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How to Photograph Lightning Safely: A Step-by-Step Tutorial for Beginners

How to Photograph Lightning Safely: A Step-by-Step Tutorial for Beginners

When you hear a crack of thunder, learning how to photograph lightning might be the last thing on your mind. However, it’s more than possible to reduce your risk of danger when snapping photos of this beautiful weather phenomenon. 

Lightning is breathtaking, an iconic weather event that’s inspired famous mythological figures such as Zeus as well as countless rock songs. Despite its distinctive appearance, it’s still one of the trickier subjects to capture on camera. Not only is it incredibly fast and rather unpredictable, it can even be dangerous. Adding this subject to your portfolio will require a balance between technical polish and some good, old-fashioned safety tips.

Photographing lightning is tricky, but far from impossible. This beginner tutorial will teach you how to take amazing shots without compromising your safety. 

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Useful Equipment for Photographing Lightning
  3. Essential Safety Tips to Reduce the Risk of Getting Struck
  4. Understanding Different Types of Lightning and Their Ideal Camera Settings
  5. How to Photograph Lightning Safely
  6. Conclusion

a photographer with blonde hair leaning in and taking a photo in front of a lake and trees

Source Image: Pixabay

Useful Equipment for Photographing Lightning

Certain equipment is better suited to capturing lightning than others (especially when it comes to wet, windy weather). These tools will help you stabilize your shot, protect your gear, and improve your chances of success.

Weather Gear to Protect Against Rain or Flying Objects

Lightning doesn’t always come with a scatter of rain, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Your camera is a delicate piece of technology and just a few droplets of water can smudge your lens.

Camera covers are vital for protecting against the worst of rain, hail, or flying objects. Also known as camera sleeves or camera rain covers, the best ones will be waterproof and will come with a handy drawstring bag to put everything away again. 

Camera Cap to Prevent Damage to the Lens

A camera cap is a basic addition you keep over your lens when you’re not snapping photos. Even if you’re only setting the camera down for a few seconds, play it safe and snap it on.

If you forget to put your camera cap on or drop it, all is not lost. The next item can still reduce some damage until you can get back home and take a closer look at your gear.

A Microfiber Cloth to Wipe Off Any Residue

Accidents happen, particularly when you’re just starting out and can’t anticipate common mishaps yet. A microfiber cloth is a tiny lifesaver to wipe off any residue that still makes it onto your camera.

Equipment suppliers design microfiber with a very fine weave to avoid scratching your camera lens while still soaking up dirt, dust, and water droplets.

Tripods for Keeping Your Shot Stable and Clear

It’s easy to get startled when lightning is accompanied by crashing thunder. Tripods are incredibly useful for stabilizing your camera and preventing shaking hands from ruining a shot. 

Choosing a compatible tripod means selecting the best height and weight for your purposes. If you like to travel a lot, you’ll need a light and compact model that’s easy for you to carry around. However, make sure the tripod isn’t so light it can’t support your camera. 

You can easily find a good tripod for your needs by checking its weight requirements, then checking how heavy your camera is. 

A Wide Angle Zoom Lens to Capture the Most Lightning Possible

Like swapping between regular glasses and reading glasses, choosing the right lens for the occasion makes all the difference. The wide angle lens is ideal for landscape and sky photography because it captures a near 180 degree angle – perfect for breathtaking wide shots.

I recommend finding a wide angle zoom lens with a focal length of 24mm to 35mm. However, you can still get dramatic shots with a midrange zoom lens between 24mm to 70mm.  

Slow Down Your Shutter Speed With a Neutral Density Filter

While you can reduce your shutter speed by manually adjusting your camera’s settings, a neutral density filter will give you multiple benefits in one. This popular filter reduces shutter speed and balances exposure.

Not only will this filter increase your chances of capturing lightning, your shot will look far less bleached out. The end result should be a more rich, balanced representation of the storm.

A Lightning Sensor to Increase Your Chances of Success

Last but certainly not least, a lightning sensor will drastically increase your chances of success in catching an elusive bolt. This is a type of camera trigger that attaches to your camera’s remote port to catch sensitive infrared light signaling the arrival of lightning. 

