How to photograph Lightning?

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Lightning is one of Mother Nature’s greatest spectacle. And, being a nature photographer, one of the most satisfying to use all the knowledge about your camera to manipulate the light to get a rewarding photograph. More often than not, it is a great challenge to photograph them and get a proper exposure of the lightning for a satisfying image as outcome. Hopefully, the following tips shall help you get better images the next time you see this spectacle.

1. Equipments Needed – DSLR with wide angle lens (use your widest lens), A sturdy tripod, A Shutter release cable/remote.

Lightening in India nature photography
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm, 42 sec, F/16, ISO 100, Tripod.

2. Composition – The easy part

  • As we can’t predict where the lightning bolt (our main subject) will appear in the sky, we need to use the widest lens to cover as much sky in front of us as possible.
  • Depending on the foreground, one can choose 20:80 or 30:70 combination for foreground and sky.  The more the sky in the frame, better the chances of getting a bolt and streaks.
  • Make sure that the horizon level is straight in your compositions.

    Lightening in India nature photography
    Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm, 40 sec, F/11, ISO 160, Tripod.

3. Focus – The easy part

  • Shift to manual focus (switch to MF from AF on your lens).
  • As our main subject (the lightning) is not visible while focusing, we need to manually focus on infinity (The lens would have an ‘∞’  symbol)
  • If you are including a very prominent foreground object like a tall building or tree, focus manually on the subject and don’t change the focus later.
    Lightening in India nature photography
    Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm, 30 sec, F/8, ISO 640, Tripod. [ Don’t miss the ‘Aeroplane’ in left corner that was waiting for landing ]

4. Exposure – The tricky part

  • Change the dial on your camera to use the ‘BULB‘ mode. In Manual mode, the camera can take the photograph with a fixed exposure of 30 sec. That means, if the Lightning does not happen in those 30 sec, the photograph is useless. And if it happens in first 5 sec, the camera would still be waiting for 30 sec to get over before the next shot. In Bulb mode, the camera can expose as much as the shutter button is kept pressed. So, as soon as the Lightning happens (in next 10, 35, 60 or even 100 sec), you can release the shutter resulting in the photograph with Lightning.
  • Use the Infrared Remote or Remote shutter release that lets you keep the shutter button pressed without pressing the camera’s actual shutter button. This would help in minimising all the movement around camera to avoid the shakes in the image.
  • You can wait for multiple Lightning bolts to be captured in the single photograph without releasing the shutter release button until you get good chunk of Lightning bolts in single exposure.
  • You can vary your aperture by opening up or stopping down (e.g. from F4 to F22 depending on the lens you are using) to manage the exposure of the overall frame depending on the ambient light around.
  • If you close down apertures at say F16 onwards, you can achieve nice ‘star effect’ around the light sources from city lights included in your frames.
  • You can keep your ISO to minimum (ISO 100) to start with.  You can increase it if you are stopping down on the aperture ( mentioned in above point) as the Lightning bolts would be very faint otherwise.

    Lightening in India nature photography
    Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm, 48 sec, F/8, ISO 200, Tripod.

5. Patience – The hard part

  • As we can not predict where the Lightning happens, we have to be very patient to get manageable outputs initially.
  • Be sure of the Lightning bolt happened in the portion of sky that you framed before releasing the shutter release.
  • Don’t keep changing the composition to follow the Lightning. Observe and frame it where the chances are more and then wait for it.

    Lightening in India nature photography
    Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm, 34 sec, F/8, ISO 200, Tripod.

6. Things to note 

  • Safety is important. Make sure that you are far away from any dangers of getting struck down with Lightning.
  • Make sure the lens is clean. Due to the stormy weather and rain that accompanies the Lightning phenomenon, keep checking on your lens if it had got water droplets on it and wipe it clean if it does. Use lens hood if possible.
  • Take necessary precautions while changing lenses to avoid exposing camera sensor to dust particles in such weather. Best to avoid changing lenses in open.
I was holding an umbrella over my camera setup while it was raining but could not avoid the raindrops over my lens. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm, 58 sec, F/16, ISO 100, Tripod.

7. Experiment

  • Once you start getting the good results, don’t forget to experiment around different settings of Aperture, ISO and exposure to create some different images. Basically, don’t get stuck down in a formula of making the similar images once you crack the code !
  • The following image was one of my fav image photographed a decade back when I was amateur but also stubborn in experimenting. I was out to photograph flooded city roads and people during a downpour when I saw huge Lightning in sky. It was pretty intense and happening quite frequently. I knew of the place near airport where there was an open ground and railway track. I drove fast to reach the spot before the Lightning show gets over. I did not have my tripod. So, I was just leaning on my bike for support, tucked in my elbows while holding my breath during the exposure. The local trains were passing and I was hoping to get at least one frame where I have the ‘Lightning over the passing train’!

    Lightening in India nature photography
    “Lightning over passing train”.
    Canon 400D, Canon 18-55mm, 18 sec, F3.5, ISO 100, Handheld.

Important

  • Always shoot in RAW !
  • Do post process your images !!

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