I love a good storm. If it has tons of lightning to photograph, that’s even better. Let’s see, let’s go outside and attach ourselves to a metal pole in a storm! Yikes. We photographers are a crazy bunch.
Ok, time for the serious stuff first. Lightning IS dangerous, so be very careful. The first tip on how you can improve your lightning shots (before we even start the actual photography tips) is: watch the storm before going out. The reason you want to do this is to determine what type of lightning is striking and how quickly, and where the storm is moving. Be prepared!
Things you need:
- Flashlight. Most lightning shots are taken at night, and you need to see where you are walking. You will also need to see the buttons on your camera to change your settings as needed.
- A heavy trash bag or large Ziploc freezer bag. Just in case you get stuck in the rain, you can poke a hole in the bag and stick your lens out and not worry about getting your camera as wet. Do not use an umbrella.
- Tripod. Yes, you will be attaching yourself to a metal pole in a storm (I did mention that)! Do not stand under a tree or in open area directly under the storm.
- Shutter release cable. If you don’t have one, learn how to use the timer on your camera.
- Safe shelter that your can reach quickly.
If the lightning is staying up above the clouds, called “sheet lightning”, it is fairly safe to stand in the open. Notice I said “fairly”. There is always some risk involved with this. If the lightning is hitting the ground, try to look for a spot quite distant or in a safe place. I have stood in a garage with the door open, for example.
Tip 1: Don’t be afraid to stop down the aperture. Why? It will bring the larger bolts more into focus and block out the ambient light of the sheet lightning and of lights nearby. When I first started out, I thought I had to open up the aperture wide to let in the “zap”; however, all this did was to overexpose the photo. Check out the result of that. Not so good, is it? This photo was taken around 1am and it was very dark outside:
Tip 2: Get out of town. Seriously – if you can, follow the storm into a rural area.
Tip 3: Make sure your camera is focused. To focus in the dark, I have used this little trick: find a light in the distance and focus on that. This tip also works for other night shots as well.
Tip 4: Keep your shutter open as long as you can to catch more than one bolt of lightning.
Tip 5: Keep your horizon straight, and be prepared to practice patience. It’s difficult to guess where lightning will strike.
Tip 6: Use a zoom lens and stay far back from the actual storm.
Don’t compromise your safety, but do get some exciting lightning shots into your portfolio.