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…

15 responses

Do you want to comment?

Comments RSS and TrackBack Identifier URI ?

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.

June 5, 2007 2:15 pm

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!

June 5, 2007 2:36 pm

Awesome shot. I like how the trees frame the bolt.

Wish we had lightning around here.

June 5, 2007 6:05 pm

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.

June 5, 2007 6:30 pm

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!


June 6, 2007 3:11 am

nice photo!

June 6, 2007 6:03 am

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.

June 6, 2007 10:05 am

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

June 6, 2007 6:06 pm

LOL! Minions! Lucky for us, we were on the front porch with some cover over us.

June 6, 2007 6:37 pm

I got really lucky last year during a summer thunderstorm:


I was just messing around with different shutter speeds and apertures (like Brian) and was fortunate to capture a couple of great images.

Stories at the above link, while you can see the EXIF data at my Flickr site:


June 7, 2007 10:00 am

Too much patience required for me.

I can’t sit still for that long.

June 9, 2007 4:56 am

‘The lightning passed too quickly to get any good shots’…
The shot above is absolutely stunning!!

June 23, 2007 10:09 am

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.

June 23, 2007 10:47 am

Just tried my hand at shooting lightning too. It took me 70 tries before getting something that was just OK in my mind. Like you, I’ll be ready next time knowing what works. Thanks for this article. Here is my try:


June 25, 2007 4:07 pm

These are absolutely breathtaking! Ugh, my Coolpix would never handle anything so inspirational. Were you scared of the lightning? I read an article recently that talked about how low the chances are of getting struck (and of losing your life). Maaaaybe I’ll give my Coolpix a shot at lightning bolts, lol.

July 24, 2008 12:23 pm

Comment now!