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How to Take Lightning Photos

Chasing lightning is one of the funnest things... well personally. I love seeing a storm evolve and move across a valley and become something else once it hits the mountains. Each storm is different. They happen at different times of the day, in different locations, with different light and colors, sometimes during sunset, sometimes during the day, and into the night. Lightning photography is an addictive thing. It's almost like gambling! haha! :D It's fun, beautiful, powerful, and gets your adrenaline pumping. Here are some tips I've figured out over the years to capture lightning, get some creative shots, and to stay safe.

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What you'll need:

  • Camera

  • A SLR, DSLR, mirrorless, or even a point and shoot with manual settings can work.

  • Lens

  • ​Any lens will do, but a wider lens can capture more within the shot.

This is a great starter lens for cheap! The quality for the price is amazing with good optics. One link is compatible with Canon, the other for Nikon.

  • Tripod

  • This is a must for most photography in my opinion. You will need to keep your camera steady while you shoot lightning as you will probably use a slow shutter speed.

  • Intervalometer

​This is optional and most professional cameras come with one built in nowadays. I use it for time lapses, or just leave my camera shooting while I find a safer place away from my camera and tripod, so to me it's important to have.

  • Lightning Trigger

  • If shooting lightning in the daytime.

  • Rain Cover

  • ​This doesn't have to be anything expensive. You can buy one or make one. I made one out of a plastic bag and a Tupperware bowl that helps cover my lens and it works super well or you can buy one here.

  • Extra Batteries

  • ​Self Explanatory

  • Extra Memory Cards​

  • Self-Explanatory

  • Waterproof Jacket​

  • Worth the investment for a good breathable one.

  • Water/Food/Snacks

  • ​So many times I forgot this one and sat in my car while there was close lighting and realized how hungry and thirsty I was.

  • Chairs

  • If the storm is far enough away, its nice watching from afar and sitting and watching.

  • Flashlight/Headlamp

  • ​Super helpful with everything in the dark, especially rattlesnakes here in Arizona that love to come out during monsoon season.

1. Download one or a few storm chasing apps on your phone

I use two different ones that I use for two reasons. I use RadarCast to track the movement and the predicted movement of a storm. The other app I use is LightningCast and it helps track lightning strikes and the location where they struck. They are super similar apps, I've just found that using both of them helps predict where the storm will be more accurately and where the lightning will be.

2. Lightning chasing is a learning process

When I started taking lightning photos I was uneducated about lightning and how storms behaved. It does help to gain knowledge in atmospheric science. Things such as cloud formations, barometric pressure, local geography and where storms usually build up, etc. It's a fun and endless rabbit hole once you find yourself in it.

Lightning and thunderstorms are unpredictable, so it helps to be knowledgable in how storms behave, but even with all this knowledge you never know exactly where these magical sky breweries will unleash.

3. Stay Safe!

Lightning chasing is a dangerous hobby! In reality, there is really no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance of lightning. Some safe places are indoors or in an enclosed car. While there is no real safe place outdoors and you find yourself in a predicament and having no other choice, there are things to do to lessen the threat. According to here is a list of what you can do.

  • Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.

  • Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.

  • If you are in a group, spread out to avoid the current traveling between group members.

  • If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. Remember, a tent offers NO protection from lighting.

  • Stay away from water, wet items, such as ropes, and metal objects, such as fences and poles. Water and metal do not attract lightning but they are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.

This is a great little pamphlet that sums up risks and what to do especially in the backcountry or in a tent.

This pictures is an example of what I mean by lightning being dangerous and unpredictable! I was shooting a timelapse of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona from the Northwest side of town, keeping a somewhat safe distance. I was quickly setting up my camera and tripod with the intervalometer shooting away, knowing the storm was moving away when this strike shot down not even a mile away! It was loud and I could feel the rumbling in my body! You better believe I ran back to the car as fast as I could as I hoped my camera was shooting with a good frame, my remote was set right, and my camera wasn't going to get struck. (Sure enough, everything went fine and I got a beautiful timelapse.)

4. Patience is a must

For me, it's fun to sit, relax, and watch storms/nature. Some people get bored, but I love catching just the right shot to the point i'm yelling with excitement. The best is lightning chasing with friends and finding the same enthusiasm with others.

