Canon 6D with EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens
ISO 200 @ f/14
RAW image export

  2014 June     Weather,     Photography

Updated 2020


Every summer in the USA, thunderstorm season rolls in.  Lightning is one of the most spectacular sights in nature, but it's also one of the toughest to photograph.

CAUTION:  Proceed at your own risk!!!  Lightning is so dangerous.  It can kill you easily, without warning.   Be careful.

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In This Article

Lightning Is Dangerous

The Basic Premise

Camera Selection

Lightning Triggers

Lens Selection

Aperture / ISO Settings

Video Frame Capture

Still Capture


Don't Give Up

Lightning Is Dangerous

Again, be mindful of how dangerous lightning is.  There is always the chance that lightning could behave freakishly and strike you from a great distance.  I remember seeing a documentary where they said a guy got struck by a bolt of lightning from an isolated cloud, twelve miles away.  He was just minding his own business, riding a bicycle.

There were surely more direct paths to ground for that lightning to travel.  But it didn't take those paths. 

The stepped leader usually comes down from the cloud.  It then meets a streamer (upward discharge) from some point on the ground.  So there probably would have been an upward discharge from that guy on the bicycle. 

If that doesn't freak you out, then you probably haven't thought about it.

The Basic Premise

Lightning is fast.  You never know exactly when or where in the sky it's going to happen. 

This can make it difficult to take pictures of lightning.

Camera Selection

You don't need a super-expensive camera to photograph lightning.  (Some of the cameras mentioned in this article are from 2010-2014;  they'd still be good today.)

My favorite lightning camera was a cheap Soviet half-frame 35mm camera from about 1970.  That is, until it fell in a gigantic mud puddle and silt got in everything. 

As for digital cameras, here's what you need.  Either:

1.  "Bulb" mode, or

2.  Video recording capability.

It would help if your camera had a built-in video frame grab function.  Canon's "Video Snapshot" mode might sound like that, but it's not that. 

Cheap point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones might be able to capture lightning using the video mode, but if I were you, I'd use something with a larger sensor.  If you really want to photograph weather and you don't have a DSLR, I'd highly recommend one.  Even the inexpensive DSLR's such as the Canon Rebel T3i and the Nikon D3200 / D3300 are good. 

There is no need to buy a really expensive camera to get great shots of the weather, but if you really want the best, there is nothing wrong with having a full-frame DSLR such as this one.   There are some definite advantages.

Technically you don't even need "Bulb" mode for still shots.  If your camera has very slow shutter speeds  (ten seconds or more)  then you can use those to capture lightning.  The longer the shutter times, the fewer wasted pictures will fill up your memory card.  Four seconds is too short for a typical storm, because you'll have so many blank frames.  Here's what I've tried sometimes:  Thirty seconds, and when you know you got a good lightning flash, just put your hand over the lens for the rest of the time. 

If your shutter stays open too long in one exposure, the sensor will get noisy.  Smaller sensors get more noisy.  30" seems to work well for full-frame.

Lightning Triggers

You can buy lightning triggers for your SLR or DSLR.  They work by opening the shutter when they sense the first flashes. 

Really good lightning triggers are not cheap.  But if you want something affordable that might or might not work for you, try this link.

Lightning triggers are not strictly necessary if you have patience and a digital camera.  Or, a lot of film.  For the rest of this article, I'll assume you don't have a lightning trigger.

No lightning trigger needed for this one.   Just a tripod and some patience.
This one was shot in JPG mode.

Lens Selection

If you can be at least five miles from the storm (a good idea for your safety), use a zoom lens and adjust it until you get the view you like.

If the thunderstorm is passing close to you, then you'll need wide-angle.  (And you're on your own... I assume no responsibility if you get struck.)  If you just want to photograph lightning from your window or your porch, and the storm is relatively close, use 40mm or wider.  

Be careful.  At some point the storm can be close enough that lightning could strike you.  It could strike you even from a distance.  Once again, proceed at your own risk!!

On a crop-sensor camera like the Rebel, you'll want 28mm or wider.  That means the 18-55mm kit lens is just fine.  

I don't nitpick too much about lenses, but the one thing I might care about here is corner sharpness.  If lightning goes across the whole frame, you don't want it blurring out in the corners (or maybe you do, if you like that.) 

The Canon EF 40mm 2.8 STM (available here) has excellent corner sharpness even at wide apertures.  On a crop-sensor camera (such as a Rebel), it will instead act like a 62mm lens.  That's good for some purposes, though. 

If you have a crop-sensor camera, you don't even have to worry about add-on lenses.   The 18-55 kit lens will be good enough.   When your friends see awesome lightning pictures, they're probably not going to scrutinize corner sharpness.  But the 18-55mm is actually pretty good in the corners.

Aperture / ISO Settings for Lightning

If you use a camera with Auto ISO, the thing will probably pick some ridiculous setting like 25600.  That's no good for this purpose.  When the lightning does flash, it will be so bright that you will not see any discernible streaks. 

