How do you Take Photos of Lightning?

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Have you ever unsuccessfully tried to take a picture of lightning and wondered how the pros do it? This article is for you. I’ll explain just how all those amazing lightning shots are captured.

Time Exposures

An example of a 30 second exposure at f/10 and ISO 400

An example of a 30 second exposure at f/10 and ISO 400

Most night time lightning photos you see are time exposures. A photograph is taken by exposing a piece of film or a digital sensor to light through a lens for a fraction of a second. The darker it is the more light is needed to make a picture, so the sensor or film can be exposed to light for a longer period of time. When the sky is dark you can often take an exposure that is minutes in length of even longer.

So to take nighttime lightning photos you simply aim the camera in a direction that lightning is happening in and set the camera to take a time exposure. Any lightning that occurs in that time will be captured in the photo.

What do you need to take time exposures of lightning?

  • Camera with Manual or Bulb Setting – Digital SLRs do it as well as some of the better point and shoot digicams.
  • Tripod – Any tripod or fixed mount will work, as long as you camera doesn’t move and you don’t have to hold it.
  • Remote Trigger – This is optional, but makes thing easier. Without a remote trigger it’s easy to bump the camera when starting the exposure and that will make any other lights in the scene streak.

Tips for lightning time exposures:

  • Typically in a dark area a time exposure of 30 seconds at f/8 and ISO 400 will work well. If it’s brighter or there is more lightning try a shorter exposure.
  • A remote trigger with intervalometer built in will let you take a sequence of time exposures hands free.
  • If you don’t have a remote trigger, use a 2 second or 10 second trigger delay on your camera to avoid bumping it at the start of the exposure.
  • Use manual infinity focus, setting it off of a distant streetlight.
  • There are some iPhone and Android apps for time exposures.

Lightning Triggers

Photo taken with iLightningCam app(cropped) on iPhone

Photo taken with iLightningCam app(cropped) on iPhone

In recent years as digital cameras have improved with reduced shutter lag lightning triggers have become available. These do what a person can’t, that is to see a lightning strike and quickly trigger a shot to be taken. Lightning triggers allow for daytime lightning strikes to be captured.

They work by using a sensor to detect the lightning stroke in a fraction of a second. They then trigger the camera shutter via a remote control connection. Usually a Digital SLR Camera is required.

One type of lightning trigger is made by Stepping Stone Products in the USA. Click here to read more about it.

There are also some iPhone and Android apps that achieve this same thing. One that I have used with some success on my iPhone is iLightningCam. It seems to work fairly well at catching lightning strikes, although the quality won’t be as good as with a Digital SLR because it uses video mode.

A Word of Warning

Photographing lightning is dangerous. Lightning can strike up to 30km away from a storm and putting yourself outside in a position near a thunderstorm is dangerous. You may risk serious injury and death. A great photo to share isn’t worth your life!