How to take a perfect picture of Thunder and Lightning

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Like Astrophotography, taking pictures of Lightning during a Thunderstorm is one of the many things in a budding photographer’s bucket list. And why wouldn’t it be? If you’ve taken a look at lightning captured perfectly in photos, you’ll know exactly why. There’s nothing more majestic really than a bolt running across the sky and landing towards the ground.

Unfortunately, however, it isn’t as easy as it looks and requires some skill and luck for the perfect execution. Unlike taking pictures of a sunset, where you have all the time in the world, here you have to act fast as lightning can be unpredictable and happens in an instant. With the right equipment and setup though, you can succeed as I shall now explain in this tutorial.

Image by Andy Buchholz

Things You’ll Need

  1. DSLR Camera or Smartphone with Manual Camera Controls: For this type of photography you need to completely control everything yourself which is why I would recommend a good DSLR or a Mirrorless Camera over anything. However, if you don’t have one but have a smartphone with a good camera with Pro manual controls then that can work as well. Recommended smartphones include Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, Google Pixel 4 and Huawei Mate 30 Pro.
  2. Tripod Stand: As you’ll be taking shots that require long exposures, you’ll be needing one regardless if you’re using a DSLR or your smartphone. I’d recommend going for a sturdy kind as conditions might get windy around a thunderstorm. If you can’t get a hold of one, prop your device on a safe and steady surface.
  3. Remote Shutter Release (Optional): The idea behind this is that if you press the shutter button on your device while it’s already steady, you might introduce some shake into the image. This eliminates that possibility as you don’t have to physically touch the device to take pictures. However, in case you can’t get one, I’d recommend using a 2-second timer on your device.

Location

Now that you have everything you need, onto the location. Contrary to what you may have thought before, location plays a huge role in this type of photography. Your choice of location will determine how the picture comes out to be. So what is the best place to capture lightning? Well, somewhere near a thunderstorm.

However, do not go too near. Stay at a distance so that it is safe for you and your equipment. There may be a sudden downpour over the area you’re setting up your camera so make sure you’re ready for that. DO NOT stand near trees, electric poles or use an umbrella. The ideal distance from the storm is around 6 or 7 miles. In case you want to get closer, it’s better if you set up in a car or a building.

Camera Settings

This is probably the most crucial part where you adjust your device to get the best possible picture. Setting everything on auto might not get you your desired image so it’s better if you take control. Now, there are two scenarios with capturing lightning. During daytime and during nighttime.

If you want to capture lightning at Night, you’re in luck as it’s relatively easier than during the day. After setting everything up, adjust your camera settings to the following:

  • Put Shutter Speed to Bulb Mode. It is usually indicated with a B and what it does is allow you to have the shutter open for as long as you keep the shutter button pressed.
  • Set your ISO to 100/200 depending on the exposure conditions.
  • Have the Aperture to at least f/5.6 for ideal results. However, if you feel like it’s a bit overexposed, try higher numbers.
  • Make sure the Autofocus is turned off and you’ve manually set the focus to Infinity, which is usually indicated by ∞.

For doing it during the Day, you just need to alter the Shutter Speed. Instead of setting it to Bulb, here you have to set it between a range of 1/15-1/4. Depending on the exposure conditions, choose anything within this range. Anything beyond might not get you your desired results.

Image by Waheed Akhtar

Taking the Picture

After everything’s in place and your cameras are set up, it’s time for taking the picture. There are different techniques for both Day and Night shots but I’ll go over the general stuff first.

  • Set your frame in such a way that you’re looking at the storm. Remember that you’re at a distance so you need to set your Focal Length accordingly. Normally a wide-angle is suitable but you don’t want to go too wide. Approximately 25mm is ideal. In the case of smartphones just shuffle between the regular lens and ultrawide to see what suits best.
  • The sky shouldn’t be the only thing in your picture. The ideal thing to do is have the sky with the clouds on the top half and have your subject in the bottom half. The subject can be anything, a tree a hill, a lake or even some buildings in the downtown area of a city.

Once the framing is done, on to the actual process of taking a picture. We’ll start by taking it at Night.

  • When you see a lightning strike press and hold the shutter button.
  • Keep it pressed for several seconds in order to capture several other bolts of lightning.
  • Once done, release the button and let your device process the image.

In case you’re not satisfied with the results, you can try again with a slight tweak in the settings or by varying the amount of time you have the shutter button pressed. Remember, practice makes perfect. Moving on, let’s have a look at how to do this during the Day.

  • After seeing a bolt of lightning, press the shutter button and release it immediately. The camera will automatically release the shutter according to what shutter speed you’ve set it at.
  • In case the picture is overexposed, try setting the ISO to a higher number. The shutter speed needs to kept as low as possible since a faster shutter is less likely to capture lightning.

The same goes here as well. It will probably take you multiple attempts to master it but once done right, it will result in a spectacular shot. Shooting during the daytime is harder because you have to deal with overexposure a lot and you cant manually control the shutter through Bulb Mode. However, it is not impossible and with the right technique along with lots of learning from failed attempts, you can succeed in taking an amazing picture.

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