How to Take Four Pretty Cool Shots of Lightning

It’s simple!

1. Point your camera in the direction of an active thunderstorm.

2. Take five hundred pictures in a row.

3. Sort through them to find the ones that have lightning in them.

4. Of those sixteen, pick the four best.

5. You’re done!

Next up for me: Learning how to take long exposure pictures on this camera. Might, uh, make this process simpler next time around.

31 Comments on “How to Take Four Pretty Cool Shots of Lightning”

  1. My sister agrees, take 500 pictures, but she has a harder time getting down to only the 4 best

  2. Nice shots. Sadly I didn’t have time to take pictures as I battled to get our cars into the garage to save them from hail damage – mostly my wife’s month old Audi Q7 SUV). And I’m talking dog-choking sized hail here in south central Indiana. We had so much hail it completely covered the lawn and some of it was damned near golfball sized!

  3. If you’re working with anything as old-fashioned as film (or you really love building digital projects) there’s also building a set of coffee-can pinhole cameras, preloading them and putting black tape over the pinholes, and pointing them all toward the general direction of lightning. Uncover one pinhole, wait till there’s lighting in right part of sky, cover that pinhole, uncover the next.

    I did that for a high school science project. You don’t have to be mad to be a scientist. You can get on the job training.

  4. 4 good photos out of 500 taken sounds about my speed. Well, 4 halfway acceptable ones out of 500, maybe. You are many, many leagues beyond me, good sir.

  5. An alternative method that will cut down on the searching and sorting:

    Put your camera on a sturdy tripod.
    Set shutter speed to “bulb” and aperture to as narrow as it will go.
    Point camera in direction of storm. (Use the widest angle of view your lens will give you to cover as much of the storm as possible.)
    Open shutter. When you see a flash of lightning close the shutter. (A remote shutter release switch such as the Nikon MC-DC2 will help a lot.)

    If lightning is infrequent you might have to limit your exposure times depending on how much other light is in the direction of the storm.

    Note: This method is also ideal for fireworks.

  6. If you are thinking about trying to get more of such pictures and other long night exposures, it might be worth your time to invest in a cable release or a wireless remote for the camera if it supports “Bulb Mode”. Then you just put your camera on manual exposure, point it in the direction of the storm, set the aperture accordingly (this may require some experimentation; worth looking up advice online), open the shutter and hold it open, and then close it after a lightning strike or some number of minutes, whichever comes first.

    Repeat, and you’ll have a much higher ratio of pictures with lightning in them, probably including some amazing multi-strike pictures if you leave the shutter open for enough time. :)

    Or, if you want to try leaving it up to the camera, you can either use shutter priority mode and set your shutter speed as slow as your camera will allow and see if an how many lightning strikes you get in a shot or use aperture priority mode and crank your aperture as small as possible for the same effect. These may be tougher to get good exposure with, however, depending on whether or not the camera’s light meter stays active through the exposure and adjusts things to reduce it when the bright lights appear or not.

    Whatever you do, I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun playing around and experimenting with different things to see what happens. :D

    That last picture is amazing, by the way. It really shows of the wall of rain in that storm! :)

  7. That’s probably the same storm that spawned the tornado warning at 11:00 in Sidney…..the warning lasted all of 5 minutes, but enough to set off the sirens, and enough to have me up on two separate amateur radio networks to report severe weather……it’s what I do…

  8. I second the “remote release” idea mentioned above. I don’t have one of those gadgets as yet, but would need one if I want to go for lightning shots. Or fireworks. Or long exposure star trails–I’d really love to see some of those from you, John. You’ve got some dark skies where you live out there in the country, right? Sky shots, with and without star trails!

  9. Great shots, I love lightning. Did you take the 500 shots in one burst mode session? I take it you need a fast memory card for the camera to hold the pace? What camera did you shoot these with?

    Thumbs up

  10. I take about 50 pictures (on a tablet, not a camera) to get 4 good shots of flying honeybees. Either the bees are flying at a tenth the speed of lightening (1/30th lightspeed?), or you are a better photographer than me.

  11. My camera is an older Canon point-and-shoot model, but it has the advantage of being able to run CHDK. Which means that I can run one of the motion-detection scripts available for that software. Believe it or not, the motion detection is fast enough to detect and shoot lightning strikes, and I’ve gotten some pretty decent shots that way.

