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What technique and camera settings should I use to capture lightning strikes?

My home town is very lack of thunders, but when time comes, I should be prepared to shoot. I've never tried before, so please could you give me some advice on how to capture? I think I should:
Use manual focus
Use Mirror lock up (or exposure delay)
Use slow shutter speed
Wide focal length

Because of slow shutter speed, what to do with ISO, and aperture, and how to not get too exposed, or under exposed?

I need something like this:

Thunder in city


The key thing to photographing thunder/lightening storms is the following:

1) Use a tripod (keep the camera still). You'll be using long exposures so it's worthwhile investing in one for this kind of shooting.

2) Focus on the Horizon but still try and keep interesting features in the frame (helps get an idea of the size of the storm as well)

3) Use Manual Focus. As you are aware It’s best to use manual focus when photographing lightening. Try and focus on something far away 'on the horizon' as usually that's where you'll see your light show.

4) Long exposure and wide aperture. If your camera can set both these settings. Take the maximum exposure you can without washing out the picture (having it to bright). The action will be far from you so a wide aperture and shallow depth of field won’t be a problem (unless you have some very near objects you’d like to include).

5) ISO sensitivity. You'll need to adjust this based on your aperture and exposure time. Take some test shots before the light shows start and see how they turn out. You'll need to make adjustments once you start photographing the thunder for real but you should have a basic idea of what values you'll be wanting.

6) Stack your photos. If you can keep your camera in a steady spot, shot after shot, you can use stacking software to combine multiple strikes into one image. You’ll often have many unexciting shots with maybe just a single strike or faint action between clouds. These can all be combined to make a spectacular image.

7) Be Patient – This photography takes a long time to get right and to get the perfect shots. Just take your time and enjoy!

Further reading: DPSchool

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  • 2
    I've noticed you have really stepped up your activity on the site, and you have made great contributions lately. Welcome and thanks for the knowledge! – dpollitt Feb 2 '13 at 0:43
  • Yes, ditto that. You might want to move this answer to the duplicate question, so everything is in one place.... – Please Read My Profile Feb 2 '13 at 5:01
  • Thanks folks, i'm pretty keen on both Photography and Security :) I've been using the StackExchange sites for ages and i figure its finally time to contribute rather than lurk. Hopefully my camera is fixed asap and i'll be back to going on weekend trips and learning more! ^_^ – NULLZ Feb 2 '13 at 9:46
  • If you are lazy, a good method is to take a remote timer. You can set it up to take 1 picture with a 20 second exposure every 25 seconds for example. You will hardly miss any lightning that way. – uncovery Feb 2 '13 at 13:38

There are several ways to approach capturing lightning. What other elements you choose to include in the frame and how comfortable you are combining images in post processing will determine some of your decisions regarding exposure times, aperture, etc.

You need to mount the camera on a tripod and use a cable release if available. One with a timer is even better. Mirror lockup isn't really needed unless you are using an extremely long lens, and it makes it more difficult to use a wired remote for continuous shooting. Make sure your battery has plenty of charge, as you will be taking many exposures. Set up under a roof if at all possible by shooting out of an open window or from a patio or balcony with a roof. Leave yourself an easy path to a safe refuge if the lightning moves close to your location.

If there are moving objects in the field of view then wider apertures and faster shutter speeds will be the way to go. If the objects in your field of view are stationary you can use narrower apertures and longer shutter speeds which increase the chance of capturing a bolt of lightning in any particular frame. The narrower aperture will also increase the depth of field so that you have a better chance of the lightning being in sharp focus. I prefer to select an aperture near my camera's Diffraction Limited Aperture (f/10.2 on my Canon 5DII), calculate the hyper-focal distance for the focal length and aperture (or refer to a chart), and manually focus using Live View x10 on an object at that approximate distance. Alternately, you can focus on an object (like a large building) near where the lighting is occurring and then switch the lens to manual focus to keep it there.

Most storms that produce lightning also have high winds that move the clouds at a rapid pace. If the clouds are at a distance and moving across your field of view this will not be as much of an issue, but if they are closer and moving towards you it may limit your maximum exposure time. Be sure you are saving your files in RAW format. Set your camera to Manual exposure. Select a low ISO. Set the aperture and shutter speed you desire and take a test shot. Adjust the exposure by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed until your histogram places your highlights around 0 to +1. If you are shooting at night, don't be concerned if the histogram is heavy on the left side, you don't want the darkness to appear as a medium gray. Once you have found the proper exposure begin taking a series of photos one right after the other. This is where the timer can help. You can also set the camera to continuous shooting mode if your cable release allows the button to be locked down. Continue taking photos until the storm has passed or until it gets too close. Safety first! No photo is worth being struck by lightning! If the lighting moves within a couple of miles (3 kilometers) it is time to go inside.

Once you have all the shots and have imported them into your editing program you can select the ones that captured lightning. Most of your shots will not. Batch process the shots you like so they have a consistent white balance, contrast, saturation, etc. You can combine several exposures if you want using a variety of programs.

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