I’ve had many questions asked about how I capture the lightning photos we post on the Lost In The Ozarks Facebook page. I decided it would be good to show you how I do it, and how you can do it too with minimal gear.
The Basic Equipment
The Camera For Lightning Photos
To capture stunning lightning photos isn’t that difficult. But you are going to need some basic equipment. Otherwise, you will be trusting your photo captures to sheer luck.
This is where a DSLR camera makes all the difference. A point and shoot camera might catch a strike if you are really lucky. But many times the camera will be hunting for focus right when the lightning flashes. This is where a DSLR camera will help you immensely. Because the DSLR camera has a detachable lens that you can manually focus, your ratio of acceptable photos to those that are out of focus will be high. I’ll get into this more when talking about lenses to use below.
You don’t need a really expensive camera to get great results. When I first started out I bought a Canon T3i camera. The latest model is the T8i. It comes with a kit lens that is capable of very good results.
Lenses For Lightning Photos
Shooting lightning photos is a lot different from shooting portraits. As mentioned previously, the kit lens that comes with your DSLR will do a fine job. But as you get more into shooting lightning photos you may choose to upgrade your lens. I prefer a wide-angle zoom lens that gives me some flexibility in different shooting situations.
The lens I use is the Sigma 18-250 mm zoom. It is an older model I bought several years ago. They now offer the Sigma 18-300 mm zoom lens. If you decide to purchase the lens to add to your DSLR it will set you back another $400. I feel it is well worth the investment. It is the lens I used to shoot the photos in this article. On a side note, it is also a great lens to carry on vacation when you don’t want to lug around a bag full of lenses.
Another great thing about this lens is that it has a marking to show you infinity focus. This is a great thing when you are trying to get tack sharp focus in the dark. Trust me, this is something that will make your life easier and increase your in-focus shots when shooting outdoors at night. Infinity focus basically lets you know that everything in the frame out to infinity will be in focus. It is not perfect, but it will get you close, so you can fine focus.
Must-Have Tools To Shoot Lightning Photos
You will need a sturdy tripod for mounting your camera when shooting lightning photos. My advice is to spend the extra money and purchase a carbon fiber tripod. There are two reasons for this. The first one is the most important. Carbon fiber is far less likely to become a lightning rod than a metal tripod. If a lightning strike hits your rig the whole thing is toast. If you are near it that could include you as well. Safety always comes first when shooting lightning photos.
The second reason for spending the few extra dollars for a carbon fiber tripod is weight. They weigh much less than a comparably rigid metal tripod. When you are doing photography outdoors that extra weight counts. Here is a link to the tripod I use.
When shooting at night an intervalometer is a must-have. This little gadget acts as a shutter release for the camera and keeps the shutter open for a set amount of time. Why does this matter? Because at night there is very little light available for your camera. By keeping the shutter open you are doing what is known as long exposure photography. This allows your camera to gather light for a long period of time so that dim objects show up. This technique is great for shooting stars, the Milky Way, etc. This is what makes it a great technique for shooting lightning photos too.
Since a lightning strike is unpredictable by keeping the shutter open for a long period of time you increase your chances of catching a strike. I usually opt for 20-30 seconds depending on the conditions. If I have an isolated storm and there are stars I want to capture I will opt for 20 seconds to minimize star trails. If it is mostly cloudy I will go with 30 seconds to optimize the time the shutter is open. If the storm is really active you may catch multiple strikes as in the photo below.
In some ways shooting lightning at night is easier than in the daytime. You can’t use long exposure photography during the daytime, so exactly how do you capture the exact moment the lightning strikes? The answer to this is to use a lightning trigger.
This little tool attaches to your camera using the hot shoe on top. A cable attaches to the shutter release input on the camera. The trigger senses the infrared pulse of a lightning strike and triggers the camera shutter. Your camera snaps a photo of the lightning strike, and you get a nice photo as shown below.
While shooting lightning can be fun and give you some great memories of powerful storms, it can also be dangerous if you are careless. Safety should always be your number one priority. Lightning is unpredictable and can easily kill you if you are careless. It can strike 10 miles or more from the main part of the storm. You don’t want to take chances just to get lightning photos.
A few safety tips: Get a good weather app and keep up with developing storms. Using one with a lightning detector like the Weather Bug app for the iPhone can help by letting you see where the lightning is most active. It can also alert you when lightning is getting too close. I use this app because I have found it to be reliable and as long as you have a cell phone signal you can keep up with storms.
As I said previously, I use a carbon fiber tripod to help prevent the tripod becoming a ground and attracting lightning.
When lightning gets close move inside a structure or your vehicle. If my app shows lightning within 15 miles I move inside my vehicle for added protection when I am out chasing storms. I have had a lightning strike very close to me when out shooting lightning photos. Being in my vehicle helped protect me from getting struck by lightning. It may not be the perfect solution, but it sure beats standing out in the open in a lightning storm.
Now that you know how I capture the lightning photos you see on our Facebook page you might want to get the equipment and try it yourself. If you get some great photos please feel free to share them below, or join our Facebook group and share them there.