How to Capture Lightning in Digital Photography

Have you ever noticed any of those unbelievable lightning photos that some clever photography enthusiast has mastered? The fact is that lightning photos are both very challenging to capture and very engaging to viewers. A real challenge in photography is capturing fast moving subjects. When it comes to either traditional or digital photography, catching electrifying fork lightning is just too much of a enticement to see if we can “win” the challenge.

lightning photography

Photo by Max Saeling; ISO 500, f/10, 30s, 24mm.

So how do we apply our photography skills to capture sharp, brilliant streaks of color over our images? Getting great shots of forked lightning is not as difficult as you would think, or have been led to believe.

As a digital photography teacher I can honestly say that the first thing people do is buy way too much equipment for this exercise. You really just need a few simple things. A camera and a tripod are the main things. A lightning activated shutter trigger can also be helpful but is not necessarily required.

The main challenge when taking lightning shots is where to position yourself. I’ve had many a frustrating time, in the early days of my photography, trying to get the best angle, the best position only to find I had the camera pointed at completely the wrong part of the sky. And some of my digital photography lightning exposures were all wrong. I was thinking it was as hard as trying to predict a horse race with a crystal ball until I worked out the logic of it all and it started to become a lot of fun.

The first thing to keep in mind is to make sure your shutter is open. Lightning is sharp, short, and sweet. Its important to get the most out of the long, open shutter speed by leaving it open for a long time. You can do this with confidence on a really black night such as being in the country on a dark night without any city lights or too many clouds around for the light to bounce off. In the country you may have the freedom to leave the shutter open for as long as 60 seconds.

However, in the city it’s a bit different. What tends to happen is that due to other light in the atmosphere—light from buildings, streets, and cars—you can see this scene turns out much brighter on a 60 second shutter speed.

lightning city

Photo by Michael D; ISO 400, f/7.1, 13s, 18mm.

A quick way to get great lightning shots is to find a good place to set up where you know lightning is either happening or is about to happen. Take your tripod, camera and shutter release cable. The great thing about a shutter release cable is that once the lightning has struck there is no need to keep the shutter open and you can simply press it the shutter will close.

Try setting your aperture to about an f/8.0 or so and leaving the shutter open from anywhere between 10 seconds to 60 seconds. (Setting B). Set your IS0 at 100, set the focus to infinity and wait.

Digital Photography Safety

It’s a good idea, any time in digital photography, not to jeopardize your safety. Digital photography is intensely fun and incredibly educational and creative, but it’s not worth risking your life for. As much as it’s a beautiful spectacle, its much more wise to stay well away from lightning. It’s carrying enough energy to give your house power for two months solid, so be careful.

About the Author:
Amy Renfrey writes for DigitalPhotographySuccess. She’s photographed many things from famous musicians (drummers for Prince and Anastasia) to weddings and portraits of babies. Amy also teaches photography online to her students.

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7 responses to “How to Capture Lightning in Digital Photography”

  1. d_rec says:

    I found under exposing a stop or two at night quite handy when you have bright city lights in the background. Lightning acts as a pretty good fill light.
    Something to keep the camera dry is good to keep in your bag to.

  2. Peta Williams Photography | Family Photography Brisbane says:

    These photos are fantastic i can never seem to master lightning….. will have to try f8 next time…

  3. Mark says:

    I love catching lightning, I have a Nikon D80 and use either a Tamron SP 10-24 1:3.5-4.5 Wide Angle or a Nikon AF Micro 60mm lens with a wireless remote to fire it off. it only took me 10 shots to get the shutter speed down (5-6 sec). I was keeping it open up to 10 seconds but then it took the picture another 10sec to develop, I found myself missing REALLY good shots, I would hit the remote and just as soon as the shutter would shut I would fire off another instantly. If I can find a way to post some of my shots I will. but now I am looking for those with more experience to take even better shots.

  4. Kath says:

    WOW! Amazing photos! I’ve always been fascinated with photography ever since I got my first Agfafoto film camera when I was very young!! I have a Canon Rebel XS, have had it for a few years now..I want so badly to upgrade but I’m so attached to the one I have. I have yet to master lighting photos..they just look amazing! Great tips..I will try this very soon :)

  5. Sariel says:

    I’m working with a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX100V right now with no tripod or shutter release cable, and no means to get either anytime soon. What can I do to get the most out of my camera until I can get a better one with equipment?

  6. Paul H Cooper says:

    have a Nikon D3000 and 2 lenses a DX AF-S 18 – 55mm 1:3.5 – 5.6G, and a DX AF-S 55 – 200mm 1:4 – 5.6G BOTH VR can I take pictures of lightning with what I have or do I need something else I do have a tripod already and what settings would I put the camera on. Tks.

  7. experience says:

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyways, just wanted to say excellent blog!

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