How to photograph lightning

I love lightning storms!

I really do love a good lightning storm. They’re dangerous and can be deadly, I get that. Yet when I hear the rumble of thunder or see a flash of light in the sky, I love it. In my house, as soon as a storm approaches my wife pulls down all the blinds and cowers behind the sofa until it has passed. She doesn’t share my enthusiasm for this kind of weather!

We had a spectacular storm pass through Melbourne recently. Lots of forked and ball lightning and what was even better is that it coincided with sunset as well. To top it off, the bulk of the storm rolled over Melbourne’s CBD which I have a great view of from my apartment roof.

As the storm gathered, I grabbed my camera gear and raced upstairs to the roof. Standing on a 28 floor high rooftop in a storm isn’t necessarily the cleverest idea but the storm was 2-3 kilometres away and I did go inside once it got closer - and the rain started drowning me.

Camera Settings

I knew that I wanted 2 or 3 lightning forks, if possible, in my final image. Having photographed lightning a few times before I knew an exposure time of 4-10 seconds would be best. Therefore my setup, as the light changed was:

  • ISO 100

  • F11

  • 4-8 seconds

As well as those settings, I needed to ensure my tripod was setup and didn’t move - so that I could blend a couple of images if required. I also used a shutter release cable to ensure I didn’t introduce vibrations into the image.

After getting setup it was just a case of taking multiple shots as the storm continued and hope that one or more of the exposures captured a lightning bolt.

Blending in Photoshop

I ended up with two images that I was happy with from the evening’s photography. The first was taken just as the sun set, with the storm still gathering over Melbourne. This is a single image and shows how vast the storm clouds were, engulfing much of the sky over Melbourne.

The sunset in Melbourne is consumed by the gathering storm clouds overhead.

The second shot is a composite of two images. The reason for this blending technique is that a single lightning bolt didn’t do the storm justice. Lightning was hitting every few seconds so I wanted two bolts in the image to help show this - I think I could have added two or three more but I liked the strong fork on the right coupled with the forks on the left that seemed to travel upwards!
Clearly this shot was later in the evening but there was a good contrast of light and dark which gave the sky some drama and a sense of foreboding to the city.

A spectacular lightning show illuminates the night sky over Melbourne.

The storm continued long after I ran back downstairs to hide from the rain. It was an awesome evening, if you enjoy this kind of weather. Apparently another thunder storm is forecast for tonight…