How do you photograph lightning?

thor god of thunder

Photos of lightning regularly come along online. Would you like to try to photograph lightning? Read this article "How do you photograph lightning?". I'm going to give you handles, in Jip and Janneke language.

Storm. With a little thunder and lightning a great spectacle. It used to be thought that thunder and lightning were a punishment for what people had done. In Ancient Norse mythology, Thor was the god of thunder. He was a protector of gods and people in the fight against darkness.

Similar to the Norse god Thor is the Germanic god Donar. In old images, Donar can be seen crossing the clouds in a kind of sky car, waving his axe sending lightning bolts to earth. In Germanic mythology he was one of the most important gods and was considered the god of the storm. He was named thursday.

Necessities photographing lightning:

  • Camera with manual settings capability
  • Wide-angle lens
  • Some preparation time
  • Focus on infinity
  • Tripod
  • Any stabilisation and noise reduction from
  • If you've got it, the remote control
  • A safe place with good views
  • A hat


A lightning bolt generally does not last more than 1 second. So if you're only trying to print when lightning is visible, after the scare reaction and your responsiveness, you're simply late for some results. You have to create a buffer, where the camera started shooting before lightning. Photography is writing with light and we are going to apply this literally.

Hence a camera with the ability to manual settings. Some knowledge of the exposure triangle (ISO, aperture, shutter speed) makes setting easier, but with some test photos you get there too.

Storm blue sky lightning shooting
Michał Mancewicz | 18mm ISO200 3s ƒ/5.6
Storm shooting balcony lightning
Richard Hewat | 14mm ISO64 9.4s ƒ/8

Discuss photos

The first picture above of Michal worked out well. A clear picture of a lightning bolt. Using a wide-angle lens and low ISO. Here a shutter speed of 3 seconds was enough. Personally, I regret that there is no further context. Something from the environment showing the size of the piece of air we see.

As a second photo therefore one with more context. Richard needed 9.4 seconds. With 14mm he could get a lot in the picture. Maybe a little too much of the area, so the great lightning across the entire width of the photo doesn't get the full attention.

How to photograph lightning, settings

In this writing I assume of thunderstorms in the dark. Pick up your tripod and set up your camera in the direction you expect lightning. Because you don't know where lightning appears in the sky, a wide angle is easy. In this way you can get as large an image as possible that can be cut afterwards.

Noise reduction is not practical. After each photo, the camera creates a so-called "dark frame" where the shutter is closed and a picture is taken. This is done at the same shutter speed as the photo is taken. As a result, imagine a black photo with vaguely lighter dots for what the noise should represent. By comparing both recordings, the noise can be filtered and reduced as much as possible in the end result. If you have a shutter speed of 10 seconds, you can just miss that one discharge in the second 10 seconds. The ISO value will often remain low enough, so let out the noise reduction. Using software, it can also be reduced. After all, you don't want to miss a flash of light.

Focusing in the dark

Grab the camera in the hand and choose a point in the farwhere the lens can focus on. A house or lamppost. Shine differently with a flashlight and choose a subject as far as possible. Now the lens is set to infinity. Take a look at the distance scale. Whether lightning appears at a distance of 30 meters or at 6,000 meters, it remains infinite in focus. Set the lens on manual focusing (MF), so that the camera doesn't do anything with it anymore when everything is focused on the dark sky. There is a chance that the lens will continue to search differently and take a blurry or no photo at all. Don't get there yourself, but otherwise you can repeat the steps. Any image stabilization may be possible.

Manual mode on camera

Set the camera to "Manual", the white balance may remain on automatically, set the ISO to 100, shutter speed to 15 seconds, the aperture on f8 and view the test photo by zooming in on the display. Is it too dark, can't you discover an environment yet? Try it with a shutter speed of 20 seconds or longer. Too light? Try another test photo with 10 seconds, etc. Until you get a desired result.

Remember, lightning adds some light. Make sure you don't see any ambient light or strange reflection on the test photo. Try to solve this by choosing a different point of view or zooming something in.

Are you shooting a window from behind? Remove any UV filter, as it can provide reflections. Place the lens as close to the window as possible and make sure the space itself is completely dark to prevent reflections on the window. Even light that falls into the viewfinder of your SLR can create a nasty spot of light in the photo. Why?

When you take photos during the day, you look through the viewfinder, through the lens to the subject. During long shutter speeds, you don't look through the viewfinder, so it's not covered and the light gets a chance to fall on the sensor from the other side (no matter how small). That would be a shame, so to prevent it, it is sometimes necessary to cover the viewfinder.

Point at infinity

You will find that the focus ring has not been turned all the way to the max after it is focused. It can be rotated either way. On one side, although a little bit, the end of the focus does not equal infinity. It even produces blurry images. Why isn't the ending infinite?

This is primarily because of the margins in production and adjustment at the plant. In practice, this may well be different. Think of exposure to extreme heat or cold. By discontinuing or downsizing the elements (depending on material and quality of the lens) the optical performance can change. To compensate, extra space is built in. This thermal expansion would also be the reason that many canon telephoto lenses are white. Sony has taken over this theory.

Another reason I came across is that it is technically just necessary to absorb the small margins of the contrast detection principle on which the autofocus is based. To find the right point of focus, the autofocus must first move along the point. It's similar to manual focusing, where you move the lens back and forth a few times. Looking for the right place.

