Hello there! In this post I will share with you everything I know about capturing with a Digital SLR camera one of the most impressive phenomena of Mother Nature. Lightning! I typically stack many photos to achieve an image with many lightning in one frame. I will explain this in detail. I took my favorite lightning photo at Ikaria island, Greece. It is a sum of 70 consequent lightning photos! It was published at National Geographic 2012 April’ s issue.
1 Safety first! Use common sense. Photographing lightning is a unique challenge for many photographers but your life is worth much more than even the best photo. Lightning can travel along metal fences, power and phone lines, or even through the ground to you. You are not safe under doorways, carports and especially trees! If the storm is near you, set the camera to take continuous shots with an intervalometer and then seek shelter inside a car or a building. For more safety instructions have a look here.
2 How to find lightning. You have two choices here; either wait until a storm comes to you or start chasing lightning storms. In some areas, lightning storms occur more often. The most famous location of all is the eternal lightning fields in Venezuela where approximately 150 nights every year, for 10 hours during the night, one can see up to 150 flashes of lightning per hour! The phenomenon is known as Catatumbo lightning.
3 Protect your equipment. Where there is lightning, most probably there is also rain. You may use a rain sleeve. If the storm is very intense and you feel that your equipment is in danger you may consider taking the shots from inside your car.
4 Use a DSLR camera. Although not mandatory, a DSLR will give you much more flexibility than a point and shoot camera.
5 Use a sturdy tripod. Consider the fact that for the final result you may have to stack many photos taken through an extended period of time. In other words, your tripod must be rock stable for hours.
6 When you frame your subject have in mind that most of the action takes place at the sky, but do not overlook the foreground as well. If it is possible find something interesting to include to the photo; a tree, a mountain, the sea (lightning reflections on water look quite nice) or whatever is available.
7 Set the camera to take long exposures. Typically you will be photographing lightning during the night where is easy to make long exposures. This article is focused on night lightning shooting which is the most common approach. It is possible to make a relativelly long exposure and photograph lightning during the day if you stop down the lens (large f-number) and perhaps use a neutral-high density filter.
8 Lightning Trigger. It is a device that allows you to capture lightning during daytime by triggering your camera’s shutter release the moment that lightning strikes.
9 Use proper focal length. If the action takes place in a great distance you may even have to use a telephoto lens to bring it closer. If you are inside the storm a wide field lens is more appropriate.
10 Set the camera to take continuous shots by holding down the shutter button or better using an intervalometer. Take many shots. Whenever I’m photographing lightning I program the intervalometer to take the exposures at 1 second intervals and I wait until the show is over. Consider the fact that you may shoot hundreds of photos so it is better to use a large memory card especially if you shoot in RAW format.
11 Camera settings. Use the manual mode. Also shoot in RAW format. This will give you great flexibility during post processing. Aperture and ISO settings depend on the distance from the lightning. You may have to experiment a little bit. If it is close try with ISO 100 and f/11. If it is far, ISO 200 and f/4. The exposure time depends on the foreground. If you are shooting from a dark remote area you can set the exposure to 20 – 30 seconds. If you are shooting from a light polluted city or during the day you may not be able to exceed a 4 – 5 second exposures or less without burning the foreground. White balance can be tricky with many light sources covering the whole spectrum. Try tungsten if you shoot from inside a city or daylight from a dark place. If you shoot RAW you can easily change the white balance at post processing.
12 Stack the shots if you want to create an image with a lot of lightning. It is essential that the camera stays completely still during the shooting. If you accidentally move even a little bit the camera or the tripod you will end up with a blurry foreground. Stacking has another advantage as well. It improves the signal to noise ratio resulting to a better image. You may stack the images with your favourite image processing software or use dedicated stacking software like Startrails.
13 Post processing. Process the photos like any other photo. Excess brightness can be improved in Photoshop, by adjusting the highlights slider at Shadow/Highlight setting. You may want to adjust the brightness/contrast in Photoshop or change the colour balance. Tungsten white balance creates a rather bluish image. Daylight white balance creates a reddish image. It’s up to you to decide which is best.
14 And finally, the most important. Have fun creating electrifying pictures!