The beauty and power of lightning has fascinated me since I was a kid. So it should probably not have been a surprise I would end up in Florida, the lightning capital of the United States. My home lies in an area that has received the distinction of being called “Lightning Alley,” with more strikes per square mile recorded annually in the corridor from Tampa to Titusville than anywhere else in the US, the second most worldwide!  

Despite having the possibility of lightning nearly any day of the year, it’s still a difficult thing to find and photograph successfully. It’s also an extremely dangerous thing to photograph — it’s by far the number one cause of weather related deaths in my neck of the woods. These tips and techniques will help keep you safe, while helping you get a crack at capturing those bolts out of the blue!

Rules 1, 2 and 3…BE SAFE!

Your safety is your number one concern, lightning by its nature is powerful, dangerous and unpredictable. Don’t let your desire to get a cool pic override your personal safety.

My state of Florida, with the frequency of electrical storms, leads the nation in fatalities and injuries caused by lightning. Even if you combine all other types of storms in Florida, lightning is still the number one cause of weather-related deaths. The National Weather Service warns if you can hear thunder, you have the potential of being struck by lightning. Lightning can strike even if it’s as far away as 10 miles. If you are outdoors, the National Lightning Safety Institute advises avoiding all metal objects, water, trees, open spaces, and ground higher than surrounding areas.

Tornado descending from a thunderhead at Sunset. Taken at Fred Howard Park, Tarpon Springs, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico.

Work distant storms

At least with my Florida storms, if I am hearing loud thunder, it’s probably too late to get good lightning shots from where I am. The first time I decided to photograph lightning, I checked the radar and observed a storm blossoming into life a few miles from my house. I threw the gear in the truck and headed off for my first storm photography experience. But, what I hadn’t factored into the equation was the storm was too close. The fast moving/low altitude nature of many Florida storms meant I was right in the heart of the storm within a few moments. Problem #1: I was in danger and needed to stay under cover. Problem #2: Since lightning was so close, I saw only flashes up in the clouds above me, not distinct bolts on the horizon.

The second time out I chose a distant storm heading toward me. With this cell, individual bolts were visible at a distance, as well as the towering storm clouds which make for some great photography subjects, too! With this extra breathing room, I could also keep an eye on the radar to make sure the storm wasn’t too close, and stay on top of any weather alerts that may be issued.

Use a tripod!

You will often be shooting in low light conditions, where you will need to stabilize your camera due to long exposures. A tripod will give you the solid base you need to get sharp images at the super long shutter speeds often used in lightning photography. However, make sure you are using a sturdy and stable one. In the winds that often accompany storms, a light or flimsy tripod may actually impart additional vibration to your camera, or worse, tip over in a sudden gust and dump your camera on the ground.

Night and day

The techniques for capturing shots of lightning in the daytime versus the night, are like, well, night and day.  

Day time technique

Even though the storms rolling through in the daylight hours may block the sun, you still have much more light to work with, and can much more clearly see the features of the landscape and storm. But, with this available light comes a challenge. The strikes are so fast and your shutter speeds are so high, that it is difficult to just shoot when you see a strike and hope to capture it. These things are measured in milliseconds, by the time you see the strike it’s probably too late to hit the button!

An approaching thunderstorm, coming on right at sunset. With the sun low in the sky, the double rainbow lasted for nearly an hour as the storm rolled in. Intra-cloud lightning provided the dramatic light in the clouds.

For day time shots, I use a lightning trigger, in my case the Lightning Bug by MK Controls. The device is a simple module, powered by a 9 volt battery that sits in the hot shoe on your camera. A patch cord connects the Lightning Bug to the remote release port on your camera. When it senses a lightning strike, it trips your shutter like a remote control, taking the picture. In their words, it’s based on the science of lightning:

“There are two components of lightning; the bright white flash everyone wants to capture and the unseen infrared light that always precedes it. The Lightning Bug™ uses a high-speed photodiode sensor optimized to the infrared burst that occurs just before a lightning strike. This infrared light comes from the vaporization of air and particles in the air. The Lightning Bug™ acts as a lookout for your camera, watching for a change in infrared light. When a significant change of infrared light over a short period is detected, it directs the camera shutter to trip and capture the lightning in action.”

Science aside, it just works, and is much more successful at capturing day time strikes than my trying to guess where and when a lightning bolt is going to occur. While the Lightning Bug may help you “press the button” at the right time, it is still up to you to compose the scene and have the right settings. The trigger will go off whether you are pointed directly at the lightning strike or not, so you do have to gauge where you think it will strike to get the shot.

Night time technique

While a lightning trigger is a great tool at night too, you can go without by “dragging the shutter” in low light. This phrase simply means putting your camera into manual mode, and setting your shutter speed to several seconds. The idea is that over this period, something will likely happen, and be etched into your image. Think of lightning as great big camera flashes, each strike will appear in your image as they only last for an instant, much like popping flashlights on and off when light painting.

For this technique, there are lot of variables, like just how dark it is, how close the strikes are, and how frequent they are. Generally I use a wider lens, usually working in the 35mm equivalent of a 24-70mm lens. Wider angles will allow you to cover more of the sky, increasing your likelihood of capturing a bolt, but will also make the bolts appear smaller in the shot.

Generally, my settings start off at ISO 400, and aperture in the f/5.6 to f/8.0 range, and a shutter speed of around five seconds. This usually takes a bit of experimentation, and as the storm gets closer, you may have to increase your aperture to prevent the images from being overexposed.

If you have a lightning trigger, combining it with shutter drags is what I have found to be the most successful technique. The trigger senses a strike, trips your shutter, and then by “dragging” you can capture multiple strikes in one image. Best of both worlds. This approach works well for various other “lights at night” subjects too, like fireworks, the lights of moving traffic, etc.

To infinity, and beyond…

Set your focus to infinity, and turn off your manual focus. Because you need to open up your aperture to let light in (I find I am often in the f/5.6 to f/8.0 range), you can easily have your bolts dropping outside of your depth of field if your focus is too close. Locking your lens’ focus at infinity will help ensure the bolts come out crisp and sharp.

Gear

Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus