Let’s start with the given that lightning is dangerous, and if “safety first” is a criterion for intelligence, photographers are stupid. So combining photographers and lightning is a recipe for disaster.
Okay, seriously, because lightning is both dangerous and unpredictable, before attempting anything that requires you to be outside during an electrical storm, it behooves you to do your homework. And the more you understand lightning, how to avoid it and stay safe in its midst, the greater your odds of living to take more pictures. Not only will understanding lightning improve your safety, a healthy respect for lightning’s fickle power will also help you anticipate and capture lightning.
The shocking truth about lightning
Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes the negative/positive polarization between two objects. (When you get shocked touching a doorknob, you’ve been struck by lightning.) The cause of polarization during electrical storms isn’t completely understood, but it’s generally accepted that the extreme vertical convective air motion (convection is up/down circular flow caused when less-dense warm air rises, becomes more dense as it cools, and falls; convection is also what causes bubbling in boiling water) in a thunderstorm carries positively charged molecules upward and negatively charged molecules downward. Because opposite charges attract each other, the extreme polarization (positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground) is quickly (and violently) equalized: lightning.
With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding rapidly (exploding) when heated by a 50,000 degree lightning bolt. The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (virtually instantaneous regardless of distance). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound (a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light). Knowing that the thunder occurred with the lightning flash, and how fast both travel, we can compute the approximate distance of the lightning strike. At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel about a mile in about five seconds: Dividing the time between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash by five gives you the lightning’s distance in miles; divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers. If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away.
The 30 people killed by lightning in the United States each year had one thing in common: each didn’t believe he or she would be struck by lightning when they started whatever it was they were doing when they were struck. The only sure way to be safe in an electrical storm is to be in a fully enclosed structure or metal vehicle, away from open windows, plumbing, wiring, and electronic devices.
While there’s no completely safe way to photograph lightning, it doesn’t hurt to improve your odds of surviving to enjoy the fruits of your labor. (Unfortunately, photographing lightning requires being outside, at least some of the time.) Most lightning strikes within a six mile radius of the previous strike. So, if less than thirty seconds elapses between the flash and bang, you’re too close. And since “most” doesn’t mean “all,” it’s even better to allow a little margin for error. Thunder isn’t usually audible beyond ten miles—if you can hear the thunder, it’s safe to assume that you’re in lightning range.
But if you absolutely, positively must be outside with the lightning crashing about you, or you simply find yourself caught outside with no available shelter, there are few things you can do to reduce the chance you’ll be struck:
- Avoid water
- Avoid high ground
- Avoid exposed areas
- Avoid metal or electronic objects
- Avoid tall objects such as trees and open structures (and tripods)
- Stay at least fifteen feet from other people
- If you’re surrounded by trees, position yourself near shorter trees, as far from trunks as possible
- Crouch with your feet together and your hands covering your ears
- Do not lie down
- A lightning strike is often preceded by static electricity that makes your hair stand on end and an ozone smell (best described as the smell of electricity—I think of bumper cars at the amusement park or the smell of my electric slot cars when I was a kid)—if your hair starts to stand up and/or you notice a distinct odor that could be ozone, follow as many of the above steps as you can, as quickly as possible (often you’ll only have time to crouch)
Photographing daylight lightning with a lightning sensor
Photographing lightning at night is mostly a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction with a multi-second shutter speed and hoping the lightning fires while your shutter’s open—pretty straightforward. Photographing daylight lightning is a little more problematic. It’s usually over before you can react, so without a lightning sensor to recognize lightning and click your shutter, success is largely dumb luck (few people are quick enough see it and click).
A lightning sensor attaches to your camera’s hot shoe and connects via a special cable to the camera’s remote-release port. When engaged, it fires the shutter immediately upon detecting lightning.
There are many lightning sensors from which to choose. I went with the one that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At slightly less than $400, it’s far from the cheapest option, but from all I’ve read, heard, observed, and (especially) experienced first hand, lightning sensors are not generic products and the internal technology matters a lot. The Lightning Trigger is the only one I’d use (I get no kickback for this).
I won’t get into lots of specifics about how to set up the sensor because it’s quite simple and covered well in the included documentation. You should know that connecting it could disable the LCD replay, in which case you won’t be able to review your captures or histogram without disconnecting (a simple but sometimes inconvenient task).
The Lightning Trigger documentation promises at least a 20 mile range, and I’ve seen nothing that causes me to question that. It also says you can expect the sensor to fire at lightning that’s not necessarily in front of you—I can definitely attest to that too. For every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I get many clicks caused by lightning not visible to me, or outside my camera’s field of view. But when lightning does fire somewhere in my composition, I estimate that the Lightning Trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time (that is, even though I got lots of false positives, the sensor missed very few that it should have detected). Of these successful clicks, I actually captured lightning in about 2/3 of the frames. The misses are a function of the timing between lightning and camera—sometimes the lightning is even faster than the camera. Usually the missed bolts are single strokes that start and finish far too quickly for capture. In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts with long duration, multiple strokes that are easier to capture.
