Spring is here, and with that comes thunderstorms…and lightning. Every year I race out onto the eastern plains of Colorado hoping to catch a dramatic storm and lightning. Generally my best chances for lightning photography come on our Badlands trip in early June (image above from the Badlands). How do you photograph lightning?
There are two techniques you can use. First, if it is getting pretty dark, you may be able to use a long shutter speed of 1 second or more and record lightning strikes. Set up on a sturdy tripod, attach a cable release, and try to time opening the shutter with when you expect a strike. This might sound futile, but if you don’t have a dedicated trigger, this technique works. The image at top was captured this way. If you have a very active storm, you may have plenty of lightning strikes and get a number of good images. As it gets darker, you can extend your shutter speeds. Watch your exposure; you will want to underexpose by 1-2 stops. Lightning is so bright that it will over exposure in your image unless you start underexposed. I normally use aperture mode as my shooting mode, but sometimes use manual exposure mode.
The second technique, and best way to capture lightning, is using a lightning trigger. Similar to a flash trigger, these optical sensors see a bright flash and trigger your shutter. Generally you want your shutter speed under 1/125 or slower so the timing and capture work perfectly. Some triggers allow you to fine tune the sensitivity so they only pick up significant flashes. The triggers generally require a brand specific cable to attach to your camera. The advantage of a trigger is you can shoot in daylight hours and include foreground and use faster shutter speeds for the correct exposure. And of course you don’t have to guess when a strike occurs, just let the trigger do the work. I’ve tried a number of triggers, but my favorite is the Lightning Trigger. This trigger consistently delivers during storm photography.
Remember, standing in the open during a thunderstorm is dangerous. If the lightning it getting close, seek shelter. Don’t watch viral storm videos for guidance! Be conservative and retreat for another day…
If you want to try some storm photography this year, we still have one spot left on our Badlands workshop this June. Come join us to celebrate the stunning prairies and badlands…and hopefully a few dramatic thunderstorms.