One of the greatest challenges in photography that’s also the most fun when it works out is catching pictures of lightning.
The challenge is getting a snapshot of something moving 140,000 miles per hour and generating temperatures upwards of 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Once you solve those two problems, it’s a breeze.
There are 16 million lightning storms in the world every year, so with a little patience and pre-planning, you’ll get your chance.
Some basic safety rules, which are mostly common sense. You want to get pictures of the lightning, not get up close and personal with it. That means being careful when working in open areas and elevated vantage points. Aluminum tripods make great conducting rods and you don’t want to become the path of least resistance. I was covering a series of devastating storms in western Tennessee, getting some great lightning shots, when I noticed my tripod started tingling with static electricity. That was my clue that it was time to go.
Another basic precaution is a rain sleeve for your camera. A tripod that’s light enough to just grab and run is another advantage. A cheap plastic tripod is better for lightning photography than high end aluminum or carbon graphite.
For camera settings I leave AWB on and turn auto-focus off. Auto-focus has a hard time in poorly lit scenes and rain drops can fool some of them into shifting back and forth looking for a focal point. Just turn it off.
You’ll want to use your camera’s “B” or Bulb setting and I’d recommend a remote release instead of trying to hold the shutter release button with your hand.
I generally start with ISO 400 at f/5.6 and make adjustments based on what shows up on the LCD screen.
If you’re working in the dark, the process is simple. Point the camera, set the focus to infinity, open the shutter and wait until you get a couple good bolts in the right area.
If there’s enough light for a long exposure, you won’t need to use the bulb setting, just let the camera handle the exposure and notice how the best lightning flashes seem to be able to sense when the shutter is closed. I’m kidding, it’s all the luck of the draw.
Just be careful, stay aware of your surroundings and when you can’t count three between the flash and the thunder, get under shelter.