Photographing Lightning

Adrian writes,

I’ve tried recently to photograph lightning but with little success.
Is there a basic set of rules to follow for this? Or some sort of guideline where I can try to find what works best for me?

I personally haven’t tried lightning, so for this one I turn to the National Geographic Photography Field Guide by Burian and Caputo. They recommend as follows:

  • Use a tripod and point the camera at an area of the sky where lightning has been seen;
  • Focus on infinity;
  • Set the shutter to bulb (b);
  • Set the aperature to f8 or 11 for ISO 100 or 200 respectively; and,
  • Open the shutter for several lightning flashes.

They also note that if there is a lot of ambient light, you’ll need to limit exposure times to between 5 and 20 seconds.

While this book remains one of my favourites, it is about ten years old and the techniques were perfected using film cameras. Using a digital SLR may require some adjustment, both due to the propensity for blown-out highlights and digital noise that many cameras create during long exposures.

Keep in mind that lightning, like studio strobes, is so fast that your exposure time only controls how much ambient light is recorded. Either your shutter is open during the flash or it isn’t. Your main exposure control is the aperature. As far as digital noise is concerned, many cameras have features to reduce the noise in long exposures. However, since you’re not paying for film, you might consider making a large number of short exposures and simply deleting those in which no lightning appears.

Good luck, and please leave a comment to let us all know what worked for you and what didn’t!

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