How to photograph lightning

Camera settings and important safety advice for photographing lightning strikes.

Cross overI love taking photos of lightning strikes with a digital camera. I can take dozens of shots, which increases my chance of capturing great photos.

I live on the edge of a desert that has an unobstructed long distance view. I go to our second floor balcony when a storm is brewing and snap away. We have seasonal monsoons around July and August and get terrific storms to photograph.

I first started taking photos with a consumer digital camera and manually set the time exposure between 3-8 seconds. I hand-held the camera and braced it against a rail, wall or something sturdy.

Camera settings

Now I use a Canon 10D digital single lens reflex camera and place it on a tripod. I use the bulb setting so I can hold open the shutter. I limit exposures to 10 seconds but if I get lucky after a few seconds, I immediately end the shot.

I set the camera to ISO 100 and use a small aperture for greater depth of field. I often set the zoom to wide angle to capture a wide area of the scene. I may crop a picture when editing so the lightning fills the whole frame.

When to shoot

Big boltI usually don’t take photos unless lightning strikes occur regularly. If they occur every 10-15 seconds, it’s easier to get lucky and capture a strike.

Lightning seems to follow patterns both in time and location with 20-30 second delays between strikes. I try to anticipate where and when they will occur. When possible, I frame the shot to include some of the horizon for perspective.

When it’s raining, I cover the camera with a towel to protect it and may stay inside and shoot through an open door. If lightning is close, I play it safe and go inside.

Getting a good photograph of lightening takes patience and luck. But when I do get one, it’s a thrill!

Safety first when photographing lightning

Photographing lightning can be dangerous. Lightning strikes can kill or maim! You can be miles away from a storm and still get struck. Lightening can even travel through the ground to you.

When photographing lighting:

  • Stay far away from lightning targets such as phone and power lines, metal fences and antennas.
  • Never mount the camera on something that attracts lightning, such as a car. Using a metal tripod or cable release is potentially dangerous.
  • Keep away from water and don’t stand under trees.
  • If the time between sound of thunder and the strike is less than five seconds, consider it unsafe!

Do NOT photograph lightning before fully educating yourself about safety issues at outlined at the National Weather Service Lightning Safety website.

This artilce and photos were contributed by Clayton Esterson.