Lightning photography has always fascinated me. When I started with my first DSLR camera, one of the first things I wanted to do was capture lightning. I did a lot of research on the subject and tested various techniques. The following are the two techniques I settled on to capture lightning images.
*NOTE- Lightning is extremely dangerous. Safety should always be your first priority. Lightning can strike without warning. Do not put yourself at risk.
Daylight Lightning Photography
When storms happen during daylight hours, I use a device called the Lightning Bug camera trigger. According to the manufacturer, this trigger senses the infrared pulse of the lightning strike and triggers the camera to fire the shutter and catch the visible lightning. I can’t compare this trigger to other triggers on the market because this is the only one I have tried. That’s because it worked for me right out of the box. The sensitivity of the Lightning Bug is adjustable to prevent shooting a lot of spurious photos where lightning is in the clouds and the strike is sensed by the trigger. I keep the setting just below the maximum setting. I would rather throw away some images than miss a fantastic strike. I would suggest experimenting with the settings to find what works best with your camera. Make sure you know your camera make and model, so you can get the correct connecting cable for your camera.
My camera setup involves mounting the camera trigger on the camera via the hot shoe mount on top. You simply slide the trigger mount into the hot shoe and tighten it down with the tension ring. You then connect the cable from the camera trigger to the bulb input plug on the side of the camera. Be sure to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod. Thunderstorms can have strong winds associated with them, so a sturdy tripod is a must. I have had several times where the outflow winds from a storm have almost blown my camera over. Only quick reflexes saved my camera and lens from striking the ground.
My camera settings for daylight are Aperture Priority, f8 -f11 to get an acceptable depth of field when possible, so everything is in focus, ISO 200. You may need to open up the aperture depending on lighting conditions. Lightning is extremely bright, so if you bump up the ISO too much to get the foreground exposed well, you may have the lightning blown out on the image. You will get more usable images if you use the aperture setting on your camera to help get the proper exposure for the lightning.
Night-Time Lightning Photography
When the sun sets, I prefer to switch to long exposure photography to capture lightning images. Long exposure images require you to use the bulb setting on your camera to hold the shutter open for long periods of time, compared to daylight photography. Many cameras have a built-in setting to set the shutter speed up to 30 seconds. But this means you have to trigger the shutter manually for each photo.
I prefer to use an intervalometer. This device allows you to set the length of time the shutter is open, as well as the number of images to take and the pause between opening the shutter. It puts the whole process on autopilot, so you can sit back and watch the show. You simply plug the device into your camera’s port, power on the device, and set the settings mentioned above.
My settings when using this method are as follows: Bulb, F4.5-5.6, shutter duration 20-30 sec. These are the settings I used to capture the feature image for this post, as well as the one above.
Lens Choice for Lightning Photography
You should choose a wide-angle lens for lightning photography. Lightning can occur anywhere in the sky, so the more area your lens covers, the better chance you have of capturing a good image. Learn about thunderstorms so you can have a better chance of predicting the active areas of a storm that are more likely to produce lightning. I have 2 cameras I use for lightning imaging. They are both zoom lenses and I set them at the minimum (between 18-28 mm). I point them at opposite areas of the sky to cover as much of the sky as possible. But you can still capture amazing lightning images with one camera and a wide-angle lens.
I would be remiss if I didn’t cover some of the safety precautions I use in the field. First, I never put myself at risk. I always stay sheltered within a building or inside my car when imaging if lightning is within 20 miles of my current location. I use only composite tripods, not metal. This reduces the risk of a lightning strike on your camera setup. I use a lightning app on my phone to monitor conditions. If lightning comes within 10 miles, I will bring all my equipment under shelter to prevent equipment damage. Also, be aware that rain and lightning go together. You should be prepared to shelter your camera equipment from the elements.
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