  12. Great shots. I love doing long exposure tripod shots with my DSLR. I think that’s one of the few areas that they still have an edge over the best camera phones. A remote release (as mentioned above) really is key. Hold the shutter open and wait till you get several good strikes. Adjust as necessary. Works great for fireworks too. Add a neutral density lens to darken the overall light input and you can do long exposure in the daytime to create blurred waterfall pics and such. These type of images are unique because they essentially capture a span of time in one still image, something beyond the reach of standard photos or even video, really.

  13. Ah, the beauty of digital cameras – the ability to take 500 pictures and throw away 496 of them.

    This is like my general comment on digital cameras: The great thing about digital cameras is you can go on vacation and come home with five thousand pictures. And the biggest problem with digital cameras is you can go on vacation and come home with five thousand pictures.

  14. I got this a few years ago. I set up the camera on a tripod and set it to bulb mode. I only held the shutter open for a second before catching the lightning. I then realized that:

  15. I got this lightning photo a few years ago. I set up the camera on a tripod and set it to bulb mode. I only held the shutter open for a second before catching the lightning. After the shot, I realized that:
    1) I wasn’t going to do any better, and
    2) there are a lot of tall trees in my backyard.

    I decided to declare victory and head indoors.

    Lightning Photo – via Flickr

  16. For what can be done with a pinhole camera and
    a 90-day exposure (no electronics), check out this
    recent post in NASA’s excellent Astronomy Picture of
    the Day series

  17. Groovy. :-) We don’t get really good thunderstorms here in L.A. very often, and when we do you can’t see what’s happening anyway because of the light pollution. A few years back we were staying in Cocoa Beach and there was a night thunderstorm out over the ocean. We hung out on our balcony with the lights off, just watching/listening to the storm, and wishing we had slow-exposure capability. The show went on for over an hour.

  18. I remember reading (somewhere) that one of the differences between a professional photographer and an amateur was that the professional could/would take the hundreds of shots necessary to get the good few. One of the things that digital photography has changed for the better. I say more good photos is good for us.

    Also, those photos are pretty darn cool.

  19. @VCarlson – Except for Ansel Adams, who (the legend has it) would go to a location he wanted to photograph, watch the light for a day or more, then come back, set up his 8×10 view camera, and at just the right time, take one exposure…

  20. @ David Lewis – … and then spend three weeks in the darkroom fine-tuning every shadow and highlight in the final print.

  21. … Hey, that’s the same method I use to take pictures of myself! (No, really. The number of crappy photos on my phone, tablet, and camera is embarrassing.)

    Other folks already gave the advice I would have; Dad does wildlife photography as a “hobby”. Hobby is in quotes, because I’m not sure if it still counts as a hobby since he’s probably invested well over $20k in it by this point, and that’s lowballing it. At the very least, a very expensive one.

    I’ve made the mistake of complaining about getting fuzzy wildlife shots before, and gotten most of the advice that folks above have already given. Saves me the trouble of typing it up! :)

    But, I really commented to say those are some GORGEOUS shots. I love love love lightning; I lived in Texas for about two years, and we had sooooo many lightning storms. I was the crazy girl who would go outside and dance in the rain and to the lightning. But I moved back to Western Washington, which really is the home of my heart, as I am reminded every time I see Mt. Rainier when I’m out and about doing errands. Unfortunately, we don’t get much in the way of lightning here. Otherwise, it’d be perfect.

    Ah well. Living in a place where people comment on how adorable my polyfamily is, or smile at me and my girlfriend/fiancee, compliment my unnatural hair color and gothy clothing…. instead of constantly worrying that someone would notice… that’s worth the trade for the lightning. So I will dance vicariously in your awesome lightning photos. :)

    (Yes, I realize I’m a weirdo. I like it that way.)

  22. Your Steps 1-4 are, modulo some refinements, are pretty much how the pros do it too. Serious photography is very hard work. I shoot lighting using a tripod, a cable-release, 10-30 second exposures, lens set to F22, manual focus & infinity, a comfortable chair, & a good book. A handy six pack is nice too.

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