Summer weather provides a wealth of photo ops, but at the top of most shooters’ lists is lightning. While lightning is spectacular, it’s also dangerous. Here are some tips to help you photograph it safely.
1We all learned as kids to determine how far we are from a thunderstorm by counting the seconds between the flash and the boom (divide the number of seconds by five, and the result is your distance from the storm, in miles). The problem with this is that lightning can actually strike up to 10 miles from where it’s raining, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS advises that if you can hear thunder, you’re within striking distance and should seek shelter immediately.
2Of course, to photograph lightning, you have to be within viewing range of it. It’s possible to stay far enough from a thunderstorm to be safe, yet be close enough to get great photos. The key is to use a telephoto zoom lens. The popular 18-200mm and 28-300mm “superzooms” are ideal for this, allowing you to compose wide through tele images without having to change lenses or camera position.
3Before setting up, watch the storm from a safe distance and see which way it’s moving. If it’s moving toward you, you’ll soon be in danger, so move to a safer location not in its path. Ideally, you want the storm to be moving across the frame; this will keep you safer and put the lightning at a relatively constant distance for more consistent compositions.
4Since you’ll be shooting at a safe distance from the storm, you should set focus manually at infinity. (because “infinity” changes with focal length, focus manually at the focal length you’ll be using for the shot). Set a DSLR to ISO 100 (or use ISO 100 film, if using a film camera), and the aperture to ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8 (that should be around the lens’ “sweet spot” between wide-aperture, aberration-induced softness and small-aperture diffraction blurring). If you’re shooting during the day, set an appropriate shutter speed for that aperture, and use a lightning trigger to fire the camera when lightning strikes. If you’re shooting at night, use the lightning trigger, or open the shutter on B (using a remote control or locking cable release) and keep it open until a lightning burst has occurred. (At night, be sure to have a flashlight so you don’t trip over things in the dark and can see the camera controls.)
5With a DSLR, you can check the results on the LCD monitor and make any needed corrections for the next shot. With film, shoot some images at ƒ/5.6, some at ƒ/8 and some at ƒ/11, then pick the images you like best after the film is processed.