This photo and the other lightning shots on this page have been heavily cropped, which is why the lightning looks so close.
Getting good night time shots of lightning is easy. Just make sure the lightning can’t get a good shot at you. The surprising truth is that if you can hear thunder then you’re likely to be within striking distance!
Standing under a tree is especially dangerous during a thunderstorm. But I won’t say too much more about lightning safety because there’s already so much good info online. For example, here.
So your first priority is be to where lightning can’t get to you.
Here’s the setup I use for the folks who want them in a hurry, and then I’ll explain it all.
You’ll need a tripod or some other way of keeping your camera still during long exposures.
Mechanical (left) and electronic (right) cable releases. You’ll need to check which make and model works with your camera.
You’ll also need a cable release to prevent any accidental jiggling of the camera while you press and hold down the shutter release button.
I almost always use a wide-angle lens, to capture the biggest possible expanse of sky. So if you have a zoom lens then I’d recommend zooming out as far as possible to see as much sky as possible. A longer focal length might be okay if the storm’s a long way away but otherwise it can be impossible to know where to aim it, since lightning is so unpredictable.
This can be tricky at night. In a city, you’ll be able to focus on lights on distant buildings. In the country, well I guess you can wait a hundred years for someone to build a city or you can try to focus manually on some distant trees and then use autofocus to fine-tune the focusing. That fine-tuning will have to be done during the brief moments when lightning is illuminating everything. So you’ll need to focus pretty fast and hope for a fair bit of lightning to illuminate the landscape for that. Otherwise you might be lucky enough to have a focusing meter on your lens. In that case I tend to focus on infinity.
This lens is focused to infinity. I know that without needing to look through the lens thanks to being able to line the little notch up with the Infinity marker.
Once you’ve managed to focus onto the distance then flick your focus over to manual and leave it there.
This is the magic setting that makes it so easy. Bulb mode might be on your camera’s mode dial (indicated by the letter ‘B’) or it might be one of your shutter speed settings available somewhere else. What bulb mode means is that your shutter stays open for as long as you hold the cable release button down.
I set my camera to ISO 100. That’s because fork lightning is insanely bright, meaning you don’t need much sensitivity in your camera to pick it up. However, if you’re photographing some distant lightning through layers of cloud then even though your eyes will be seeing it just fine your camera will struggle a bit. So in those circumstances ISO 200 will be better.
I prefer a big aperture too. I know that in my getting started guide I talked at length about how a big aperture will give you a smaller depth of field, and I haven’t changed my mind about that. But in wide-angle lenses (lenses with a small focal length) then that effect is much less obvious. In fact, when you get to really wide-angle lenses then it’s possible to get really big depths of field.
So with your wide-angle lens you can open it up to a big aperture without heaps of stuff falling out of focus. I usually go for something like f/5.6.
Press the shutter button down in your cable release and keep it down! What you’re doing by holding the button down while in bulb mode is keeping the shutter open while you wait for some lightning.
Pretty soon (hopefully) you’ll be rewarded with some fireworks. Because the shutter is still open you’ll know you’re getting a picture of it.
After the lightning has flashed you can let go of the shutter button to end the exposure. The camera will write the image to its memory card and it’s done.
After taking your first shot, have a look at the preview on the back of your camera to see how it turned out. If everything’s too dark then try a bigger aperture (smaller f-number) or else a higher ISO. If it looks really hopelessly dark, like an almost-black frame then crank up your ISO to about 400 or higher and then try again. Remember that the higher your ISO settings, the more your camera is going to brighten up the light it captures. If your test images are too light or blown out then try a smaller aperture (bigger f-number). It won’t take much experimentation because those settings I mentioned earlier (f/5.6 and ISO 100) should get you pretty close.
All you have to do is keep running through steps 1 to 3 above. Each time you get a streak of lightning, let go of the shutter button to end your exposure and then press-and-hold it down again to start a new one and wait for the next flash. Or you can keep your shutter open for multiple flashes of lightning to get multiple flashes recorded in the one picture.
It can be easy to overexpose your shots by keeping the shutter open for too long though, especially if there are lots of milder flashes of sheet lightning happening while you’re waiting for that one big showy flash. So if, for example, there hasn’t been a decent one for about 30 seconds, then I will usually stop the exposure (let go of the shutter button) and then start a new one.