How to photograph lightning

Have you ever looked at a thunderstorm and wondered how to take a perfect picture to capture the beauty of lightning?

In South Africa, we get some very powerful thunderstorms and perfect opportunities to photograph lightning.

This is what I do:
As most lightning storms in SA will occur in the afternoons or evenings it doesn’t mean that you sit and wait the whole day for the storm to appear on the horizon.
African Thunder Storms

No, you first have to do a bit of homework. From early in the morning, I will regularly have a look at weather Websites like http://www.africaweather.com and www.yr.no to see if there are any storms brewing in the area or what the forecast will be for the rest of the day and evening…

From here I can decide what routes to follow and where my best chances will be for
photographing storms and lightning.

African Tunder Storms

HTTP://WWW.AFRICAWEATHER.COM

Offer a subscription service where you can subscribe to an early warning SMS service and where you will be able to have a look on their Radar service on the website to see where the storms are etc. I will have my camera gear ready, lenses clean and batteries charged. Ready for the moment I need to scramble and do a bit of “Storm Chasing”.

No, not Storm Chasing like you see on the Discovery Channel of guys chasing tornadoes in the USA in their heavily armored vehicles, more like getting in my normal everyday car with at least half a tank of diesel and myself armored with a bottle of water for the road and a packet of wine gums to keep me awake on my way back late at night.

African thunder storms

Then, if everything goes according to plan I will head out in a direction and see if I can get in front of an approaching storm. What I have noticed the last couple of years while doing this kind of photography that you will get better lightning shots and less rain in front of a storm. Try to stay in front of the storm the whole time.

African thunder stroms

These storms can move fast and you really need to know the area very well to know where to drive. Once you are in front of the storm, at a good spot with a good view you can start setting up.

Get out the tripod, camera, lens (preferably wide angle lenses if the storm is close enough). As you will be shooting at night it is wise to have a torch or headlamp nearby the whole time. A soft cloth to clean the lens from dust or raindrops will come in handy as well.
I set my lens to manual focus and using the Live View try to focus on an object in the distance or you can even set the focus to “infinity” on the lens itself if possible. Good focus is very important.

will set my Camera to “M” for Manual or “B” for Bulb so that I can set the desired shutter speed and aperture manually. To keep the shutter open for longer than 30 seconds you will need a remote shutter release to make sure you will not get any camera shake while taking the photo. If the storms is a bit far from me (let’s say about 10km or more) I will set the Aperture to F/4 or even F/3.5. This way you will get more light because of the bigger aperture and you will even see a lightning bolt way in the distance.

African thunder storms

When the storm gets very close, I normally change to a smaller Aperture like F/5.6 or F8. As the lightning strikes, it will be much closer and the light intensity will be very high.  The smaller Aperture will then allow less light into the camera.

Depending on how many lightning strikes you want in the photo and the ambient light available in the area you can keep the shutter open as long as you want. I normally keep it open for approximately a minute or less.
Just keep shooting and try to stick to basic rules like “The rule of thirds”, straight horizons etc. If the storm gets too close try moving ahead again.

Please think of your own safety the whole time. Don’t stand under or too close to a tree, under electrical wires or too close to radio masts. You will be looking for trouble if you do!!! If you’re feeling really scared rather get back into your vehicle. Don’t take chances with lightning!!!
Just keep to these basic rules and you will get those lightning photos you always wanted.

By Des Jacobs
www.desjacobs.com
www.afriscapes.com (Photo tours and workshops)

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