One of the most beautiful natural phenomena on our planet, probably together with the Northern Lights s, is lightning. Lightning, compared to the aurora, certainly conveys an adrenalin rush due to the inherent danger of the phenomenon, which is why the premise is that one must always be extremely careful.
For many photography enthusiasts and professional photographers, being prepared to capture some great shots of lightning is quite a feat, and coming home with successful shots always requires preparation, planning and a lot of experience. In this guide we are going to look at “how to photograph lightning“: we will discuss planning, composition, the equipment needed, the use of filters and how to combine a series of shots to achieve optimal results.
Planning a lightning shooting session
In order to get a shot with lightning, it will obviously take careful planning in terms of the ideal season and weather forecast as to where the storm will travel during the shooting time.
Thanks to the digital age, there are all kinds of applications and sites, but we have to take into account two main factors: type of lightning and rain.
Late spring and early summer are the favourite seasons for lightning and storm chasers because the phenomenon of electrical discharges occurs more frequently during this period.
Useful weather apps for planning
There are several applications and websites where we can check forecasts and lightning in real time, to get an idea of where to go to shoot to avoid surprises or downpours that will ruin our equipment. Of the many options available, we recommend the following three:
Windy is an all-in-one app as far as weather forecasts are concerned, including a real-time satellite view. We recommend the radar view with rain and lightning, with a very useful timeline to see where the storm will move.
WetterRadar is very useful for understanding where it is going to rain (in the short term, about 2 hours, the accuracy is fine tuned) and will help us understand if and with what intensity it will rain according to the different colours (lighter light rain, darker, heavy rain), while purple indicates hail and yellow dots lightning.
Blitzortung is a network of lightning detection stations. Each individual station picks up and samples the electromagnetic signal created by lightning. The signal is combined with the timestamp and position obtained from a GPS. Using a method called TOA (time of arrival), the position is calculated.
Important:One must always remember that lightning is seriously dangerous and should not be underestimated, and it is always best to keep a certain distance. Finally, we recommend avoiding excessively illuminated places: lights and street lamps could compromise the final result. To overcome the problem of light pollution, we recommend the use of the Natural Night filter.
Types of lightning
Thunder and lightning
The most dangerous for us humans, cloud-to-ground lightning is composed of negative charges that cause a downward flow of electric current as they are attracted towards the ground as a result of the difference between the negatively charged cloud base and the positive charge of the ground below, with the air particles being ionised one after the other in a zigzag path, forming a conductive channel of ionised air.
The phenomenon generally occurs within a thundercloud when the electrical discharge passes between the base of the cloud, which is negatively charged, and the top of the cloud, which is positively charged. These lightning bolts illuminate the cloud from within for a fraction of a second, creating wonderful visual spectacles that light up the night sky.
Thunder and lightning are acoustic and visual manifestations respectively of a lightning discharge; they are perceived by humans with an intensity that depends on the distance from the lightning. Lightning may appear branched, flattened, as a blinding rapid flash or as a rapid succession of flashes, all depending on whether it is the result of repeated discharges and the charge that is dissipated in the lightning.
Composition, shooting and filters in lightning photos
Finding the right composition at night in total darkness is really difficult, but there are a few tricks to follow so that you don’t get discouraged and find the perfect composition even in pitch darkness.
Initially, after monitoring the recommended weather apps, we try to predict the path of the lightning storm in the short term. Let us make sure we reach an area, which we preferably know and have already visited during the day, where we have a view of the spectacle we have foreseen. Let us avoid being directly in the path of the storm, but observe it from the side as far as possible.
Always monitor the Apps, so that you are up-to-date on the movements of lightning; if you see the path approaching you, stay in a safe place.
Once in position, we need to refine the composition, which remains as important in these shots as in all others. Our camera technology comes to our aid.
As with any other type of photo, especially landscape, we go for the test shot, so don’t be afraid to pull the ISO even above 5000, the F-stop as open as possible (e.g. f/3.5 or f/2.8) and a shutter speed of around 10 seconds, to get a bright enough preview to understand if our composition has been right or will need some refining. Try to frame the area with the lightning, also considering the trajectory, otherwise it could be out of frame in a few minutes. Our advice is to take care of the foreground anyway, avoiding pointing the camera straight up, but keeping a certain balance between the two.
Focusing can be difficult at night, one tip is to focus on a light source in the distance, helping either with the autofocus (the latest DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can focus in low light very easily), or with the manual focus by zooming (digitally +🔍) in on that point and making it as sharp as possible. The important thing is to focus at infinity, and then take the autofocus off so you don’t inadvertently move the focus point.
