is easier than one might think. I was eating a massive, slow-cooked lamb casserole when I noticed a strange light show through the windows. At first, I thought the New Zealand Navy boat anchored in Tryphena was doing exercises, but it became clear eventually that there was a lightning storm far enough away that I couldn’t hear the thunder. It was night time, and I decided to pack the minimum of gear and walk up my hill to capture the lightning. I went for:
- IR remote shutter release
- camera + lens
- head torch
Walking up the very steep bush track to a viewpoint, I wondered what the best way would be to capture lightning. Basically, it was very dark and in intervals of about 20 to 60 seconds, the sky lit up. The answer was to use “Bulb” mode. It is strange when you see lightning bolts but it is extremely quiet. After arriving at the viewpoint, I set up the tripod and composed my frame. I made a comfortable seating area and after setting the exposure, I just had to press the remote to open the shutter and press it again to shut it.
Manual Exposure Setting for Lightning Photography
When you’re out by yourself in nature at night, it is really important to be safe. It is easy to damage your gear, lose something or worse, hurt yourself. I suppose this is the best advice for all sorts of night photography. Make sure you are safe.
I decided to only use one lens and to get the most out of this spectacle with a simple set up, rather than changing lenses and compositions. I chose my new 77mm f1.8 lens.
- manual focussing
- manual exposure
- camera in bulb mode (option press to open shutter, press again to close shutter)
- wide aperture, but not the widest
- low iso
- shutter speed, depends on interval between lightning strikes
Focussing manually is the way to go at night. If you know your lens well, you should know how to focus for maximum sharpness. If you’re not sure, focus to infinity (all the way), take a shot, zoom in and focus marginally away from all the way to infinity. I find there is a sweet spot for all lenses and that is usually not all the way set to infinity. If possible, turn on live view and use focus peaking.
Don’t bother with automatic exposure because you can’t trust the camera metering in such a situation. It is pitch black until lightning strikes. Hence, there’s no way the camera can meter for what you want as a result.
I chose f2.8 with f1.8 being the widest aperture available on this lens. All lenses are less sharp at the extreme aperture values, and that’s why I shot 1 stop darker than f1.8. After a few test shots, I went with iso800. In retrospect, I should have tried at least one shot with iso100 (the former results in a photo 8 times brighter than the latter). I liked how the clouds and the reflection of the lightning looked in the ocean. But yeah iso800 was too much, if I did these again, I’d go with iso300. Anyway, the beauty of using a simple setup and having only one composition, is that you can change iso, aperture and shutter to describe this one composition in various ways.
Put your camera into “Bulb” mode. Bulb mode has usually 2 to 3 options. 1 being that you can set a timer, which won’t work in this case (we don’t know when lightning will strike). You could go for multiple lightning strikes, set your timer to 2 minutes and see what the result will be. I tried it, but decided to only capture one strike per photo. Hence, turn the timer function in Bulb mode off. There are two options left.
- Option A: press and hold the shutter to open the shutter mechanism, it stays open until you depress the shutter
- Option B: pressing the shutter opens it, pressing again closes it
B is the way to go, especially when using a remote shutter release. You will notice that the following photos have different shutter speeds. Basically, I remotely opened the shutter mechanism, waited until lightning struck and then closed the shutter. The shortest time was 3.7 s, the longest for the following 5 photos 66 s.
If you don’t have a remote shutter release, purchase an IR remote. I paid less than 10 bucks for mine, it has a range of 5 m and makes life really easy. No camera shake, no automatic timer and in a situation like here, I was sitting comfortably next to the camera and simply using the remote.
Take Many Shots
My last tip is that you take lots of shots. Once you have decent photos, play around with ISO, multi-exposures, you might want to change composition or lens. Further, some lightning strikes are more dramatic than others. Make sure to preview your photos in 100% zoom, check for sharpness and if your composition is good.
If you’re lucky, the sky is only partly overcast. You have the clear sky with stars, clouds, lightning, maybe an ocean or cityscape and something in the foreground. When stars are visible, use the 500 rule to gauge the maximum shutter speed for your lens to maintain stars as sharp points (instead of streaks). I was using a 77mm, 500/77 gives ca. 6 seconds. This means that any shutter speed longer than 6 seconds will result in star streaks. This is only a rule of thumb. Be patient… hehe