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Quick tips for shooting lightning – Video and Stills.

day2-frame-2-300x155 Quick tips for shooting lightning - Video and Stills.
At night we shoot lightning!

With the UK set to see a couple of days of strong and severe thunderstorms I thought I would put together a very quick guide to shooting lightning with both stills cameras and video cameras. Your first issue will be finding somewhere dry to shoot from, you don’t want rain on your camera or lens. You also do need to consider safety. Lightning is dangerous, it can strike many miles from a thunderstorm. If you can hear thunder you are in the strike risk area, so do take care. One of the safest places to be in a thunderstorm is inside a car. If the car is struck the electricity will pass through the body of the car and not through the occupants, before jumping from the underside of the car to the ground. If you are shooting from a car stay inside the car, don’t sit with your feet out of the door or any part of you touching the ground. Don’t sit in the car while holding on to a camera on a tripod outside the car. Don’t stand under trees, they can explode when struck by lightning, don’t stand on the very top of a hill. Use your common sense.

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Long exposure captures great nigh time lightning.

For either stills or video you’re really going to want to use a tripod to get the very best results. As you often get strong winds around thunderstorms you want a good stable tripod. If it is windy keep a close eye on the camera and tripod, you don’t want it blown over by a strong gust of wind.

A wide angle lens will increase your chances of getting a lightning bolt in your shot, but the wider the shot the less detail you will see in the lightning bolt. You can always crop in to a wide shot a bit if it’s too wide. I like to have something in the foreground to give some interest to the image, but try to avoid too many obstructions to the skyline as these will block your view of the lightning.


This is probably the easiest for still photos, but it has many challenges. One is focus as it’s hard to focus on a brief flash of lightning. You will need to use manual focus, autofocus will not work. Start by focussing on a very distant object, perhaps lights on the horizon, the moon, stars or any other VERY distant object, preferably a mile or more away. Then check and double check your focus. Lightning is very fine and if it’s out of focus it will ruin the shot. If you don’t have anything to focus on set the lens to infinity, the sideways “8” symbol is infinity and there will normally be a line to mark the point of infinity focus. Infinity is often NOT at the very end of the lenses focus travel so check for the proper infinity mark. By the way, take a torch/flashlight if your going out in the dark!


You will need to use a tripod. If you have a cable release or other electronic shutter release use it to trigger the camera to prevent shaking the camera as you will need to use a long exposure. As you will be using a long exposure you want to use a low ISO. I typically use 200ISO with an exposure of between 10 and 30 seconds depending on the frequency of the lightning and how bright the surrounding area is. If you are in a town or city with lots of street light you will probably need to use a shorter exposure, maybe 10 to 15 seconds. Out in the countryside you might be able to use 20 to 30 seconds. For the aperture you don’t want super shallow depth of field as this will show up any focus errors, so don’t use your lens wide open. I normally use somewhere around f4 to f8, so f5.6 is probably a good starting point. Take some test shots and check that you are not over exposed.

As a starting point try: 200ISO, f5.6, 10 second exposures, manual focus.

Once the camera is set, it simply a case of snapping away taking pictures until you get lucky and capture one in the frame. It takes a bit of luck and patience, but don’t give up too soon, just keep snapping away. You can just delete all the no good shots later.

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Evening thunderstorm in Tucson, Arizona


If your camcorder has a CMOS sensor (as most do these days) you want to use the slowest shutter speed that you can get away with. If you can control the shutter manually turn it off or reduce it to 1/25 or 1/30. This will reduce the likelihood of you getting lightning bolts that only go half way down the screen, an effect know as “rolling shutter” or “flash band”. If shooting after dark, if you have a camera with full manual control then instead of shooting at the usual 24, 25 or 30 frames per second, consider shooting at half of this, perhaps at 12, 12.5 or 15 frames per second (S&Q motion, slow shutter etc), again with the shutter set to OFF. While this does mean that the motion in your final video will be sped up it almost guarantees that you won’t get any rolling shutter issues. You will need to have the camera on a tripod if doing this to prevent excessive image blur from movement of the camera. The slightly sped up video can also give the pleasing (but fake) impression that the lightning is more frequent than it really is making your shots more dramtic. If you don’t want this simply play the video back at half speed.


This is really tough unless you have special equipment. You can’t use a long exposure as you would at night because the bright daytime light will wash out the lightning bolts.