5. Decide your location and stick around for a bit

I'm always looking for photo spots. It's kind of similar to when skateboarders are always on the watch for 'skate spots'. It becomes an all consuming lifestyle exploring different locations and deciding where a story can be told in one photograph. Welcome to my world.

Watch and wait to see what happens. Storms are unpredictable and there were times that I wish I hadn't moved from a spot right when a storm picked up and created the most magical looking light show.

I've found I've gotten my best lightning shots when I watched RadarCast and LightningCast AND watched the storm with my own eyes. Then decided on one location either right before or after rain has rolled through, and spent some time composing a shot at that location.

6. Think Creatively

It's not just about getting the shot of lightning. It can be a really exciting process thinking of what to add to your photos or what kind of shapes you can get. You can decide to shoot one strike photos, or have a series of those and stack them to make a really busy lightning photograph.

For instance, this past monsoon season, I used two saguaros as my main focus, but wanted to shoot the lightning behind them. I got really lucky and captured a electric rainbow over two really good looking saguaros.

7. Technical Camera Settings

People always tell me I must be really lucky to have caught all these lightning strikes on my photos. I have to laugh because when I was younger I remember sitting and trying to catch a lightning strike on my disposable film camera and getting nothing when I developed it. I can only think the people in the photo center felt bad for making me pay for a bunch of black photos. To be honest with all you non-photographers or photographers just beginning to learn, its not that hard! :)

Okay, here we go in the best way I can explain it. If you're new to photography, be patient with yourself here. The components of a camera are actually really cool!

There are 3 components of a camera that you really need in order to create an image. You can think of an image as an exposure or an exposure of light. In order to create an exposure, you need a shutter (Shutter Speed), light (Aperture), and to decide how sensitive you want your camera to be during that shutter (ISO). Think of each of these components as points on a triangle and once these three components come together successfully, you have yourself a pretty exposure, or in other words, a pretty picture. Once you learn how to balance these three components and compromise each one dependent on the other one, you will have mad photo skills! So turn your camera to Manual and start with these settings and then play around with it and change some of the settings depending on what you're shooting!

1. Shutter Speed:

Shutter Speed is how long the shutter is open and allowing in light to your camera.

When taking lightning photos, it's usually dark, so you can keep this open as long as your camera allows. You can do this on the manual setting (M) and change your camera to a certain time that the shutter will be open. On my camera, I can set it to a maximum of 30 seconds.

Depending on how much lightning is striking I will have it set to differing times. For instance, if there is tons of lightning, I will set it for less time. If there isn't an abundance of lightning, I will set it for a longer shutter OR you can also say a longer exposure... hence where the term "long exposure" comes from.

2. Aperture:

Aperture is how much light you are allowing into the camera lens.

The wider the aperture, the more light will come in the camera. The less wide, the less light. An example of a wide aperture is f/1.8 or f/3.5. An example of a narrower aperture is f/22. Aperture is written as these numbers because it is a measured ratio of a lens focal length to its diameter. Its different for every lens. Aperture can also be used for depth of focus, which is a useful tool to create a certain perspective in your photos.

For lightning photos, usually its better to keep your aperture in your camera's middle or higher range, since lightning is super bright. If you were to keep your lens wide open, the image would be too bright. I usually start at f/8 and adjust from there depending on the storm and how close the lightning is.

3. ISO

ISO is not an acronym, oddly enough. ISO is your how sensitive you set your camera's image sensor.

The higher the ISO, the higher the cameras sensitivity to light, therefore the photo will be brighter. The less sensitive to light the camera sensor is, the darker the image will be.

For lightning photos, I keep ISO at a lower number because lightning can be pretty bright depending on the strike. This number can vary though. I usually start at 100-400 and go from there.

Manual Focus:

You'll want to focus your lens for the sky. Keep your camera off of automatic focus and turn it to manual focus. Make sure to focus on or above the horizon line. If it's dark, pick out some city lights or some far away object. The sky and lightning will be in focus the closer to infinity you are. Each lens is different and won't be in complete focus on the infinity symbol, so play around with your lens and see where it's the sharpest. The wider the lens, the easier this is because of the wide range of focus.

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