How to photograph lightning

Did you know that lightning strikes the surface of the Earth around 100 times every second, yet lightning photographs are not at all common. Why? 

The problem with lighting is this. It's FAST... I mean lightning quick! 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. Without specialist equipment such as lightning triggers there is a technique which will guarantee you a lightning photo [almost] every time. Keep reading to find out how.

Photographing lightning is challenging but very rewarding when you get that amazing shot! This photo was captured in Preston, Lancashire where we'll see only one to two storms per year. This photo is made up of 4 lightning captures! Find out how I achieved this below.

How to capture lighting photographs with multiple long exposures.

By chain-shooting a long series of long exposures your chances of capturing a lightning strike are almost certain.  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:

Prepare

  • Check the weather - Go to https://www.lightningmaps.org to check for confirmed thunder storms.
  • Pack your equipment - one camera, a fully charged battery, a high capacity memory card, a wide angle lens, waterproof covers (or weather sealed equipment), a tripod, remote shutter release cable, a clean micro fibre cloth, and a raincoat...of course.
  • Choose a safe location - Choose a 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, for example a building with plumbing or lightning rod, a car, or a stone structure. Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. 

Set up & Shoot your lightning photograph layers

  1. Set up your tripod and camera for the best view - remember safety first!
  2. Set your camera to shoot RAW,
  3. Set ISO to 100
  4. Focus your lens then turn off auto focus and image stabilisation to ensure the sharpest shots.
  5. Set a narrow aperture of F8 - F10
  6. Set a long exposure of 10-15 seconds to maximise the chances of capturing a full strike.
    Lightning is very bright so expose for the brightest part of the image then reduce exposure by at least one stop. Do this by increasing your aperture number, then if needed, by reducing the exposure time.
    Set your shooting / drive mode to Continuous.
  7. Cover your equipment to protect from rain. Ensure there is no camera movement from any wind. 
  8. Connect your trigger then as soon as you start to see lighting press and lock it to shoot continuously.
  9. Move away from your camera to safety and wait out the storm.

Composite your lightning stills into one photograph

  1. In Adobe 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.  
  4. Crop and straighten your image if the alignment has resulted in any irregular borders. 
  5. Choose the image with the best mid tone and shadow detail and place this to the bottom of the layers - this will be your base image.
  6. Set the blend mode of all of the layers above the bottom 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.
  7. If you're familiar with masks you can use these to eliminate any unwanted parts of each individual layer.
  8. Save the final result as a .tiff or .dng file and continue to edit the image in the application you prefer as normal.