Lightning Photography - Capturing the Beauty of the Midwest
Lightning is one of the hardest weather phenomena to photograph. To capture this beast requires being at the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment, and a boatload of luck. But even a small amount of knowledge can significantly increase your chances of success. I hope to impart just that, using skills that I have acquired through years of chasing and capturing lightning.


Probably the most daunting task faced by anyone new to the field of lightning photography is deciding on what equipment is right for them. "What kind of camera will work? What lenses do I need? What kind of tripod works best?" The list goes on and on. First, there is no one camera that you must have to take lightning photos. There are hundreds of consumer cameras available on the market capable of capturing lightning. A key feature that your camera should have is the ability to manually set the shutter speed, aperture, ISO (film) speed, and white balance. Here are my quick definitions of these terms; if you want to learn more about them, there are plenty of photography web sites and books available that cover these topics in great detail. The word sensor (digital cameras) in the following definitions is synonymous with film.

Shutter Speed: A measure of how long the shutter of the camera is open to expose the sensor to light.

Aperture: Refers to a set of rings inside the lens that control the amount of light hitting the sensor. Also known at f/stop, the higher f/stop numbers (f/22) correspond to less light is reaching the sensor while lower f/stop numbers (f/2.8) mean more light is reaching the sensor. The aperture also plays a large role in controlling the camera's depth of field, or the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear in focus. A higher f/stop yields a sharper overall image, while a lower f/stop quickly blurs any objects not precisely at the specified focus distance.

ISO Speed: A measure of the sensor's sensitivity to light, with the the ISO value directly proportional to the sensitivity (higher number = more sensitive). While higher ISO values allow for the capturing of moving objects in low light situations, increasing the camera's sensitivity introduces noise into the image. Noise can appear as a "graininess" in the photo or in more extreme situations shows up as off-color/hot pixels.

White Balance: White balancing is a means by which the camera takes into account the light source in the image, and using this information calculates the proper "color temperature". White balance is measured in degrees Kelvin (K) and typically ranges from 1000 to 10000 K. White balancing is only used on digital cameras, not film.

The biggest choice you'll have to make is deciding on what kind of camera to use. These days, there are three main types of cameras that can capture lightning: Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR), Digital Point & Shoot (P&S), and the quickly fading Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera for film media.

Digital Single Lens Reflex

Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras differ from point & shoot digital cameras (see section below) in that they allow the user to change the lenses attached to the camera body. This allows one to adapt to essentially any photographic scene. DSLR camera bodies are typically larger and heavier than their other digital counterparts and use a set of mirrors to reflect the image to an optical viewfinder. Since DSLRs use a larger sensor than point & shoot digital cameras, images produced by these cameras are of higher quality and suffer from less noise artifacts at higher ISO settings. The resolution of DSLRs these days range from 12 to over 30 megapixels, which will satisfy the enlargement needs of almost anyone. There are a number of accessories for DSLRs, such as add-on battery packs, wired or wireless remote controls, and a plethora of lenses.

When a digital camera takes a photo, the data captured by the sensor is converted into a binary file, which the camera processes into an image (jpeg, bmp, tiff, etc) for viewing. All DSLRs have the option to save this binary data into what is called a RAW file. Each camera manufacturer calls it by a slightly different name, but the data contained in the file is the same. RAW files are incredibly useful if you need to touch-up a photo, since editing a RAW file will not degrade the photo quality, unlike with jpeg images. You will need a special program to read in these RAW files, but nearly all DSLRs come with software that allows you to view and edit them. I personally use Adobe Lightroom to process and catalog my RAW photos. Once your edits are complete, you can save the RAW files as jpeg images for viewing by other people. When it comes to lightning photography, working with RAW data comes in very handy if the photo is under or over-exposed, which happens quite often.

One caveat with using most consumer level digital cameras (not just DSLRs) for lightning photography is that the longer the sensor is activated (i.e. the longer the shutter is open), the faster it will heat up and start to show "hot-pixels" in the photo. To eliminate these artifacts, the camera must take a second photo with the shutter closed for the same length of time as the first photo using a technique called "dark-frame subtraction". The camera uses this second photo to remove any bad pixels from the original photo. However, this means that each photo will take as long to process as it was exposed for, and you could miss a lightning bolt while the photo is being processed. For example, a photo with a 15 second exposure will take an additional 15 seconds to process, during which the camera cannot be used to take a photo. This process can be turned off on most DSLR cameras, but be prepared to spend a very long time in post processing editing out all of the noise. Newer prosumer and professional DSLRs (like my Canon 6D) have advanced to the point that one can safely turn off dark-frame subtraction with little impact to the photo.

