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Chasing Lightning: Tips for Photographing Storms

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If thunderstorms visit your area every once in a while, as a photographer, you might want to capture this magnificent lightning show. Although it might sound challenging, anyone armed with a good tripod and a camera can produce some stunning results.

Recently, we were lucky to observe a magnificent thunderstorm in Paris. Inspired by this storm, we decided to put together some tips on how to photograph lightning that you can try at home or while traveling.

by Elena Usacheva
By Elena Usacheva (ISO 200, f/22, 30 sec)

What you will need

  • A safe and dry spot. Safety above all!
  • A good sturdy tripod;
  • A cable shutter release. Since long exposures are involved, it helps avoiding camera shake from pressing the release button. If you don’t have one, the 2 second self-timer works just fine;
  • The Eiffel tower (ok, this is not completely necessary, although it does help to produce some interesting results!).

by Elena Usacheva
By Elena Usacheva (ISO 200, F14, 30 sec)(image IMG 6839 on laptop)

Camera settings

The settings depend on the time of day you will photograph a thunderstorm. It is safe to say most spectacular images of lightning are taken at night due to the contrasts between the sky and bolts of light. There is no precise recipe for the settings, but the following steps will help:

  • Use manual focus and set the camera on infinity to make sure everything is in focus. If your lens does not have distance measurements on it, focus on a distant subject while on autofocus and then switch to manual, thus locking the focus;
  • Use a low ISO setting such as 200. This gives good quality results and avoids grain or noise in the final images;
  • Set the aperture to f/7 or f/9 as a starting point. Such aperture allows for good shutter speed and helps capture more of the ambient light from the clouds. Remember, your camera’s focus is locked on infinity, so the bolts will be sharp.
  • Set the shutter to a long exposure of between 15 and 30 seconds. Since it is next to impossible to determine when lighting is going to strike, it is also impossible to release the shutter at the exact moment. Using a long exposure takes care of this problem and allows the camera to capture the light bolt while the shutter is open.

Composition considerations

  • Aim the camera up slightly towards the sky. The show is taking place in the sky, so let’s zoom out and have lots of it in the image;
  • Include a point of reference in the foreground such as buildings or trees to give scale and perspective to the image;

by Nadia Gric
By Nadia Gric (ISO 2000, f/5, 1/6 sec)

Last but not least: Be patient!

Knowing your camera equipment will help you set everything up very quickly, but then patience does the rest. You will undoubtedly miss some images for one reason or another, but relax and enjoy the show.

Photographing thunderstorms is quite an adventure in itself. With some preparation and a dash of patience, you can produce some amazing images showing the magnificence of nature right from your doorstep.

Feel free to post some of your own images of lighting in the comment section below.

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography.