February - halos You are here: Home Techniques Lightning photography tips

I can give you the following tips to reduce the chances of error, disappointment, and catastrophe when you attempt lightning photography. I compiled this list over 8 years of lightning photography and I hope it includes most problems you may encounter.

Note: I will not be liable for any personal injury or structural damage due to your lightning photography. Know what you are doing, and stay safe!

  • Know the weather danger - don't get struck by lightning, or otherwise getting in trouble. A good advice is to photograph lightning outside rain, while the storm is somewhat distant. It is unwise to go in the open field to photograph close lightning - you can easily get surprised by a thunderstorm, and this could get you into a lot of trouble. Unless you are experienced, don't take any risks!

  • Know the other dangers - there are many people with bad intentions out there in the dark, as well as critters & crawlers. Keep an eye on your surroundings, stay away from areas close to roads or other unsafe places, and take a cell-phone with you if you go away far. When trouble comes - leave.

  • Check the lens cap - in most cases you won't forget this, since you'll probably be using an SLR camera, but make sure Mr. Murphy doesn't catch you on this one.

  • Don't photograph through a window since it will probably show on the photo, especially when the window is wet by rain. If you DO photograph behind a window make sure the window is very clean and dry, and make sure that when lightning strikes, the interior of where you are standing is not reflecting its light by the glass into your lens. Cover up the camera, and put the lens as close as possible behind the glass.

  • Cardboard as shutter. You may want to use this as an additional shutter: put the cardboard in front of the lens, open the shutter, and remove the cardboard. When you are done, put the cardboard in front of the lens again, and then close the shutter. Don't touch the camera with the board. This technique will eliminate several problems related to camera shake. Beware that no lights are shining on the cardboard from behind - the lens will catch this. The cardboard also comes in handy when you want to photograph multiple lightning discharges on one frame, to prevent overexposure between the lightning.

  • Stay dry. If possible, operate from under a roof or something with the camera at the edge, not letting your camera get wet by rain. Check from time to time whether the lens is clean and dry: do this with your head outside the camera's view if the shutter is open! If lightning were to occur just then while you put your smiling face in front of the lens, the effect will be very weird indeed!

  • Pay attention to composition. You might want to mount the camera on the tripod in such a way that just a bit of horizon, a tree, rock formation or something is visible, with the camera ofcourse pointing in the direction where most discharges occur. This way the size of the photographed discharge can easily be estimated by observing the photo, and it's more natural.

  • Save film. Each time you wind a new frame, estimate the activity of the storm before opening the shutter for the next photo. If the storm is a weak one, you might want to wait some time before opening the shutter. This will save you film.

  • Spare camera for quick film change. If possible, use two cameras with tripod quicklinks on them; when photographing lightning use one camera to take the photos, and when the end of the film is reached (this can be fast!) continue photographing with the other camera while you take your time changing film of the first camera. This way you won't loose time and nerves by frantically changing film (most beautiful discharges occur when you are unable to photograph).

  • Aim at potential lightning targets. When you use two or more cameras, you might want to mount a telephoto lens on the second camera and point this one portrait-style to a target: a large tree, a chimney or a radio transmitting tower - anything which has a fair chance to be hit by lightning. You may be lucky.

  • Listen to the sferics. Sferics are the crackle heard on radio when there is a storm around. It is the EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which is transmitted broadband by a lightning discharge. Use a SW/MW radio to listen real time to the lightning discharges this way, this can be very informative after some practice! Adjust the band (short wave (SW) or mid wave (MW), it doesn't matter much in this case which band to use) so that the radio is not receiving any signal, just noise. When lightning strikes somewhere within, say, a 100 mile radius (depending on atmospheric RF transmittance conditions), you will hear a characteristic crackle. This crackle itself can tell you a lot more about the lightning activity:

    • Relatively long lasting crackle, with several 'pops' in it: you'll know the lightning is probably extensive or a multistroked CG, thus the thunderstorms will probably be well electrified, building enough charge separation for multistroked lightning. A longer lasting crackle without that much pops in it usually indicates a long CC discharge (cloud to cloud) or an IC (intracloud) discharge
    • Just one pop: lightning is not a very powerful discharge, thus thunderstorms may not be very active
    • Frequency of subsequent crackles: this is a direct measure for the intensity of thunderstorms
    • Loudness of crackles: Tells you something about the distance of the lightning discharge, to your location. Loud crackle on the radio will usually be accompanied by visible lightning, whether it be visible as heat lightning (sky lighting up), sheet lightning (cloud lighting up) or a visible lightning channel

  • Take care you do not reuse exposed film! Adapt some habbit of organizing your film such that you will not accidentally do this, or make sure you rewind the film all the way into the film roll when finished.

  • Always have a film loaded in the camera. Shooting without film in the camera has happened to more than one photographer, and let me tell you, it is a painful experience!

  • Load film well in the camera. It has happened to me on a photography session back in 1998, that the film wasn't winding, because I loaded it improperly (I was in a hurry). When I found out (after taking 50 photos or so, and wondering why the film didn't finish) the lightning was over. All my photos were taken over eachother, on a single (completely overexposed) frame. This, too, is a very painful experience.

  • Check and double-check camera settings frequently. With each photo you make, check the following items:
    • focus at infinity (sometimes you accidentally alter this without noticing)
    • aperture still set correctly
    • camera lens still clean and dry
    • proper composition
    • lightning still appearing in the frame (the storm usually moves)