Very often a lightning bolt is made up of several flashes in rapid succession. If you do have fast enough reactions and a fast enough camera, you can get the secondary flashes. You will need to use manual focus and manual exposure so there isn’t a delay while the  camera thinks about focus and exposure which delays the release of the shutter. Use a tripod with a cable release or remote shutter and use a longish exposure, 1/30th or 1/15th as there can be up to 1/10th of a second delay between flashes and there could be multiple flashes, you don’t want too fast a shutter speed. Set your focus on a very distant object, use a low ISO, again I typically use 100 or 200 ISO. Shoot a couple of test images and set the aperture so that you have a very slightly underexposed shot, may -1EV to -1.5EV, the slightly darker overall image will help the bright lightning show up better. Then it’s just a case of pointing the camera at the storm on a tripod, with your finger on the trigger and try to hit that shutter release as soon as you see any lightning. I find it’s better to not look through the viewfinder, just look in the direction the camera is pointed. You may be lucky, maybe not, a lot will depend on the type of lightning in the storm and your reaction speed. A better way is to use a dedicated lightning trigger such as a Patchmaster: http://www.fotokonijnenberg.nl/patchmaster. This will trigger the camera electronically if it detects any lightning. It’s MUCH faster and can react much quicker than any human, but it still has some lag time so even a lightning trigger won’t capture every bolt.

A final daytime method is to use an adaptation of the night time DSLR method. If you add a strong ND filter a small aperture around f16 and use a low ISO you may be able to get an acceptable long exposure during daytime, perhaps a couple of seconds. Then set the camera to take photo’s continuously (so when you hold the shutter button down the camera will take one photo after another). By locking down a remote shutter release the camera will take a continuous stream of photos with only a very minimal gap between each picture taken. So you have a high likely hood of capturing any lightning bolts, but you will also end up with a lot of pictures that don’t have any lightning in them. You can either discard these empty frames or use all the frames to create a time-lapse video of the storm.

Have fun, stay safe.

If you find the guide useful, please consider buying me a beer or a coffee.


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Shooting Snow and other bright scenes.

Well winter is upon us. The north of the UK is seeing some pretty heavy snow fall and it’s due to spread south through the week. I regularly make trips to Norway and Iceland in the winter to shoot the Northern Lights (email me if you want to come) so I am used to shooting in the snow. It can be very difficult. Not only do you have to deal with the cold but also difficult exposure.

First off it’s vital to protect your equipment and investment from the cold weather. A good camera cover is essential, I use Kata covers on my cameras. If you don’t have a proper cover at the very least use a bin liner or other bag to wrap up your camera. If you have a sewing machine you could always use some fleece or waterproof material to make your own cover. If snow is actually falling, it will end up on your lens and probably melt. Most regular lens cloths just smear any water around the lens, leaving you with a blurred image. I find that the best cloth to use in wet conditions is a chamois (shammy) leather. Normally available in car accessory shops these are soft, absorbent leather cloths. Buy a large one, cut it into a couple of smaller pieces, then give it a good wash and you have a couple of excellent lens cloths that will work when wet and won’t damage your lens.

Exposing for snow is tricky. You want it to look bright, but you don’t want to overexpose. If your camera has zebras set them to 95 to 100%. This way you will get a zebra pattern on the snow as it starts to over expose. You also want your snow to look white, so do a manual white balance using clean snow as your white. Don’t however do this at dawn or near sunset as this will remove the orange light normally found at the ends of the day. In these cases it is best to use preset white set to around 5,600k. Don’t use cinegammas or hypergammas with bright snow scenes. They are OK for dull or overcast days, provided you do some grading in post, but on bright days because large areas of your snow scene will be up over 70 to 80% exposure you will end up with a very flat looking image as your snow will be in the compressed part of the exposure curve. You may want to consider using a little bit of negative black gamma to put a bit more contrast into the image.

If the sun is shining, yes I know this may not happen often in the UK, but if it is then the overall brightness of your scene may be very high. Remember to try to avoid stopping down your lens with the iris too far. With 1/3? sensor cameras you should aim to stay more open than f5.6, with 1/2? more than f8 and 2/3? more than f11. You may need to use the cameras built in ND filters or external ND filters to achieve this. Perhaps even a variable ND like the Genus ND Fader. You need to do this to avoid diffraction limiting, which softens the image if the iris is stopped down too much and is particulary noticeable with HD camcorders.

Finally at the end of your day of shooting remember that your camera will be cold. If you take it in to a warm environment (car, house, office) condensation will form both on the outside and on the inside. This moisture can damage the delicate electronics in a camcorder so leave the camera turned off until it has warmed up and ensure it is completely dry before packing it away. This is particularly important if you store your camera in any kind of waterproof case as moisture may remain trapped inside the case leading to long term damage. It is a good idea to keep sachets of silica gel in your camera case to absorb any such moisture. In the arctic and very cold environments the condensation may freeze covering the camera in ice and making it un-useable. In these extreme situations sometimes it is better to leave the camera in the cold rather than repeatedly warming it up and cooling it down.

Have fun, don’t get too cold, oh…  and keep some chemical hand warmers handy to help stop the lens fogging and to keep your fingers from freezing.