Trying My Hand At Lightning Photography

We had a little bit of a storm roll through North Idaho last night, so naturally my Dad and I got out on the front porch to try for some lightning shots. I really haven’t done any lightning photography with my dSLR, so I was pretty much winging it. The lightning passed too quickly to get any good shots, but I did learn a few things about lightning photography.

The first thing I learned was that your choice of lens is relatively important. I had my 10-20mm zoom on the camera, but it felt a little too wide for the scene I was shooting. I tried a few with my 105mm macro, but that felt a little too narrow. I would think that something around 35mm to 70mm would work well for most situations, though some scenes might work better with lenses below 35mm. The important thing is that you want to catch a big enough portion of the sky without going so wide that the lightning becomes a minor part of the photo.

Another important part of lightning photography is your choice of shutter speed and f-number. I was shooting 30 second exposures, but I might have gone as long as two or three minutes if I had a shutter release cable. 30 seconds wasn’t bad though, and it would work well if the lightning storm was fairly active. The other side to exposure is the choice of f-number. I tried a few different settings, but I seemed to get better results right around f/11. When I tried f/5.6 I ended up with an overexposed sky, and when I tried f/22 I ended up with dark skies and really weak bolts.

So next time I go out for lightning shots I’ll be using my 18-200mm zoom at 30+ second exposures around f/11. Maybe next time I’ll get a few keepers. The photo at the top of this post is the only one that was even worth working on, though it needed a lot of work (you can see the original here). The funny thing is that it was also my first shot taken — I basically spent the next half hour getting bad shots and learning how not to take lightning photos. By the time I started to figure it out, the storm was too far gone to get any more photos. Next time I suppose…

This entry was posted in General Tips, Lighting on by .

About Brian Auer

a photography enthusiast from North Idaho. He's also the guy behind the Epic Edits Weblog. As a hobbyist photographer since 2003, his passion has been to constantly improve his photography skill set, to share his own knowledge with others, and to become an integral part of the photographic community.

15 thoughts on “Trying My Hand At Lightning Photography

  1. wingerz

    Wow, that looks like a pretty lucky shot – the lightning is framed nicely by the trees. I was caught on the edge of a thunderstorm Friday evening but wasn’t able to get anything at all since I was handholding without my cable release.

  2. Christopher Scholl

    Lightning photography scares the hell out of me. I know there are safe ways to to do it – but I am always convinced I’ll be that one unlucky guy who somehow, hidden safely at a distance, catches an errant bolt upside the back of my head.
    But it’s very cool and good for you for doing it. It definitely presents challenges to the photographer!

  3. Rygood

    Nice shot brian! When i shoot lighting, i use a shutter release cable and bulb exposure. i have the cheapie one from “Dot Line” and it works perfectly.

    Generally, i’ll be at f/16, hold the shutter release until a bolt comes across the sky, then let it go. Unfortunately, now that i live in LA, and it barely rains let alone storms, i dont get that opportunity very often.

  4. Susheel

    Nice photograph Brian. I usually make the mistake of opening out my aperture quite a bit. I live in the middle of a city, so that means that I have city lights no matter where I point (unless its up at the sky) and they usually flare out… but i’ve got some interesting shots of horizontal lighting streaks above the skyline. They’re on film though… and I’m too darn lazy to scan them!

    Cheers!

  5. Brian Auer Post author

    Thanks for the comments everybody! It seems as though lightning is a hot topic among photographers. I don’t know why I haven’t done lightning shots prior to this — I live in New Jersey for cryin’ out loud! I’ll have to see if I can get some better shots before we move to San Diego.

  6. Andrew Ferguson

    I’ve never tried lightning photography but it sounds like a lot of fun.

    I definitely appreciate the advice on good camera settings to use at the end of the post. It makes for a handy reference if I ever get a thunderstorm around here :)

    You forgot one important component though: A minion to hold your umbrellas! One for you and one for the camera :P

  7. Brian Auer Post author

    Well shucks. I guess what I meant to say was that it passed too quickly to get any MORE good shots. That was really the only one worth salvaging. The rest of the shots didn’t have any distinct bolts in them, just some lit up clouds.

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