Instead, you'll want the camera / lens stopped down so that you can't really see anything until the lightning flashes.  You might see some distant lights, but the sky and everything else will be black.

Taking pictures of lightning is very similar to taking pictures of fireworks.  The same aperture / ISO combinations usually work. 

ISO 50....... f/5.6
ISO 100..... f/8
ISO 200......f/11
ISO 400......f/16
ISO 800......f/22
ISO 1600....f/32

These are actually on the brighter side... if you shoot in JPG, these can overexpose from brighter, thicker lightning bolts. 

At ISO 200, I like to use f/14 or even f/16 for lightning. 

DSLR's don't do very well when set narrower than f/8 or f/11, because of diffraction.  The effect lessens with bigger sensors, meaning full-frame can use narrower apertures without loss of quality.  Generally, though, you should choose lower ISO settings rather than higher ones. 

Actually, for lightning I'm finding that narrow apertures such as f/14 and f/16 are OK as far as detail.   I'm not sitting there looking at individual pixels;  if there's diffraction effects, I'm not seeing it.  (I think it might happen a little bit on a crop-sensor camera, though.)

Video Frame Capture

Here's how to use video to capture lightning.  Just record the video, capture some lightning, and open the video with editing software.  This software should allow you to step through the video, look at individual frames, and do frame captures.  I don't even remember offhand what program I used, but they're out there.  (I think it was Open Movie Editor). 

Basically, you're exporting a single frame as a JPG file.  Full HD and 4K video have allowed increasingly high-quality JPG exports;  the one shown below was regular HD, I think.

Video frame grab (two megapixels or less)
Canon EOS Rebel T3

This was taken from the porch with an 18-55mm kit lens.
If you think this storm was too close for comfort here, you're right. 
Nowadays I stay indoors when lightning is this close.

Still Capture

Actually, forget the video.  Here's an even easier way, but you need a tripod.   You also need a camera that has "Bulb" mode.   Almost all good film SLR's have "Bulb" mode.  Digital SLR's usually do also.  

On a Rebel, turn the P,S,A,M dial to "M" (Manual).   Dial the shutter speed to 30", which is usually the longest one available, and continue past it.  The next setting should be B or Bulb.   On a 6D (etc), just turn the mode dial to B. 

It helps if you have a cable release for the camera.  If not, just don't bump the camera.  Hold the shutter button until after you see lightning and it's done flashing.  Then let go of the shutter button.  The nice thing about using Bulb mode is that it won't fill up your memory card with useless hours of video footage that you have to sift through with software.  You'll just get still images.  Photographing lightning is a lot like photographing fireworks, except that you just don't know when the lightning will happen

The best way to photograph lightning is with a remote control for your camera, so you can be safely in the house.  This remote control for Canon DSLR's is inexpensive.  Likewise, this one for Nikons.    Then you can be inside while your camera does the dangerous work for you.  Better your camera should be struck than you.  

Don't leave your camera out in the rain.  Set it up on the porch and use the remote control.  If your camera is weatherproof, make sure the lenses are too!


With all this talk of digital, I actually still prefer to use film for lightning photography. 

A 35mm SLR with a wide-angle lens is still tops.  The new Kodak Ektachrome 100 (try this link or this one) would be fantastic for lightning;  use a tripod, Bulb mode, and f/8.  I also like Kodak Tri-X for lightning;  use f/16.

Again, never put yourself where lightning would be likely to strike, such as under a tree.  And never stand outside in the open when there's lightning!

Don't Get Discouraged

Once I was out trying to photograph a sunset with what looked like mammatus clouds.  When the good phase of the sunset had passed, I packed up the camera and was getting ready to head home.  That's when I noticed the most awesome web-lightning I have ever seen.  It just went all across the undersides of the clouds, like a spider's web.  I've never seen anything quite like it before or since.  It was totally weird and out of place, because it was at the tail end of the storm where there was no precipitation, no wind, nothing that usually goes with lightning.

By the time I got the camera back out and was ready to photograph the lightning, it was gone. 

Don't give up.  Well-known weather photographers are able to get great shots because they spend all their time chasing weather.  What you're not seeing is all their rejects.   Don't get discouraged. 

More important,

Don't Get Fried

Lightning carries literally thousands of amperes of current, at voltages up in the millions.  That's a lot of wattage (voltage times current). 

100,000 amps at 30 million volts is 3 trillion watts. 

That's 3 trillion joules per second.

The result is that it flash-boils liquids when it strikes something.  The steam can cause trees to explode, and it often does. 

That could also happen to you. 

Some people have been struck by lightning and it (relatively) harmlessly traveled over their surface to the ground.  Others... well, let's not talk about that. 

Don't get fried.

Remember the old rule of thumb for figuring your distance from the storm.  When you see a flash, start counting off the seconds until you hear thunder.  The storm is about one mile away for every five seconds.  So, if you have to count to ten before you hear the thunder, the storm is two miles away.  And if the time gets shorter, the storm is getting closer.

Which means you should already be inside the house, not outdoors photographing the lightning.


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