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How to Shoot Photos of Lightning

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A good thunderstorm rolled through my area recently, which made me realize that people probably wonder how to get good photos of lightning. This is actually one of the easier things to take photos of, as long as you know what settings to use. And people always flip out when you show them good photos of lightning. So here’s what to do:

  1. You should use an SLR for the best results. A point and shoot can do the job, but it’s more challenging.
  2. You need a tripod, or at least something to set the camera down on.
  3. Put the camera in manual mode (usually the “M” switch on top of the camera). If using a point and shoot, it may have a “long exposure” mode you can use.
  4. Put the camera on self-timer mode, preferably 2 second self timer mode if you have the option. You want to eliminate any possible camera shake.
  5. Set the camera’s shutter speed to anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds (or longer!).
  6. Set your f stop relatively high, such as f/11 or f/14. You might want to play with this a bit depending on how long your exposure time is and how bright the lightning is. Longer exposure times/brighter lightning = higher f stop. The idea is to not over-expose the photo. Lightning is bright! If using a point and shoot, you might not have this option.
  7. Set your ISO to no higher than 200. A point and shoot may or may not have this option.

Once you have everything set up, point the camera at the lightning. Unless you are insane and the lighting is right next to you, you can just put the camera on manual focus and set it on infinity (looks like the number 8 on your focus ring). Compose the shot the way you like, make sure your self timer is set, then just start firing away. The camera will do a quick countdown, the shutter will open for however long you set it to, and whatever streaks of lightning you see will be captured by the camera. Sweet!

Another option you can use instead of self timers is using a cable release and putting the camera in “bulb” mode (usually “B” on your SLR’s dial). When in bulb mode and using a cable release, you can manually control when the camera fires and how long the shutter stays open. Just press the cable release and hold it down for as long as you want the shutter open. This requires buying extra equipment, which is why I didn’t mention it as a “must have” to get the job done. You can grab a remote cable release from amazon.

One more tip – fixed (prime) lenses are a better option when shooting lightning than zoom lenses, mainly because of issues with chromatic abberation. Zoom lenses (especially cheaper zoom lenses) tend to have an issue with very fine lines, such as lightning, and keeping them as sharp as possible.

Here’s a few shots of lightning I took in Houston, TX.

lightning3 lightning2  lightning1

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