How To Capture Lightning Photos

17 November 2021

When lightning strikes, photographers are presented with fleeting moments to capture something truly spectacular, yet those perfect freeze frames are rarely easy to achieve. Many enthusiasts will testify to having caught little but a cold during their first one or two attempts, and it can be frustrating to have nothing to show for the time and effort.

But preparation and practice will always lead to better chances, so we’ve pulled together 5 tips on how to take photos of lightning, giving you all of the settings, tools and gear you’ll need to take the best lightning photos time and time again.

#1 How to take photos of lightning safely

The unpredictability of lightning storms makes them alluring yet elusive photography subjects. While having the right gear and tools is important, a little research also goes a long way.

It’s advisable to stay sheltered but avoid standing under a tree or near power lines to ensure you are out of harm's way if lightning should strike nearby. If at all possible, shoot from inside a house or vehicle. Keep an eye on the location of the storm and try to find a spot where you can take pictures from a distance of 5 to 20 miles. This distance not only provides an added layer of safety for the photographer but the perspective can also make for more compelling images.

How To Capture Lightning PhotosHow To Capture Lightning Photos

#2 The best gear for lighting photos

Try as you might, you won't be able to capture detailed lightning photos with your smartphone. For the optimum results, you’ll need the right gear. A good lightning photography kit looks a little like this:

How To Capture Lightning PhotosHow To Capture Lightning Photos

The right camera

For the best results, you will want to use a Digital SLR or Mirrorless camera. These cameras are not only more suitable for lighting photography due to their ability to capture high-quality images, they also function at a higher speed and have more advanced manual functionality. This means you have far more control over the camera and its settings.

Sturdy tripod

A tripod is necessary to keep your camera steady and avoid blurred images when shooting lightning. This allows you to have the shutter open for a longer exposure. Before shooting a lightning storm, invest in a stable tripod that supports your camera and lens. Not only will it reduce camera shake but it will better protect your gear from accidents too.

Remote control

A remote control shutter release allows you to fire the shutter of the camera quickly, without having to touch the shutter button. This dramatically reduces the risk of a blurry image. 

Rain protection for your gear 

Although most cameras and lenses have an element of weather protection built in, it’s advised that you not rely on this alone and seek additional ways to protect your gear from damage caused by rain, wind and other elements. You can invest in dedicated rain covers for your camera gear. You can use a sturdy and reliable umbrella attached to a dedicated stand or try to shoot beneath some other (safe) cover.

Browse some lightning-friendly photo gear

#3 Use the best camera settings for lightning photos

The trick for capturing a lightning storm is to have everything set up and ready before lightning strikes. Even the slightest tweak of adjustments can spoil the moment. While the exact settings change with your conditions, here is a starting point of what settings you should use for the best lightning photography.

Turn off autofocus

Most storms will be too dark for autofocus to be helpful, so you’ll want to rely on manual focus. By not relying on autofocus, you can save fractions of a second, which can be essential when lightning just as it strikes. To help with clarity, focus the camera on a light in the distance before you start shooting. For more tips on shooting without autofocus, see our beginner’s guide to shooting in manual mode.

Narrow your aperture

Set your aperture to a moderate setting of around f5.6 to f8 if you are photographing during the day. Opt for a smaller aperture at night, around f16. This will provide a good amount of sharpness and depth of field, and will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. Continue to narrow the aperture as the lightning gets closer and closer.

Start with a low ISO 

Lowering your ISO will allow you to use slow shutter speeds without overexposure and reduce image noise. This can always be bumped up as required if necessary. To learn more about ISO check out our blog post on ISO.

How To Capture Lightning PhotosHow To Capture Lightning Photos

Use a slow shutter speed

To make sure you are equipped to capture flashes of lighting as they branch across the sky, you ideally want to be using a very slow shutter speed. If you are shooting at night, try a long speed of around 5 to 20 seconds. For day shots, try 1-3 seconds.

Top tip: Once you’re all set up, try taking a test shot and then adjusting as necessary based on your results. There is no one way to capture lightning and there is always an element of trial and error in order to get things right. You want to make sure everything is adequately sharp and in focus and your exposure settings are just right.

#4 Think about composition

How To Capture Lightning PhotosHow To Capture Lightning Photos

As with any form of photography, consider your composition carefully before you shoot, using common techniques such as leading lines and the rule of thirds to help you out. Consider including more sky in your frame than you usually would, which gives the lightning more space to work its magic. 

You can also play with juxtaposition for great storm photography, selecting a location that is otherwise serene and calm. This makes the chaotic effects of lighting seem all the more powerful.

#5 Take plenty of shots

Practice makes perfect. Even if your shots don’t go exactly to plan on your first try, the experience you gain from giving it a crack is invaluable. You can review your shots, see what worked and what didn’t. Learn from your previous work and wait for the next storm.

How To Capture Lightning PhotosHow To Capture Lightning Photos

Get camera-ready for the next storm

When capturing a lightning storm, you never know what you’re going to get, that is half of the excitement in capturing lightning photos. But it pays to be prepared. Find all the gear and camera equipment you need online at Ted’s Cameras, or visit your local Ted’s Cameras store to get expert advice from our staff. Now, all that is left to do is wait for lightning to strike, knowing you are prepared for when the moment comes.

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