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Taking Lightning Photos (or Video)

Posted by Matt on July 13th, 2008 filed in Digital Photography Hints & Tips, Nature Photos, Outdoor Photography, Photo Safety, Taking Photos

New York City Lightning
Photo by Matt Hobbs

Lightning is one of the most spectacular natural events that can be caught on camera. The sharp flash, followed by the afterglow stays embedded in your eye for ages after the shock of impact. A camera can slow the lightning strike down, showing what happened too fast to really see and take in. Stunning, beautiful and deadly.

Yes, deadly. lightning is very very dangerous, as has been recently witnessed by this poor woman who was taking videos in a lightning storm and was struck by lightning. Luckily she survived, other people aren’t so lucky. Between 1990 and 2003, in the US alone from lightning strikes. That’s about 60 a year. This doesn’t include people who suffered lightning strikes and survived, with or without serious harm.

So how can we take beautiful pictures of lightning with less danger? Read on to find out.

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Taking Photos of Lightning

Lightning Strike/>
Photo by Matt Hobbs

Disclaimer: Digital Photography Hints and its writers can take no responsibility for damage to yourself or your property from lightning or anything else. It is your responsibility to stay safe and take whatever precautions are necessary when taking photos of lightning or anything else. Safety first, photo second!

Here are our suggestions for how to take great lightning photos, as well as ways to reduce risk. This is not a comprehensive list, so if you think of any other suggestions please post them to the comments below:

  • Indoors is the safest place to be: In any storm, the safest place to be is indoors. Most buildings have lightning protection built into them so even in the event of a lightning strike you would be safer. Most of my lightning photos are taken from inside, with the camera on a tripod looking out of the window. This works fine as long as torrential rain isn’t coming in, plus has the advantage that you and your equipment stays protected out of the elements.
  • The higher you are, the less safe you are: For example, standing on the roof of your building to ‘get a good view’ is a bad idea! Lightning is looking for the quickest way down to earth from the clouds, and if you’re sticking up like a nail in a piece of wood than whammo! Lightning strike to the head time.
  • Lightning can come from anywhere at any time: It has even been known to travel sideways for up to 10 miles, so you can be standing under blue sky with a storm in the distance and still be in danger. Of course when that comes to trying to capture lightning with your camera that means there’s a good chance that wherever your camera is pointing – the lightning won’t be. Don’t spend your time looking from place to place for the lightning though, just set up your camera on a tripod with a good wide angle on it and ideally attach a remote. With digital cameras you can keep firing off shots even when nothing is happening, then just go through deleting them when they don’t have anything interesting on them. If you can connect your camera to a computer (tethered) to store the photos immediately even better.
  • Experiment with exposure times: Lightning is bright. Very bright. So of course getting the exposure right when everything around is under cloud will be tricky. The best bet here is to set for a long exposure (a second or so) with a deep aperture and ISO of 100 or less, and keep firing off shots to catch a bolt. You may even want to experiment with filters if you have time. The other option if you have an HD video camera is just to keep filming and then pull out the shots you want later. Lightning builds – so with a longer exposure you’ll tend to capture the full strike, but if you shoot faster you could capture the lightning as it snakes its way to ground – stunning.
  • Stay safe at all times: No photo is worth your life. As I’ve said being indoors is the safest place, however even then there is a risk as you will be working with metal equipment (camera and tripod) near an open window. If you happen to be outdoors and want to minimise the risks then – don’t be high up, crouch down if you can, don’t touch anything metal – as this acts as a conductor that the lightning wants to use – or for the same reason don’t stand in water. So ideally here, you want to be under shelter (not under a tall tree though!) and leave your camera on a tripod (waterproofed) away from you and fire off shots with a remote – as even touching a metal tripod increases your risk substantially. My advice… stay indoors and take photos from there when you can.

When you’re in the middle of an impressive lightning storm, always remember to put your safety first. After that you can take your time, set up your camera remotely, and just enjoy watching the storm yourself. It’s hard to capture the majesty, especially the sound, of a good thunderstorm with a camera, but what you do capture will be stunning. Good luck!

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