Entry-level DSLRs start around $600 and are often bundled with one or two low-end lenses. Professional camera bodies can cost several thousand dollars alone, with lenses ranging anywhere from a few hundred to over 10,000 dollars. For lightning photography, any kind of camera body will suffice. For lenses, ideally use a wide angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible. A telephoto lens may be appropriate if the storm is some distance from the camera. A wired or wireless remote control is a must in order to avoid bumping the camera and ruining the photo.

One piece of equipment I do NOT recommend for lightning photography is any sort of filter on the front of the camera lens. Having an extra piece of glass in front of the lens often leads to a ghosting of the lightning bolt photographed. See the lightning photo above (right side of page) for an example of this effect, which occurs just below the center of the photo.

Digital Point and Shoot

Digital point and shoot (P&S) cameras are ubiquitous amongst the general public and allow for quick and easy photographs under most conditions. Point and shoot cameras are quite small and often feature only a basic set of controls. The lens is built into the camera and cannot be changed, although converters can sometimes be attached to the front of the camera to extend the range of the lens. To photograph lightning, the camera must have a manual override option that will allow you to set the shutter speed, aperture, white balance, and ISO settings. All but the most basic of cameras should have this option.

The range of values to which one can set the camera are often quite limited, especially when it comes to aperture and shutter speed. The slowest shutter speed on most P&S cameras is only 15 seconds. DSLRs, on the other hand, offer a bulb mode that allows the user to leave the shutter open for a much longer timeframe. Like DSLRs (see section above), P&S cameras use dark-frame subtraction to reduce sensor noise in the photo. Thus, a photo's processing time after the shutter closes will be equivalent to the shutter speed, and you could miss several lightning bolts during this time.

Photo quality from point and shoot cameras suffers due to the camera's relatively small sensor size. Because less light reaches the sensor, the camera enhances the image to produce a properly exposed photo. This isn't much of a problem in general daylight situations, but the process becomes quite apparent in low light scenes where images from a P&S camera contain considerably more noise than a DSLR photo. There are relatively few accessories for P&S cameras, and almost none allow for the use of a remote control. To work around this problem when taking lightning photographs, it is best to set the self-timer for 5+ seconds to eliminate any camera shake.

Despite these downsides, point and shoot cameras are definitely capable of taking great lightning photos. One can purchase a good P&S camera for just a few hundred dollars, compared to the thousands of dollars one could invest in a DSLR.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of cell phone cameras in today's world, I personally classify these as something other than a point and shoot camera and do not recommend them for lightning photography. While cell phone camera technology has improved greatly over the years, they still do not take the place of a traditional camera when it comes to lightning photography.

Film Single Lens Reflex (SLR)

Film-based SLR cameras have all but disappeared from the camera landscape. The ease of taking, editing, and viewing digital photographs has rendered film cameras extinct to all but the die-hard or professional large-format photographers. The ability to continuously reuse a $20.00 digital storage card that can hold thousands of photos versus paying $2.00 to $3.00 for a 24 frame roll of 35mm film, plus the costs to process the film, make film-based cameras impractical in today's day and age. In 2003, the last full year I used a film camera, I used 50 rolls of film at a cost of $7.00 per roll in purchasing and developing costs. The $350.00 I spent could easily buy a decent digital camera. These factors were the reasons why I finally retired my film SLR camera in the summer of 2004.

Despite all of the cons nowadays associated with film, there a still a few, albeit nostalgic, benefits to using this medium. Using film teaches one to think before taking a photo. Film cameras do not allow the photographer to view the photo instantly after taking it and adjust as needed. The photographer must think about how the different camera settings will impact the photo. With only 24-30 exposures to work with per roll of 35mm film, it becomes crucial that the photographer properly frame up and expose the photo. There is also a certain thrill that comes with opening up a newly developed roll of film and seeing that your hard work and skill paid off. From an economical standpoint, film SLRs are cheaper than their DSLR counterparts and are simpler (and in some ways easier) to operate. A number of photographers still prefer the look and feel of a film photograph, especially those that use medium and large format film cameras. The detail that can be captured with these larger film cameras (which cost $1,000 to $5,000) can only be matched by digital cameras costing from $5,000 to $30,000. Film cameras also do not suffer from the dark-frame subtraction effect used on digital cameras for removing sensor noise.

