Staging has much to do with photography, as careful considerations in composition are absolutely necessary in coming up with a picture that has weight, tells a story, and evokes a real emotional response.
Unfortunately, one of the most sought-after shots especially when it comes to nature photography gives photographers very little leeway in terms of set up. Lightning, as a natural phenomenon, only occurs under special extreme conditions, and due to its nature, comes by in a flash and doesn’t leave much room for second chances.
This makes capturing lightning in a photo that has a level of artistry and profundity a big challenge. Take note of the following tips to help you catch this force of nature.
Safety and Gear Protection
Before anything else, you have to understand that your own safety should be your top priority. There is no good reason to risk your life just to get a photograph, so if the conditions become dangerous, abandon the shoot. A torrential downpour that leads to flooding isn’t the best time to take pictures.
If you’re hearing thunder immediately or almost immediately after lightning strikes, you’re way too near the area where it’s hitting. Move further away for your well-being, as the average lightning bolt packs a potentially fatal 300 kilovolts. Avoid wide open spaces, and do not stay near pools of water or tall isolated objects, such as lone trees and lampposts.
Shooting lightning usually means you’ll have to deal with heavy rain. Finding a sheltered spot is preferable, so that you and your gear don’t get soaked in water. If there is no place to cover you from the rainfall, then you’ll have to be ready with a plastic sheet cover, a lens filter, and a soft lint free cloth to keep your camera dry.
Type of Lenses and Accessories to Bring
Digital SLR cameras are your best bet for the shoot, but you’ll also want to bring a lightweight but sturdy tripod and either a shuttle release cable or an electronic remote. Trying to take a picture of lightning with a point and shoot is much harder, but it is possible as long as it has manual controls for shutter speed and aperture.
A tripod will ensure your photos will come out clearer, as the shooting environment is prone to resulting in blurry shots. The tripod should be light in case you’ll have to do a lot of moving around.
The shuttle release cable lets you take pictures without disturbing the position you carefully put your camera in, especially when the shutter opening takes a while.
As for the lenses, you’ll want to bring a wide angle lens and a zoom lens. Your camera will most likely be pointing at expansive spaces, so the wide angle lens will net you more space to include a bigger part of the sky and all the other interesting elements that can spice up the pictures. The zoom lens gives you more options in framing your shots and zeroing in on particular areas.
Because you will probably be shooting lightning from a long distance, you need to lock your camera’s focus to infinity, so it doesn’t have to search for its focus once you’re taking shots. Compact digital cameras usually come with an infinity focus setting, but DSLRs with autofocus lenses need to be manually adjusted. To do this, focus the camera on a light source far away to find its infinity setting first, then switch to manual focus to keep it there.
Your ISO speed should be on its lowest value, which can either be 100 or 200 depending on your camera. A safe aperture range would be around f/5.6 to f/8, because the subject is just a quick but incredibly-bright flash that needs to be controlled.
If your camera has the option, set its shutter speed to bulb. If it doesn’t have the option, set its exposure time within the range of 10-30 seconds. Knowing the best time to close the shutter is reliant on observing the lightning’s pattern.
Timing Your Shots
Not all thunderstorms are perfect for photoshoots, as there are occasions when lightning isn’t very frequent, making it hard to anticipate good times to snap a picture. The best times are when the thunderstorm is isolated and when it’s forming just ahead of a cold front, leading to multiple lightning bolts crackling through the sky and hitting the ground.
The actual timing of the shot depends on how often the lightning strikes, and this is up to you taking note of the length of the intervals. As a general rule though, lightning that hits the ground happen in a blink of an eye while lightning that travels from cloud to cloud can last a little longer.
Since you’ve already adjusted your settings to bulb mode, your job of actually catching the lightning is much easier. For the cloud-to-ground lightning, just hold the shutter open with the cable or remote, wait for the lightning to flash, then release the shutter right after. For the cloud-to-cloud lightning, wait until the lightning flashes before opening the shutter, and close it once you’re satisfied.
To give your pictures a better sense of composition, you’ll want to include an interesting element in the foreground such as a city’s skyline or any tall object like a tower or a tree. Such components only serve to highlight the grandness of the already impressive display of a lightning bolt captured in a photo.
Although the situation of photographing lightning itself doesn’t allow for much on-the-fly prep-time, that problem is remedied with lots of preparation beforehand. It’s the only way to capture the fickle majesty of Mother Nature’s wrath.
Like most other nature shoots, observing the ebbs and flows of the environment and the patience to do so are critical. Just remember to stay safe, and not let the Mother Nature’s wrath catch you.
Here are some amazing images of lightning photography:
Editor note: Contributor Vincent Sevilla is a professional graphic designer and content marketing for Camerahouse.com.au, a company that sells best compact and digital cameras online.