Advice:Always check after taking a few photos, or in general every few minutes. It may happen that the focus has shifted inadvertently, and you risk ruining all your shots.
At this point all that remains is to shoot, we will adjust our camera according to the intensity of the lightning and the light available in the scene (e.g. a full moon will help us to illuminate the scene and we can keep the ISO or the shutter speed lower).
The parameters usually vary from a few seconds (if you use a lightning trigger) up to about 30″. If the exposure is only a few seconds, we have to increase the ISO and open the aperture as much as possible to get a correctly exposed photo, but we would introduce digital noise and little definition.
If, on the other hand, you do not have a lightning trigger, or even if you do, you still want a less noisy photo, we have to opt for longer times of 20 to 30 seconds. In this situation we can lower the ISO and close the F-stop a few stops (e.g. f/4 – f/5.6), in order to have a good quality file and better sharpness. After setting the scene and taking the first photos, we may find that the sky area is too bright. This situation is more likely with continuous and fairly strong lightning, but as this is the best situation for photographing lightning, it would definitely be a problem.
Let’s see what we can do.
Filters in lightning photos
In the example with which we ended the previous paragraph, the photo is overexposed.
It comes naturally to us that GND filters could help, although we would never have imagined using them at night. The presence of a strong light source (lightning) changes everything.
We will treat the scene as a normal sunset or sunrise shot, where the sky at peak lightning can be up to 5 stops brighter than the foreground. Below is the use of the different intensities and types of GND filters. We start with a GND8 Soft 3 stop (e.g. 30 sec, f/5 ISO 3200) when the storm is in the distance and not very weak, then we move on to a GND8 Medium 3 stop (30 sec, f/7.1, ISO 3200) when the lightning is closer. Finally, a GND8 Hard 3 stop is the ideal choice for capturing those lightning strikes a few kilometres away, using shutter speeds of around 30 sec, f/11, ISO 2500. Keep in mind that ISO may vary depending on the model of your camera, with which you should strive for a centrally balanced histogram. If you want to reduce the iso, for example by 4 stops at ISO 620, you will have to increase the shutter speed by up to 8 minutes to get the same dynamic range captured. The important thing is to adjust the parameters to obtain a balanced histogram immediately in the field.
As we have just seen, filters can also make an important contribution at night. Without them, all the photos accompanying this article would have been with highlights clipped out and unusable. Thanks to the GND filter, we balanced the difference in brightness and captured lightning perfectly without it being completely overexposed. To install the GND filters we used the NiSi V7 Holder, with CPL removed, undoubtedly the best Holder for 100mm filters on the market, thanks to its solid, no-frills construction and effective even in situations where you have to keep a cool head and not have to think about the equipment but only about shooting.
As often in photography, there are two currents of thought, one for single frame photography and and one for the blending. In the first one, the single frame is favoured, a single exposure where the lightning captured in that single shot is shown. With blending photos, in fact, a merge of several photos is made, representing all the lightning captured in a larger span of time.
Neither approach is wrong, it is up to the photographer to choose. For example, we want to depict a precise time period, a particular situation where lightning has created particular shapes, an extremely powerful thunderbolt, etc. If this scene is encapsulated in the single 30-second shot, surely we have reason to prefer the single photo, which has a special charm and uniqueness.
In other cases, we might want to represent the perfect storm, the merging of our shots comes to our aid to represent a time span in which a lot of lightning fell. The show effect is assured, but of course it is always good to specify when it is a union of several shots.
Below are two examples, of single and merged shots, taken during the same storm.
When blending several shots in the same photo, we always recommend maintaining the naturalness of the scene. We use several layers, with masks and a very soft brush, and make many passes even on the same point, so as to pursue a very delicate blend.
Remember that within 15, 20 or more minutes, the clouds move, change shape and we can end up with an incongruous scene once the blending is done. In this case, you can use a brush with a very low flow (even 5 or 10 out of 100) and maximum blurring, to partly reveal the starting point of the lightning (towards the cloud) so as to also show the brighter area where the lightning starts. Two more tips:
- Be careful with reflections, showing lightning but not its reflection is a mistake that can ruin a shot.
- Never move the composition (unless you are shooting a panoramic shot) as aligning all the shots for the lightning union can be very difficult.
Equip yourself with NiSi filters and holders, which are not afraid of rain thanks to their hydrophobic coating.