Today, I’d like to share with you the back story and a brief set of details on how to shoot lighting! While en route back to the house the other day, I noticed that the clouds were passing over the mountains and the sun was starting to set.  It had the makings for a really nice sunset.  Never one to turn away the opportunity to capture a sunset, I hurried home and gathered my gear, and took off to my favorite spot near the house for landscape work.

Well, the clouds and the sun didn’t really cooperate so I gave up on that and starting fiddling around with some HDR kinds of things.  I saw a traffic light nearby and there wasn’t much traffic so tried to time some bracketed exposures (my shutter speed was getting near 30 seconds on the top end of the bracket).  Some possibilities developed, but nothing too earth shattering, and I was starting to feel a few drops of rain, so I packed up to head back over to the house – about 2 miles away.

As I was coming back to the house, the clouds that evaded me on the mountainous horizon were ominously hanging over the cityline of Denver (another scene I’d been meaning to shoot) and flashes of lightning were coursing through the clouds, with some pretty regular spikes coming down.  All of this was about 30 miles away, and heading away from me so i was feeling pretty safe except for the possibility of some raindrops now and then.

So, I found a nook by the open range, set up the camera on my trusty tripod, and tried to recall things I’d read about how to shoot lightning.  Apparently some of it stuck, because I came away with this:

shoot lightning
Lightning over Denver

So, how did I do this?  I kept five key things in mind:

Use a Tripod

Stability was key because every single exposure was no less than 15 seconds!  If you want to shoot lightning, you want to open the shutter for a longer time to increase your odds of catching it.  Because it was flashing so regularly I eventually dropped my shutter to 15 seconds and still managed 6 or 7 really good captures.

Keep Your ISO/Noise Low

When you want to shoot lightning, make sure you drop your ISO to 100 for all shots. You’ll also want to make sure long exposure noise reduction is turned on in camera.  Sure it takes twice as long to capture each image, but in the long run it’s worth it because there was much less noise to process on the back end.

Don’t Touch the Camera

Set the camera to bracket exposures and put it on a two-second delay.  So, by the time the camera shutter opened you are no longer touching it, and then the second and third shots fired automatically. Now with each of your efforts, you get three different exposures to consider in post production.

Know Your Gear

Make sure you are in a sweet spot of your lens.  Part of this is knowing your gear – in my case, I was shooting the 10-22mm (wide angle) from Canon, and know that when it goes below f4 it can get fuzzy.  So, I was at f11 for most of my shots.  Great depth of field and everything is sharp!

Post processing

After a few rather unpleasant attempts to process as HDR images, I enlisted the aide of friend-of-the-blog Terry Reinert.  (Sorry, he’s no longer actively online so no web link).  Terry is wicked smart (he’s an engineer) and knows the heck out of HDR.  I asked him what I was doing wrong as the clouds were getting blotches scattered through them and generally looking poorly).  He gave some insights, what he was finding yielded better results, and sent me a low res sample via email.

I liked the path he took, but the colors were not quite where I remembered them from the other day. So, I dove in again with the new-found knowledge.  I tried a few quick variations on his technique. In the interests of time, for here I just did a shortened version.  I am not crazy about the black across the bottom, but it is what it is.  For now though, the quick version and a panorama crop looked kinda cool!  Thanks go out to Terry for giving a hand.

So, there you have it – 5 tips for how to shoot lightning – hope you enjoyed it. Got your own tips for how to shoot lightning? Feel free to share your own thoughts and ideas in the comments below.  Happy shooting!

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6 thoughts on “5 Tips to Shoot Lightning

  1. This is a great shot! Most of our lightning storms this year have been after I’ve gone to bed so I haven’t made the trek outside to try to capture them. This gives some good things to keep in mind though when I finally get around to it 🙂

  2. Good stuff Jason. I’ve been dying to get some more lightening shots, but monsoons have disappointed this year. Maybe a storm will pop up when I’m ready with the camera!

    On other fronts, while you were playing with lightening, I was playing with fire! Figured out how to get a lot of detail out of the fire that fire breathers create. Lots of fun last night, and I’m still sorting photos, as usual! 🙂
    .-= Rich C´s last blog ..A teaser or two from last night’s fire show in Prescott =-.

  3. I am still loving the lightning images you took. Its funny that you cropped your image the way you did because I was thinking to myself the whole time I was working on the tutorial that it would make a killer pano. 🙂

    I am also very glad to hear that you used a variation of the technique that I showed instead of following it step by step. One of the things I stress is to always try new things and never to do something just because so-and-so told you to do it that way. Ground breaking events happen because of people exploring and playing around with stuff… not from following the rules!!
    .-= Terry Reinert´s last blog ..Merging Images Video Tutorial: Part 1 =-.

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