Without a doubt one of the most enjoyable and rewarding type of light to photograph would have to be lightning.

With an average duration of just 30 microseconds, catching a lightning bolt is not as hard as you may think in regards to camera settings. It’s being at the right place at the right time that is the difficult part.

I can’t really help with the latter, but in regards to camera settings and how to capture lightning, I thought I would share some of my storm images and what I done to capture this illusive light.

Lightning and a lighthouse

Wollongong Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse

(Exposure: 52 seconds Aperture: F5 ISO: 125)

There are two main ways to photograph lightning. You can use a lightning trigger or shoot a long exposure.

In simple terms, a lightning trigger is an extremely sensitive optical flash device that is connected to your camera. When a lightning bolt strikes, it is not a singular event but is usually comprised of several return strokes. A trigger will respond to one of the first strokes and then open your cameras shutter in order to capture the corresponding bolt. This is ideal in situations where the light is not low enough to shoot long exposures.

I don’t own a lightning trigger and have never used one so in this post I will talk about shooting lightning using long exposures.

As with all photography situations, your camera settings will be determined by the ambient light available. Generally speaking, if you have your shutter open and are exposing the scene correctly, if a flash strikes during your exposure, then your camera should pick it up. It is a matter of using your cameras light meter and determining how you are going to keep it level.

Storms often roll in late afternoon and into the night. All my images shared here were taken at night. Because of this, I wanted to expose for 30 seconds to allow enough ambient light in as possible. I choose not to shoot longer then 30 seconds to avoid cloud drag and star trails (yes you can get stars and lightning in the one shot).

A storm out at sea.

Wollongong Beach

(Exposure: 30 seconds Aperture: F4 ISO: 200- Shooting longer than 30 seconds would have caused the stars to blur as the earth rotates)

So once we have our shutter speed determined (3o seconds) we just need to adjust our ISO and aperture to correctly expose the scene.

If you are shooting a landscape you generally want a narrow aperture (high f-stop, such as f16) however, at night, this would not allow enough light in to our sensor during our 30 second exposure. A good general starting point may be around f9. Keep an eye on your light meter to determine if this is too high or low.

Your ISO setting will always want to be as low as possible to reduce noise. So try starting at ISO 100 and shoot your 30 second exposure at f9.

Once the exposure is complete you will need to analyse your shot (and histogram) and decide if the settings were close or if your scene was under/over exposed.

Lightning over a Casino

Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

(Exposure: 8 seconds Aperture: F18 ISO: 50- Captured from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Vegas. It was not very dark so I adjusted my settings to allow for a longer exposure)

If the scene is over exposed you can begin by closing down the aperture to increase the depth of field (DOF). Perhaps f13, f16 etc

If you are finding the scene was under exposed you can begin adjusting your aperture and ISO accordingly. This is where you must decide what is more important, having a greater depth of field or lower noise.

Perhaps you are focusing on a stationary object such as a lighthouse with minimal foreground and background interest, you can afford to use a wider aperture and decrease your DOF.

If need be, you can go wide open to apertures like f2.8 or f1.8 depending on what lens you have, just make sure your main subject is sharp.

Next is your ISO. Every camera yields different results at high ISO settings with some having better noise control then others. It is a good idea to determine for yourself the maximum ISO you are comfortable using.

For me, I personally would not want to print something too big at anything over ISO 1000, as noise becomes too apparent.

A highway with lightning in the desert.

Nevada Desert

(Exposure: 50 seconds Aperture: F3.2 ISO: 1000 – This scene was incredibly dark so I had to use a high ISO and also a flashlight to illumine the foreground. Star blur is also evident due to the 50 second exposure)

So, once you have an idea of your settings and can correctly expose your scene, the fun part begins, waiting for the bolts and hoping not to get struck 🙂

Of course if the situation is getting a little risky, I recommend packing up and enjoying the show from a safe place but if you are comfortable then find your composition and be patient.

Also keep in mind that if a bolt strike is close, it can easily over expose your scene. To avoid this, make sure you are not already exposing too brightly (to the right of the histogram). Keep your exposure to the middle of the histogram is possible.

Monitor the cloud movement and which direction the storm is moving. If you are lucky you can try and be ahead of the storm and watch it move towards you, others times you may be behind, chasing the last few bolts.

I am not overly experienced with storm photography but one thing I have learned is that preparation goes a long way. This is true for landscape photography in general. If a storm is forecast for the evening then head out somewhere early before it arrives. This will give you enough time to find a composition and perhaps a few back up ones in case the strikes occur somewhere you didn’t expect.

Most importantly, patience is key. For every lightning image I have, there are many failed attempts to accompany it.

Just head out when you can, stay safe and be prepared to walk home without a photo. Eventually you will get the shot.

Most of all have fun and enjoy God’s light 🙂

Feel free to comment below with any questions and keep in mind that I run one-on-one and group workshops, customized to your needs.

Take care, WP

Lightning breaking over a lighthouse.

Wollongong Historic Lighthouse

(Exposure: 15 seconds Aperture: F4 ISO: 200 – A personal favourite image of mine and one that I am grateful to have captured)