The "hunting" (the up and down movement around the focal point) of an lens must be able to continue to take place. A hard stop on the limit value of infinity would make this impossible for electronics. To give the autofocus this space, you can just turn past infinity. If you have accumulated enough experience yourself, after the lens has been put on MF, you can rotate the ring to the max and put a piece back for infinity.

Storm purple air lightning shooting
Dennis Verkoeijen | ISO100 12mm 30s f/5.6
Storm over sea lightning shooting
Lee Junda | 18mm ISO800 30s ƒ/4.0

Discuss photos

About the first picture above of myself I'm still happy. I had a best hit. Thanks to the contours of a house between trees, a good overview of the surroundings. Maybe at the bottom just too much black, but if I remove something there, the ratio of the photo is affected.

As a second photo one of Lee whose foreground is lighter. With 18mm still a wide angle lens, 30 seconds exposed on ISO800. Thanks to the ISO800, more light is captured in the meantime that the shutter is open, so that the water in the foreground and the surrounding area will play a larger role in the photo.

How to photograph lightning

Is everything ready? Then it's the first flash to wait, the camera on tripod if possible that way aim and shoot though. From now on it is a matter of continuous light catching, a dose of happiness and patiently waiting for the next flash(s). Because the camera has already started recording and lightning has a short but enormous light intensity, this results in the desired result. Simple right?

Tip: The remote co
ntrolAn SLR has a connection for a remote control. You can buy this luxury, but also for less than fifteen euros.

Remote control

Not only for shooting thunderstorms, it is useful to connect it. It not only prevents vibrations during printing, but if you can only drop the camera in one way or want to get the same composition going, you can secure the print button. For the lazy photographer, so to speak.

On the remote control you can press the print button at a time, but by pressing the button and in this case sliding up, you block the button.

After the end of the set seconds, the camera sees that the shutter release button is still pressed and immediately takes the next shot. This way you don't lose much time between two photos and you don't have to stay with them forever. Everything happens automatically. I therefore keep the shutter speed at 30 seconds or less (no Bulb mode). Do you have to stare all the way to the mentioned lightning shooting settings? No. Every situation is different, as the above examples show. For exam

ple, with many flashes in succession, you can set the shutter speed to 6 seconds. Or on a higher ISO, it's just how you want to involve the environment in the photo. You can't think of it that crazy. Therefore, keep an eye on the results so you can still adjust. Although a lot of pictures will be taken that are just black.

Tip: A cap Ha
s the lightning bolt just been while the countdown is still ongoing, but you see a car coming towards you, for example? The headlights can overexpose the photo. Throw a cap over the lens and it stays dark.

Thunderstorm daytime

During the day it becomes more difficult with the shorter shutter speeds, and the many ambient light where the flashes do not dominate as much as in the pitch dark. At some point, the choice not to take pictures is perhaps the best. Unless you have an ND filter. A kind of sunglasses for the lens available with different strengths. This allows you to darken everything, making it possible to work with longer shutter speeds.

Safety while shooting lightning

Lightning is dangerous. The lightning beam with a diameter of about 2.5 cm lasts less than a second. The temperature in the inside of lightning can reach about 30,000 °C which is hotter than the surface of the sun (5,507 °C). The voltage can reach up to 100 million volts and the current up to 200,000 amps. By comparison, at home you have 230 volts and in the meter box a ground leak switch has been installed that switches off for protection in case of an error of 0.03 amps. Quite a (deadly) difference!!

Keep this in mind when you're shooting outdoors. Find protection if the time between lightning and thunder is less than 10 seconds. You know you shouldn't hide under a tree, stay away from high points and make sure yourself isn't the highest point: pretty much all things conduct power better than air does. Therefore, lightning will preferably flow through trees and tall buildings, for example.

In the open field, it's best to squat and huddle with your feet against each other. Not only do you avoid becoming the highest point yourself, but also make sure that you have a smaller (potential) difference in the ground when impacted. See the following image.

Lightning and the tension funnel

In the case of an impact, the voltage decreases, with the distance from impact up to 0 volts up to 100 meters. Although you are not directly affected, the danger remains present.

All conductive objects, such as a human body, absorb the flow from the ground and then release it again, because they conduct better than the soil itself. Every year in the Netherlands, one or two people are fatally struck by lightning.

The greatest danger is the distance between recording and release of the current. Look at the cow in the image that feels safe at the 0 volts. But if you study everything again, the front legs are about 50,000 volts and the hind legs are at 0 volts. That's like 50,000 volts rushing through the body. That's why you have to put your feet together to prevent the (potential) difference from becoming so big that you can't tell it anyway.

Pretty much the safest place at that time is the car. In the case of a direct hit, lightning will guide to the ground through the outside of the car. Keep doors and windows closed, all limbs inside and don't touch the bodywork. So don't do crazy things from, for example, a high mast or under an umbrella. It's a beautiful phenomenon, but make sure it's not your last pictures.

Thanks for reading this article "How do you photograph lightning?" Do you still have questions about shooting thunderstorms? Reassure them below. Good luck and keep it safe.

Photographing other subjects?
Do you have another topic you want to explain? In a co
mment, let us know what you want more to know about how to photograph it.
If I can help you, I'll create a new blog about it.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.