Since the lightning sensor is connected to your camera’s shutter, it works as another way of triggering a shot. Basically, you don’t have to be glued to your camera and relying on slower human reflexes to capture lightning. 

a lightning bolt brightening the cloudy night sky over the glittering lights of a city

Source Image: Pixabay

Essential Safety Tips to Reduce the Risk of Getting Struck

Lightning isn’t just tricky to take photos of: it can be incredibly dangerous, too. While getting struck by lightning is pretty rare, you don’t want to be the exception to the rule. 

The safety tips below are vital for reducing your risk of getting struck. However, being outside during a thunderstorm is never completely safe, so remember these tips aren’t foolproof. When in doubt, get out!

Stay Away From Tall Objects 

It actually makes no difference whether you’re standing next to a pole or a tree – lightning is attracted to any tall object. Stay alert to your surroundings so you don’t find yourself next to a lightning conductor by accident.

You should also be wary of high ground such as the tops of hills or the roof of a house. Basically, the closer you are to the sky, the bigger of a target you become.

Avoid Using an Umbrella

You might be tempted to use an umbrella to shield your weather gear and keep water out of your eyes. Leave yours at home, as umbrellas are another conductor that can increase your risk of getting struck.

Stick to camera weather gear such as a camera sleeve and a microfiber cloth. If you need to keep water out of your eyes, get a rain jacket with a sloped hood.

Seek Out an Overhang or Use Your Car

It’s better to be safe than sorry during a lightning storm. The National Weather Service recommends you go to a large building or a hard topped car in the event of lightning

Pay Close Attention to Your Hair

If you ever notice the hair on your head or arms standing up, pay attention. This is a major sign you or an object next to you could be struck – either way, you’re in danger and need to get out.

This physical sign may be hard to detect if you’re covered in a jacket or are wet from rain, so the last tip is crucial. 

Always, Always Err on the Side of Caution

Leisure activities contain the most deaths by lightning. Not the most cheery tip, but it’s a vital reminder that this rare event can still happen to you if you’re not careful. 

Always, always, always err on the sign of caution. Getting an amazing photo is not worth being sent to the hospital or worse. If you notice any warning signs or just don’t feel safe, call it quits and try again another day. There will always be more lightning shows for you to snap photos of in the future. 

Understanding Different Types of Lightning and Their Ideal Camera Settings 

It’s not time to dive into the tutorial just yet! Learning about different types of lightning will help you anticipate when to shoot and what settings to use. 

a bolt of lightning hitting the ground over a massive plain

Source Image: Pixabay

Cloud to Ground

Easily the most common type of lightning, this weather phenomenon is characterized by a bolt of lightning striking – what else – the ground. This strip of lightning is visually distinct for its simplicity and is easy to spot at a distance.

Your wide angle lens will do plenty to catch the vast stretch of the sky and landscape to give contrast to the lightning bolt. Make sure to turn autofocus off, as your sensor won’t be sophisticated enough to detect lightning’s sudden changes in contrast. 

an example of cloud to cloud photography showing a bolt of lightning between dark cumulonimbus clouds

Source Image: Pixabay

Cloud to Cloud

Less common (and a little trickier to spot) is cloud to cloud lightning. Since these lightning bolts travel within cloud cover, they boast a tantalizing mystery for beginner photographers.

Cloud to cloud is a diverse type of lightning due to being subtle sometimes and incredibly bright other times. If you’re facing down this mysterious lightning, you’ll need a lower aperture setting to let in more light. Start with an f/stop of f/5.6 or so, but you can try bumping it to f/9 if the flashes get brighter.

an example of cloud to air lightning showing a forked lightning bolt against a hazy sky

Source Image: Pixabay

Cloud to Air 

Lightning is best known for flickering in the clouds or striking the ground, but it can sometimes fork out unhindered. This form is called cloud to air and is much less common, but quite a sight!

