Tips on lightning photography?

Samantha Neve

Lately I've been trying to get some good shots of the lightning near my home, but none of them have been successful. So far, I have a drawer full of smudged looking photos with barely any lightning showing, and a few digital photos that didn't capture any lightning because my peice-of-crap camera takes 5 seconds before it snaps a photo.

Does anyone have any tips on getting some better shots?
You need a camera that you can control the aperature and exposure length...perferrably a bulb setting. A bulb setting is simply a manual shutter control that you hold open as long as you want it to. You will also need to control focus manually.

I'm using a Canon Digital Rebel XT (350D) which has really worked great for me so far. This is just my first year doing lightning photography, but the learning curve isn't that steep really.

There are some excellent lightning photographers here on stormtrack, so they can certainly expand on it (or correct anything I miss). For me, I'm using an fStop (aperature) of around 8 to 11 (I'm still playing with this) with ISO of 200 with a bulb setting. Once I get it properly focused (using a distant light or some other landmark source you can see), I point it to where I think the best lightning will appear (this is the tough part...LOL!!), then open the shutter. As soon as I get a good bolt, I immediately close the shutter. If you leave it open any loinger than that, sheet lightning (or what I call ambient lightning) will wash it out.

Here are a couple of my best shots so far:

Scroll down to my lightning shots. One of them was too bright and slightly washed out, but I'm still learning. :)

There is also another thread in the forum you should check out:
You need a camera that you can control the aperature and exposure length...perferrably a bulb setting. A bulb setting is simply a manual shutter control that you hold open as long as you want it to. You will also need to control focus manually.
Steve's advice is great, but I want to add to it a bit. If you're going to use the bulb setting, having a shutter release cable is a good idea...that will keep your body movements from jiggling the camera. Of course a tripod is necessary whether you use bulb or not. Most of my lightning pictures come out so-so, but FYI, I use ISO 200 film with a aperature of 4.0-5.6 and a shutter speed of 15"-30". I need to go buy myself a release cable....

I use ISO 200 film with a aperature of 4.0-5.6 and a shutter speed of 15"-30".

Allow me to chime in for this... Ben, if you want better shots, I would suggest using ISO 100 or (preferrably) less. My film camera, I shot ISO 100.

When I busted out the digital, I opted to go with ISO 50.

ISO 200 isn't bad, but I think the lower you go, the better off you'll be.

Also, talk to Susan Strom. She's the Lightning Goddess of this forum and has some incredible shots. She's the one I would point you to for lightning advice.
Double ditto on the tripod and shutter release. I've also intended to try the mirror lock-up, but dang it...just not enough good lightning storms this year to practice with! I myself will try the ISO100 from now on and play with the aperature (fStop) more. I think my best success so far is with a bulb setting and manual shutter release. As soon as you get that bolt, close the shutter. Any additonal light from "sheet lightning" or ambient light from surrounding lightning discharges..specifically cloud-to-cloud will wash out or diffuse the sharpness of the bolt you want to capture. I guess that's why I like the higher aperature settings to around 11 to eliminate the background flashes if there is alot of C-C going on...but then I have to raise the ISO to 200 to compensate. At least this is where I'm at now...still learning. I need more storms to practice with! :)

Here are a couple of my shots (please don't copy) with settings listed:

ISO 100; 1 second shutter; f22; Auto White Balance; 0 exposure compensation; Brightness adjustment (RAW) -1.00; Shot at 7:05 pm in daylight conditions.

ISO 100; 9 second shutter (bulb); f10; Auto White Balance; 0 exposure compensation; Brightness adjustment (RAW) -1.17; shot at night
Steve, part of the trick I've learned this season is setting lower shutter TIMES. My digital camera allows for a max of 15 seconds. I shot the May 18 series on my digital with ISO 50/f8 @ 15 seconds each. While it may burn through film, you'll get clear bolts and can really have some fun... see below...


A shorter exposure allowed me to shoot some foreground scenary including chasers and a vehicle with flashing lights. A filter would've reduced the light glare, but the lightning wasn't washed out cause of it..


This shot had a lot of inter-cloud and heat lightning associated with it after the actual bolt hit. Most of the intercloud was after the main bolt dropped, but again, a shorter exposure time at f8 with ISO 50 made it so the light wasn't washed out, yet I was able to get it.


Same concept of lower ISO. This was also 50 with a f8 (camera's max), but set for a few seconds at sunset. Again, shorter times and lower ISO's prevented the sun from washing away the bolt.


The background lightning made this a great shot. Again, I allowed the heat lightning to come through enough to color the clouds, but yet, the CC and CG bolts are still perfectly visibible. for my 2 cents...

First of all, if you are just learning, go purchase yourself a good manual 35MM camera (the Minolta X-700 is an excellent choice, and can be found used at a reasonable price) Read as mutch literature as you can find.

Something to remember about film ISO ratings...the higher the rating (like 800 or 1600), the better for capturing action and low light images...however...with this comes a sizable increase in grain. When you attempt to make enlargements of photos made with high speed film, this becomes very visible.

My choice of film for most of my storm photography is Fuji Provia 100F Professional, Super Fine Grain. This is a transparency (slide) film, and takes a good understanding of photography techniques, and lots of practice. I would stick with 100 or 50 ISO film for starting out, and experiment with Provia.
I really like that first shot Tony. Nice! My camera can only go to ISO 100, but does have an exposure compensation. It can also do fStops up to 22. I figure that the higher the fStop (the smaller the aperature), the better it will filter out ambient lightning if you just want the CG itself and for it to come out "cleaner". But, getting some of the other weaker/fainter bolts in the picture as well as the thinner streamers might be compromised too much. Just my thoughts as a newbie.
I'll agree with the comments about ISO 100 film. That's my preferred choice, but since I never know how much film I'll use (and I'm loth to waste 1/2 roll of film) I tend to keep 200 loaded to give myself better flexibility. I do recommend ISO 100 though...I've noticed a dramatic difference in my aurora photos between 100 and 200...the 100 is far better.

And 50 is even better than that. 50 Velvia is basically real life if you don't overexpose:). Also encourages a longer exposure time. While you certainly want to close the shutter after getting your big bolt, you'll have over time more shots with smaller, interesting bolts on your exposure prior to that big'un.

Not that lightning photography has been kind to me; I am that guy who must finally close the shutter to prevent overexposure & *then* sees 3-4 CGs. Grrrr... :roll: