Photographing Lightning Over a City

Cityscapes are great. The complexity of a cityscape is a representation of how far our civilization has come. But no matter how advanced we think of ourselves, mother nature never fails to amaze us. As photographers if you are able to capture the complexity of cityscapes in conjunction with the superiority of nature, then that’ll make for an awesome photo. What better way to do so than taking cityscapes during a lightning storm. Stay safe though, going outside in lightning is NEVER recommended – try to photograph from the safety of an apartment window or shelter.

cityscape lightning

Photo by Baltasar Henderson; ISO 125, f/11.0, 10 seconds.

Lightning is unpredictable. You cannot predict the exact moment when it’ll strike. To add to that, even the intensity varies every time making it difficult to nail exposure. The bad weather and low light conditions make your work as a photographer even more difficult. But, with patience and a bit of luck, you can capture images that’s well worth the effort. Just be sure to use the right techniques and settings:

Meaningful composition. Don’t get tempted to point your camera directly to the sky just because all the drama’s happening up there. An image with lightning in the sky could be from anywhere. The idea is to make the image relevant by adding context. Include the city that you’re photographing in. Include a landmark, an iconic building, or a popular spot of the city in your composition. Doing so will make the image so much relevant and impactful.

Get most things in focus. Aim to have the lightning bolt and the cityscape in focus. This can be achieved by working at narrower apertures ranging between f/8 to f/11. And since you cannot predict where lightning will strike, it is a good idea to set the focus manually to infinity.

Use a lightning trigger. You cannot predict the timing of lighting at all, making it challenging for you to click that shutter release button. A convenient way is to use a lightning trigger. The device connects to your camera and releases the shutter as soon as it detects lightning. Think of it as a camera trap used in wildlife photography – but for lightning. Their quick response time helps you take lightning photos with ease.

Use bulb mode. If you’re not using a lightning trigger, bulb mode can come in handy. In bulb mode, you can control the start and end of the camera’s exposure manually. For better control in bulb mode, consider using a remote release. Try to anticipate (or guess) when the lightning will occur and open the shutter. Then once the lightning strikes, close the shutter shortly after. Leaving the shutter open for too long will result in a washed out image. In case the lightning does not strike while the shutter is open, close the shutter and start over. This is where anticipation and luck plays a vital role.

lightning with traffic

Photo by Emil Jarfelt; ISO 100, 30 seconds.

Avoid camera shake. Since you will be working with slower shutter speed, it is important that you avoid any kind of camera shake. Get a sturdy tripod. If it gets windy, a tripod that you can add load to for better stability will work better. If you have a DSLR, enable the mirror lock-up function to reduce in-camera vibration. And using a remote shutter release will further let you prevent camera shake caused when pressing the camera’s shutter release button.

Be safe. Being outside during a thunderstorm is quite risky. So, be sure to take utmost precautions. Even your tripod can act as a lightning rod and attract lightning. So, shoot from under a roof, from the inside of a room, or a balcony. This will also prevent your gear from getting wet. If you’re taking the risk and shooting from the streets of the city, don’t stand next to your tripod or a power line. Take safety as the utmost priority.

Brilliant lightning images need a lot of patience, and a bit of luck. Besides capturing lightning, even nailing the exposure is more of a hit and trial. So, don’t lose hope if things don’t work out immediately. Have patience and keep on practising.

For further training on camera settings, equipment, and photographing lightning and cityscapes, you may want to check out the chapters on Lightning and Cityscapes while it is on sale.

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