Your neutral density filter will do a lot of the heavy lifting here thanks to reducing exposure. Since this lightning doesn’t have clouds to provide more shadowy contrast, your filter will prevent your shots from being bleached out. 

two bolts of lightning curling against a blue sky

Source Image: Pixabay

Step-By-Step Tutorial for Photographing Lightning Safely

It’s hard to feel spontaneous when you’re constantly worried about your safety. While photographing lightning will become second-nature with practice, this beginner tutorial will get you started with ease. 

Step One: Check Out the Weather Forecast

Before you step out to take your first few lightning photos, you need to make sure lightning is likely to happen. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and look for signs of rain, storms, or high humidity. 

Weather forecasts aren’t 100% correct, but you’ll have a pretty educated guess on whether your show will air (pun intended).

Step Two: Make Sure You Have the Necessary Gear

Don’t forget your necessary photography gear! Not only will your shots look better when you protect your equipment, you’ll save money in the process. 

You can also prepare beforehand by adjusting your camera settings so you’re ready to snap shots immediately (but keep in mind that lightning can change, so get comfortable tweaking f-stops on the fly).

Step Three: Find a Safe Location to Shoot

Your zoom lens will give you some wiggle room in terms of distance, but safety is paramount. Until you’re more comfortable with spontaneous photoshoots, plan ahead of time for a safe spot.

Remember: stay away from high ground, poles, and trees. Make sure you have an exit plan such as a large building or your car if you need to get out fast. Pay close attention to your hair – if it’s standing on end, you need to leave the area. 

Step Four: Hook Up Your Lightning Sensor (If You Have One)

Your lightning sensor will save you a lot of work trying to chase finicky, unpredictable bolts. While each lightning sensor will differ in settings depending on brand, your set-up should look something like this:

  • Turn on your camera trigger’s Lightning Mode
  • Watch the lightning patterns to determine your light sensitivity – higher for subtle lightning, lower for bright lightning
  • Choose the appropriate ISO value – 100 is a good place to start

Step Five: Drastically Reduce Your Shutter Speed

A slower shutter speed compensates for lightning’s rapid movement. Lower your shutter speed to around 1/125 or use a neutral density filter to slow things down.

Long exposure, continuous shooting, and manual focus are helpful here.

Step Six: Study the Lightning Briefly Before Taking Shots

This step is where you put your lightning knowledge to the test. Watch the lightning for a few minutes to see what type it is – cloud to cloud, cloud to ground, or cloud to air. 

Use an infinity focus to help the camera catch faraway shots

Step Six: Match Your Camera Settings to the Type and Color of Lightning

Each type of lightning will respond best to different camera settings. All lightning benefits from wide angle lenses and reduced shutter speed, but there are a few nuances.

Cloud to cloud is rather subtle, so you’ll want to lower your aperture to let in more light. Cloud to air and cloud to ground tend to be brighter, so you can increase your f-stops.

Step Seven: Experiment as Much as Possible (Lightning is Dynamic)

You’ll never reach incredible artistic heights without experimentation. While these guidelines will do well to increase safety and save you some frustration, the only way to grow is to try.

Try different focal lengths when taking snapshots of thunderstorms. Experiment with exposure and see what creates the atmosphere you’re looking for. Every new photo is a lesson – you’ll always learn something you can apply to the next.

an example of cloud to ground lightning showing three bolts against a hazy purple sky

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Lightning is a Tricky Subject with Breathtaking Results 

Lightning is like a magic trick that never gets old. Every time bolts of lightning crest across the sky, it’s like witnessing a glimpse into an otherworldly power.

Photographing lightning is often intimidating even for experienced photographers thanks to the dangers of storms. However, there are several precautions you can take to reduce your risk of getting struck. Avoiding tall objects and high areas make you less of a target. You should also have an exit plan in the form of a nearby building or a flat-topped car if the storm gets worse.

Since lightning is incredibly fast and hard to predict, a lightning sensor is a useful tool to make up for slow human eyes. Each type of lightning has its own appeal and ideal settings, such as cloud to air or cloud to cloud. Learning your way around slow shutter speed, a wide angle lens, and adaptable f-stops will increase your chances of a truly breathtaking shot.

As long as you keep safety at the front of your mind and aren’t afraid to experiment, it’s only a matter of time until you capture a once-in-a-lifetime shot.


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