Another essential item needed for a successful lightning chase is a tripod to steady the camera for the long exposure. Any tripod will work for lightning photos. Fluid panning and tilting, which quickly increase the price of a tripod, are not needed for lightning photography. I've even set the camera on top of my car, a fence railing, or the ground itself when a tripod was not available. Additional equipment that will come in handy include a water resistant bag to protect your equipment and a remote control (digital cameras) or cable release (SLRs) to activate the shutter without touching the camera and blurring the photo. Once again, do NOT have any sort of filter on the front of the lens.

Locating Lightning

When on the prowl for a good lightning storm, a key item to look for is the height of the cumulonimbus clouds. The chances of lightning increase dramatically as the cloud updrafts reach higher into the sky. Lightning is induced by ice crystals colliding inside the cloud, and this can only happen if the cloud grows well above the freezing level. Also look to see if the updraft appears wide and solid, which is a good sign that the storm is still strengthening or at least maintaining its intensity. A thinning updraft that has lost its crispness signals that the thunderstorm is dissipating.

While I have frequently found that a storm produces lightning in a few concentrated areas at any given time, the reality is that lightning can drop anywhere, anytime. Frequently, these concentrated areas have been right along the leading edge of the downdraft. Be prepared to change your game plan on the fly should a storm weaken or another storm form nearby. Access to live radar data on a wireless smartphone or other internet device can aid in determining which storms have the strongest updrafts and are more likely to generate quality lightning bolts.

Camera Settings

Once you've located the right storm, it is time to set up your gear. Always remember to exercise caution while photographing lightning. Lightning is not the only weapon in a storm's arsenal; hail, high winds, flash flooding, and tornadoes pose other serious threats to people in their path. Make sure that you have an escape plan in case the storm becomes unsafe (now, the threshold for when a storm becomes "unsafe" is a whole different discussion--use your best judgment and air on the side of safety). Other problems that may arise include wild animals, nighttime ground hazards (more than once I've tripped over rocks or holes while walking across a night-shrouded field), and making sure that you are not trespassing on private property. The best way to avoid these problems is to stay near a road, but then you'll have to deal with traffic. Pick your poison.

Now for the tricky part: deciding what combination of ISO speed, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance to use. Unfortunately, there is no magic combination. You the photographer must decide based on the ambient lighting conditions. "Is there sunlight, moonlight, or artificial light sources present? How far away is the lightning?" These must be taken into consideration when determining this combination. I'll step through each camera setting and the range of possible options:

ISO Speed: This is likely the easiest choice to make. Since a higher ISO speed results in a grainier photo, it is best to default to a low ISO speed (ISO 50-100). The only time you might want to change this is if the lightning is weak or distant, or if you have foreground objects that you want in focus as well. In this case, you could increase the ISO speed and subsequently decrease the aperture (increase the f/stop values) to broaden the depth-of-field.

Shutter Speed: Shutter speed depends on the ambient lighting of the scene, such as daylight or artificial light sources. If the scene is completely dark, use as long of a shutter speed as you wish (just remember about the dark-frame subtraction processing that will take place after you take the photo). If additional lighting is present, meter the shot so the photo is properly exposed for that light source. Otherwise, your photo could be ruined, especially if you are shooting in daylight and the photo is overexposed. I sometimes take a few test shots and preview them on my camera to makes sure the scene is exposed to my liking. If the storm is dropping copious amounts of lightning, it is best to leave the shutter open for only a few flashes, again to avoid overexposing the photo.

Aperture: Aperture is the primary means of controlling how bright the lightning bolt appears in the photo. If the lightning bolts are distant or weak, open the aperture as far as possible to let in the greatest amount of light. As the lightning draws closer or increases in intensity, start to close the aperture (increase the f/stop) to avoid overexposing the photo. I've found that somewhere around f/4.0 to f/5.0 works well at ISO 100 for strong lightning bolts. If you have ambient light present, factor this into your aperture settings as well (like with shutter speed).

White Balance: Since lightning is white, you can set the white balance to essentially any value you want if there is no ambient light. If you are shooting in the day or in city lights, it is best to use the appropriate white balance for this light in order that the photo appear natural. Lower white balances (3000-4000 K) make the lightning bolt appear blue in color, while higher color temperatures change the color to purple and eventually orange/yellow.

Well, that about covers it. The best way to get good at photographing lightning is to experiment with different settings, and be ready for anything! If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me a message. Good luck and happy chasing!!
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