How to photograph lightning with long exposure (Advanced tips)

Ever wondered how the pro's get amazing lightning photos? Here's how!

Photographing lightning is challenging but very rewarding when you get that amazing shot! This photo was captured in Preston, Lancashire and is made up of 5 exposures. One dark and 4 with lightning and/or car lights. This post offers some advanced tips for lightning photography.

Lightning photos make some of the very best and most exciting landscape pictures there is. Good lightning photos are rare enough to be interesting, yet storms are common enough to have an opportunity to make one.

The problem with lighting is this. It's FAST... I mean lightning quick kind of fast! So fast that by the time you've pressed the shutter button, it's gone and you're waiting for the thunder which follows.  There's no warning, or tell tale to judge by, and your reactions are just too slow.

There's two ways to capture a great lightning image. 

1. Use special equipment.
By using a special trigger that can react to the flash of lighting your chances of a good shot increase. However, getting the shot will still depend on your camera setup, and you will miss the start of the flash.  Also this method can be expensive and complicated. 

2. The repeated long exposure method. 
By chaining a long series of long exposures your chances of capturing a lightning strike go way up.  Due to the length of the exposures required, this works best at night, but can be achieved in day time with ND filters to restrict the light.  Here's some advanced tips on how to photograph lightning with long exposures:

  • Pack your equipment - one camera, spare battery and memory card, a wide angle lens, waterproof covers (or weather sealed equipment), a tripod, remote shutter release cable, a clean microfibre cloth, and a raincoat...of course.
  • Choose a safe location, away from the storm cloud if possible, with a clear view of the storm.  This will minimise chance of being rained out, keep you away from the lightning, and get you a great view of more lightning strikes over a larger area.  Remember - Safety First! 
    Photographing lightning is not without risk.  If you are able to detect lightning, you're close enough to be struck, so avoid wide open spaces, do not set up near a tree or metal pylon. Seek shelter, eg a building with plumbing or lightning rod, a car, or a stone structure. 
  • Set up your tripod and camera for the best view,
    Start with a full battery and empty memory card (16GB or more)
    Set your camera to shoot RAW,
    Set iso 100
    Focus your lens then turn off autofocus, 
    Set a narrow aperture of F8 - F10
    Set a long exposure of several seconds to maximise the chances of capturing a full strike - use a neutral density (ND) filter if required to maintain correct exposure.  Remember, lightning is very bright so expose for the brightest part of the image then reduce exposure by at least half a stop.  Take a test shot and check - there should be enough detail in the shadows but a little room on the right side of the histogram for any further brightness from the flashes.
    Set your drive mode to Continuous (Any speed)
  • Cover your equipment to protect from rain. Ensure there is no camera movement from any wind. 
  • Connect your trigger and lock it to shoot continuously.
  • Move away from your camera to safety and wait out the storm.

With a little luck you'll capture a number of great shots that would stand out individually with a little processing, however it doesn't have to end there.  We could stack the layers to show every strike we captured in one photo:

  • In lightroom / photoshop camera raw - edit your chosen photos to achieve a good exposure with the best shadow and highlight detail you can.  Try to remain consistent and where possible use identical values on each frame.  Choose at least one dark photo and several lightning shots.
  • Import each photo as a new layer into a photoshop document - use Tiff or DNG format to preserve all of the data.  Things may get slow at this point but wait it out. 
  • Select all layers and select Edit - Auto Align layers. 
    Use the default options (Auto).  This will remove any issues caused by any small changes of camera position between shots.  
  • Crop and straighten your image if the alignment has resulted in any irregular borders. 
  • Choose the image with the best mid tone and shadow detail and place this to the top of the layers.
  • Set the blend mode of all of the layers below the top layer to "Lighter colour" - this will show all of the brightest parts of each picture without further brightening any other part.  You should now see every lightning strike and their effects on the scene around. 
  • If you're familiar with masks you can use these to eliminate any unwanted parts of each individual layer.

Save the final result as a tiff or dng file and continue to edit the image in the application you prefer as normal. 

Written by Simon Osbaldeston
diffuse photo