for success. With that said, be ready to be flexible because most storms produce several variations of lightning, so you want to have an idea of what your photo goals are for that storm. Each type of lightning can be quite visually appealing but can require different settings and positioning on the storm. Let’s quickly discuss my three favorite kinds of lightning to photograph.

Cloud-to-Ground

o   When you think of a traditional lightning bolt, this is what you are envisioning. As you may be able to guess by the name, cloud-to-ground lightning bolts extend from the base of the clouds to the ground. This is my favorite kind of lightning to photograph, but also the most difficult. Cloud-to-ground lightning can be found most anywhere within a storm, but I find that the leading edge is the best location to shoot these bolts as they are usually away from the rain and quite visible. These bolts can be quite detailed with hundreds of branches extending throughout the air away from the main channel. You will want to adjust your settings depending on how close or how far your lightning is. The closer the bolt, the brighter.

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Anvil Crawlers

o   Usually located on the backside of the storm in the anvil region, this kind of lightning can resemble an intricate spiderweb as it crawls across the sky. I find it is often quite situational to photograph as most of the time, other cloud layers obstruct the view of this lightning. In order to increase your odds of shooting anvil crawlers, you want to position yourself behind the storm.

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In-cloud

o   The interior of a thunderstorm is quite the electrical wonderland. Although, clouds and rain obscure the majority of the detailed lightning within a storm, so usually in-cloud lightning just appears as a cloud that flickers in the sky. Not necessarily my go to lightning to photograph, but under the right conditions, in-cloud lightning can be quite beautiful.

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Know When To Shoot

Lightning can occur at any time of the day, but lightning photography has easier opportunities and harder depending upon the time of day. Night time lightning is by far the easiest time of day to shoot as you can ideally leave your shutter open as long as you’d like in order to capture your scene. Day time lightning is the hardest time of day to shoot lightning as brighter skies contribute to shorter exposure times and large amounts of images having to be taken in order to capture one bolt. Typically, during the day, I will utilize a lightning trigger in order to increase my odds of capturing a bolt. I recommend checking out Strike Finder if you plan on shooting day time lightning. Even with a trigger though, you can still miss strikes due to the bright scenes. Lightning during twilight is my favorite time to shoot. Blue hour and even reminiscent sunset colors can add a whole different feel to your image. The lightning just pops more during this time of day. The light is low enough that you can utilize longer exposures, but still capture color within the sky.  

Camera Settings

As you have gathered from this article so far, photographing lightning can be quite the challenge to prepare for, and it doesn’t get any easier with your settings. Understanding what kind of lightning you want to photograph, what kind of lightning your storm is producing, and the time of day, you can gather a good starting point for your settings. With lightning you cannot utilize metering. The meter will simply read off the dark sky and not the lightning itself, so getting the correct exposure takes some trial and error. Here are some of the settings in which I recommend for each type of lightning. Now please keep in mind, that these settings are more like guidelines and based upon a twilight / night storm photography session. You will want to adjust your settings accordingly.

Cloud-to-ground

o   Close strikes (within 0-3 miles distance): ISO 100 | F16 | Bulb

You are utilizing your cable release to trigger your shutter. Wait until a close bolt strikes and then close your shutter. If your storm is producing a lot of in-cloud lightning, be sure to make sure your frames aren’t becoming washed out.

o   Distant strikes (3-10 miles distance): ISO 200 | F8 | 20”

Due to the lightning being much further away, it is not as bright in your frame, so you will need to utilize a higher ISO and lower aperture to allow for the lightning to be visible.

Anvil Crawlers

o   ISO 125 | F13 | Bulb

Anvil crawlers usually don’t happen as frequently as the other kinds of lightning, so you will need to take multiple attempts and utilize patience to capture them. Although they can be quite bright, you want to once again make sure that any in-cloud lightning does not wash them out. If you feel that your storm is producing too man interior flashes, close your shutter and try another frame. You want to capture anvil crawlers towards the beginning of your exposure to avoid too much motion in the clouds and having those details softened.

In-Cloud

o   ISO 400 | F8 | Bulb

This kind of lightning is best utilized to reveal storm structure and shapes. I prefer to distance myself from the storm by a few miles. Make sure to open and close your shutter in between bright flashes as too many flashes can create a double or triple exposure effect to your frame.

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Focus

Once you get your camera set up on your tripod, you will want to get your focus. For lightning, manual focus is the way to go. I recommend using live view to zoom in on your horizon and to focus on a distant power line, structure, or light (if shooting at night). If you are utilizing any sort of foreground within your image, you will want to focus on that instead of the lightning. Your depth of field should be great enough to keep not only your foreground sharp, but your lightning sharp as well.

Get Creative

You should be completely stoked once you start capturing lightning but also driven to add more to your lightning photos than just the storm itself. I know, I know…but it’s already hard enough, haha! Don’t stress on foreground for every image, but if you can find a scene that adds a nice compositional element to the frame, include it! The only thing that will change with adding a foreground to the image is your focus. Make sure your focus is on the foreground element and allow the lightning to play a supporting role.

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Patience

And finally, patience is key. Don’t be frustrated if it takes a few storms for you to capture that first lightning image. I promise you, the patience pays off and is so worth it! Now get out there, enjoy nature, stay safe, and get creating!