One of the biggest challenges involved with shooting lightning is that it is here and gone in a flash. Because of that, there is a popular misconception that there is only a very narrow time frame with which to capture your picture; but I’ll discuss that in more detail later. The major key to taking great photos of lighting is by having the correct equipment. You must have a tripod to keep the camera steady and a cable release to prevent any further agitations. It isn’t a big deal whether you use a digital camera or an old analog camera; keep in mind though, you are most likely taking pictures inside of a storm of some kind. You will want to use a film speed that is less sensitive and is generally marketed for use in the bright daylight. Usually ISO100 will work best for getting photos of lightning. This is because it will allow you to implement the techniques discussed below with ease and allow you to achieve better results.
Most of the time you will be shooting lightening during the nighttime so this makes the conditions perfect for shooting lightning. The technique is pretty straight forward in concept; the idea is to let the shutter of the camera stay open for several minutes, and in doing so, capturing one or, hopefully, several strikes per exposure. To do this, you will want to put the camera on the tripod, point it where you believe the lightening will be (usually where you have noticed a high frequency of strikes), hook up the cable release (which will allow you to keep the shutter open longer) and set the cameras lens focus to infinity. Last, set your camera settings; you should set the shutter speed to be on “B” (bulb) and start with an f-stop (aperture) setting of f-8. How long the shutter stays open is going to depend on a lot of factors; ranging from the ISO you chose to how much ambient light there is. This is where a digital camera comes in handy but there is an inherent danger of damaging electronics in a storm. If you stop down your f-stop (by increasing the number) you can leave it open longer but be careful to not over do it.
The darker it is where you are, the longer you will want to leave the shutter open, but be careful not to expose the shot too much. However, If it is really dark you may be able to keep the shutter open for roughly two minutes before going on to the next photo. The process of taking great photos of lightning takes a lot of patience and practice. Just getting one or two great shots counts as a success.
Rick Valence has worked as a digital camera repair tech at C.R.I.S. Camera Services in Chandler, Arizona for about 15 years. Rick also does professional photography shoots on the side for friends and relatives. When not taking pictures, Rick enjoys updating the company blog with his camera repair tips and pointers.