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Photographing lightning

It seems strange that to properly photograph one of nature’s fastest-moving things, you require a slow shutter but that is exactly the case when photographing lightning.


The camera should be on a tripod and should be aimed at that area of the sky where lightning is flashing. Select a lens with a focal length that fills the frame from the undersurface of the clouds to the ground so that the entire path of the lightning will be recorded on film. Focus on infinity. Set your shutter speed to B (Bulb) so that it will remain open for as long as the shutter remains depressed, and attach a cable release to minimize camera movement.


You can use either color or black and white film, or shoot with your digital camera.

Since brightness is mainly controlled by Mother Nature, there are no hard and fast rules governing film speed or your digital camera's sensitivity setting, and experimentation is necessary.

You don’t need a super fast film or sensitivity setting, though. Fast film or a high sensitivity setting will record more ambient light (the light that is already there before lightning begins), an effect you may or may not wish to avoid if you are near the lights of a city or if the sun has not completely set. Lightning often looks best when the surrounding sky is relatively dark, but many a good lightning picture has been taken with buildings, scenery and other objects forming part of the image.

We suggest a film speed or sensitivity setting in the range of ISO 64 to 100, but if your film is faster or slower, it can still adequately capture the scene.


Experiment with a range of aperture settings. For slower films (around ISO 25 to 50), begin by selecting an aperture of ƒ4. Use ƒ5.6 to ƒ8 for ISO 100 film. With ISO 200 or ISO 400 film, try ƒ8 or ƒ11.


Open the shutter, and leave it open for one, two or more lightning flashes, and then close it. Too many lightning flashes on one frame will make your image look cluttered with streaks or just wash it out with brightness. Experiment, nonetheless, using exposures ranging between a couple of seconds to twenty or twenty-five seconds, dependent upon the level of lightning activity and the darkness of the sky. A very dark sky will allow you to leave your shutter open for a long time (several minutes) while waiting for a lightning flash.

Many digital and other cameras do not permit very long time exposures (sometimes no more than three seconds), so you may find it necessary to regularly depress the shutter button after each relatively-short exposure to capture the "next" lightning flash. The key is to keep the shutter open as often as possible during a storm to ensure you don't have to talk about the one that got away. It can be discouraging, but you will feel great when you depress the shutter button for a short exposure and suddenly, there is a brilliant flash of streak lightning a second afterwards that you know has been captured by your camera.


We are not experts on lightning itself and cannot provide you with reliable guidelines for your safety while experiencing a lightning display, but we do advise that you learn and observe safe practices when photographing lightning to avoid being struck.

There is risk in photographing lightning, and the risk increases when you are outdoors. If you do not know anything about the potential risk, don’t take lightning pictures until you have become well-informed and know proper safety procedures.

A good starting point for you to begin to learn about lightning safety can be found at lightning & lightning safety, and lightning safety outoors. You may also benefit from visiting lightning injury

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Lightning safety tips