Lightning bolts are probably the most elusive things you can take a photo of. Yet they are so mind-boggling and astonishing to look at. Here’s all you need to know to try and capture some this summer.
For the book keeping part, lightning is created when there’s a big difference of charge between two objects. You can sometimes see electrical arcs when there’s static electricity between your hand and the handle of your car door for example. Ouch! During big thunderstorms, the unstable air and colliding molecules inside the clouds create a huge difference of charge between the latter and the ground. We call it potential difference. It’s like a slingshot being pulled. The more charge difference between the two poles, the more the slingshot is pulled back. When the energy accumulated is too great to be held, it is released creating a violent current burst. It is so energetic that it produces light and an insane temperature increase all along its path: this is a lightning bolt.
There are different kinds of lightning. The quick and single strokes, the multiple strokes, the expanding ‘creepers’… All in all lightning is not necessarily easy to photograph. The first reason is because, well, you will most likely be under or near a storm. You need to keep in mind when shooting lightning is safety, especially because you have a camera on a tripod, which is an excellent conductor! The second reason is common sense. Lightning strikes near the speed of light so how do you capture it?
Some people buy small detecting devices that they mount atop their camera. It is able to sense the light from the bolt and trigger the shutter just in time for the camera to take the shot. It is mainly used during the day. Otherwise you are going to have difficulties trying to time your snapshot. So if you don’t possess one of those savvy devices, the key to capturing lightning on film is to let your shutter open for several seconds and hope to capture something. You are thus going to have to set your camera to ‘Manual Mode’, hence the need for a good compact, DSLR or mirrorless. You are also going to need a sturdy tripod to avoid motion blur while your shutter is open. If you don’t possess a shutter release remote, set your camera to delay mode (2 seconds should suffice). That will prevent any jittering.
For camera settings, it highly depends on the time of day you are shooting.
Day time lightning is a tad more difficult to capture because the amount of surrounding light is quite significant. The longer you keep your shutter open, the more chances you will get something in the frame but the riskier it is to overexpose your shot. You will thus have to close down your aperture (avoid using minimum apertures as they usually give weird side effects if you don’t possess a good lens). You can also set your ISO to minimum on your camera. With that in mind you probably won’t even be able to have a one second shutter speed without overexposing. If you possess neutral density filters to downgrade the exposure, do it! Otherwise you’re going to have to wait until you have darker conditions (sunset, night, darker cloud cover) or try to push your luck with short exposures.
Night time lightning is a easier in some ways but also a bit more dangerous because you evolve in very dark environments. Light is no longer a problem at night and you would open your shutter longer anyway to get a correct exposure. However you will have to experiment a bit with your camera because the settings will depend on the shooting conditions you’re in (close to a city, total darkness, twilight…). To give you an example, the photo below was taken with a Sony a7rII mirrorless camera and the Sigma 14mm f1.8 Art in very dark conditions. The settings were ISO 100, 10-second shutter speed and f/8. The top of the bolt is slightly overexposed but you can see the fine ramifications quite nicely on the whole body of the bolt. The background and foreground are also gently lit up.
There is not a single setting that works every time, that’s why it’s important to take lots of shots with different settings and see which ones work best for your gear and your tastes. So roll on summer, be cautious out there and go catch some lightning!