Lightning Photography

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Lightning Photography - Image 1

People have been asking many questions about my lighting photography. They have been asking about the aperture, shutter speed, and different techniques that they can use to capture lightning. I’m here to tell all of you people—it’s really, really simple. I live in the middle of northern Texas just about a half hour from the Red River. This is in the Tornado Alley, and we see a lot of storms. There is nothing that I love more than to shoot these powerful weather phenomenons. But the one thing that I find more hypnotizing than storms is the lightning.

Five things you need to capture lightning

  1. A camera that has bulb mode. I have a Nikon D50. I have also used a camera that only allowed a 16 sec exposure and it worked fine, you will just need to be more patient. For example instead of taking 85 pictures and 75 of them have lightning, you’re looking more into maybe 10 out of 85.
  2. A bright aperture lens. A 50 f/1.8 will do great; however, you don’t get enough of a range. I use a Tokina AT-X 287 (28-70mm) pro and a Sigma 70-200mm EX APO HSM, both have a max aperture of 2.8. You can use a slower lens, but I don’t recommend it. I have—in rare cases—used my Sigma 300mm f/4 lens for some super telephoto lightning photography. But again, I wouldn’t suggest it.
  3. A good sturdy tripod. This is a must! You don’t need all of this other stuff, but you can never go wrong with a good tripod. Mine’s not the best in the world (a SLIK Pro 700 DX) but it suits me just fine. You might also want to look into a good ball head.
  4. A remote/cable release. This will activate your “BULB” exposure without you touching the camera. You can also use a self timer, but then you’re only getting a 30sec exposure.
  5. Equipment Protection. You’ll need something to cover you camera and lenses during thunderstorms. Some photography companies make rain covers, but I use Glad brand garbage bags and some rubber bands to protect my camera. These are cheap and they have never let me down.

Okay so now we’ve got the equipment, now what? Now you learn the techniques. All of these are basically the same and are easy to remember. There are three times to shoot lightning photography. The first and most successful is nighttime. Second is late afternoon/early sunrise, and last is Midday.


Nighttime is the best time for lightning photography. The dark sky allows long exposures and gives a better probability of capturing lightning. Plus it is easier to catch multiple bolts. Here are the steps to nighttime lightning photography:

  • Step 1: Set camera up on tripod and point in direction of lighting
  • Step 2: Set camera to “B” (bulb) and open aperture (depending on how many bolts you want to capture)
  • Step 3: Enable remote or attach cable release
  • Step 4: Focus to infinity
  • Step 5: For the fast lighting, wait until a bolt enters your frame and activate remote/cable release as quickly as possible. Check picture and adjus. For long lightning and multiple bolts, press remote/cable release and wait until the bolt(s) enter frame, then close shutter. Check exposure and adjust.

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      Early Morning/Late Afternoon

      During this time the sun will be low to the horizon. This is an okay time to shoot; you will just need to be more patient. Here are the steps.

      Repeat Steps 1-4 (You can also set to “M” manual mode if needed). Then stop down max aperture to 2-21/2 stops. Open shutter. Wait for the lightning to enter frame, then close shutter. Check exposure and adjust.

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      What can I say other than good luck! Midday is one of the worst times to shoot lightning. For one thing you can’t get the long exposures that you will need because of the daylight. You can try stopping down your lens, but this can bring down your resolution. And I wouldn’t suggest any ND filters either. Instead you can try this.

      Repeat steps 1 and 4. Set your camera to “M” or “A” mode and wait for the lightning to enter the frame. Open and close the shutter. Check exposure and adjust. I’ve also heard of using continuous shooting (burst) mode and seeing if any lightning is captured in any of the set. I tried this and I got 1 out of 44 frames. I spent most of my time deleting and draining my batteries. So it is possible, but not productive.

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      That’s all you need to do. It is very simple and the technology behind digital makes it even better. If you don’t capture lightning in a picture then you can just delete it.

      Oh, one more thing to remember. DON”T BE STUPID! Don’t go out in the middle of a thunderstorm to shoot some lightning. If you do at least be under some shelter. A good rule of thumb is the “6 mile rule”. You wait until you see the lightning then you count the seconds until you hear the thunder. You take that number and divide by five. The remaining number is how many miles away the storm is. If it’s less than six you should probably get under some shelter.

      Just remember to be safe and patient and you should see some really nice results. Lighting photography is challenging, but the results are far more rewarding.

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