The Lightning Trigger documentation also recommends shutter speeds 1/20 second or longer (the happy zone is 1/8-1/4 second)—faster shutter speeds risk completing the exposure before some or all of the secondary strokes fire; slower shutter speeds tend to wash out the lighting. To achieve daylight shutter speeds this slow, I shoot in Manual mode, using a polarizer, at ISO 50 and f16. Of course exposure will vary with the amount of light, and you may not need such extreme settings if you’re shooting into an extremely dark sky. You can also use a neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed, but take care not to slow it too much and risk washing out the lightning entirely.
Because shutter lag (the time elapsed between the click of the shutter button and the shutter opening) is death to lightning photography, you’ll need to turn off autofocus. Even though I use back-button focus, Canon says simply having autofocus on initiates a brief communication between the lens and camera that very slightly delays response (I can’t speak for Nikon). If you must autofocus, go ahead and do it each time you recompose, then turn autofocus off as soon as you’re focused. Similarly, while the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests Aperture Priority, I used Manual exposure mode to eliminate any camera-slowing metering when the shutter trips. And, also despite what the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests, I didn’t worry about my noise reduction settings. Canon assures (again, I can’t speak for Nikon) that noise reduction is a post-capture function that might slightly delay continuous frames, but it won’t increase shutter lag.
In addition to a lightning sensor, you’ll need a solid tripod and, ideally, a camera with a shutter lag faster than 60 milliseconds. Slower shutter lag won’t shut you out completely, but it will reduce your success rate. The Lightning Trigger website has a good, albeit quite dated, camera shutter-lag table.
I also recommend (in no particular order):
- Rain gear that will keep you dry from head-to-toe
- An umbrella for shielding your camera and lightning sensor (many sensors, including the Lightning Trigger, aren’t waterproof) while composing and shooting in the rain
- Lens hoods to reduce the raindrops that might mar the front element of your lenses
- Neutral density filter and/or polarizer to show shutter speed
- A garbage bag (my choice) or rainproof camera jacket (haven’t found one I like) to protect your camera
- Extra lightning sensor batteries (better safe than sorry)
- An infrared remote to make sure the sensor is functioning (we borrowed the remote from our hotel)
- A towel (also borrowed from the hotel)
Getting the shot
I’m a Californian, which means lightning is a novelty for me. Because the lightning does’t come to me, I go to the lightning—in this case that means an annual twelve hour drive to the Grand Canyon, in the heart of the summer monsoon season, with my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith. (We conduct annual Grand Canyon Monsoon Lightning workshops for similarly foolish photographers.)
Our plan is to find a location with an open view of the canyon and that allows us to set up our cameras within sight (and sprinting distance) of the car (so we could safely wait out the storms). The open views at the Grand Canyon are ideal for this.
Lightning is most likely to strike in or near the gray curtains (clearly recognizable as distant rain) that hang beneath dark clouds. The wider the composition, the greater your odds of capturing lightning, but the smaller it will appear in your image. Note the height from which the lightning originates and be sure to include enough cloud to get all of the stroke. My general approach is to identify the most likely lightning source (rain curtain) and find the best composition that includes it. I tend to start wider to ensure success, then tighten my composition once I’m fairly confident I captured something.
I also recommend that you don’t check your captures until you’re done (or better yet, until you upload your images to your computer). Since viewing the LCD requires disconnecting the sensor, doing so risks missing a shot (I sometimes think the lightning waits until the sensor is disconnected); you’ll also find that many successful captures, especially wide compositions, just aren’t that visible on an LCD viewed in daylight.
Do as I say (not as I do)
Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so you need to monitor them closely. Sometimes this simply means adjusting your composition to account for shifting lightning; other times it means retreating to the car if the cell threatens your location.
The image immediately above is a particularly dramatic bolt striking just behind Brahma Temple (Zoroaster Temple is the point in front of Brahma). I was on an exposed outcrop near Mather Point, less than six miles from the strike—closer than I should have been. (I’ve actually been quite a bit closer than this when lightning struck.) When I think back on some of the foolish risks I take at the Grand Canyon, I wish I could say I wouldn’t do it again. But there’s something irresistible about photographing lightning and I’m afraid I’m hooked. Lightning just may end up being the way I die, but at least I’ll go out happy.
Join Don Smith and me in our next Grand Canyon Monsoon Photo Workshop, where lightning and rainbows are an almost daily occurrence
Read my article in Outdoor Photographer magazine, Shooting the Monsoon
- Lightning Trigger camera compatibility table
- NOAA lightning Q&A
- National Weather Service Lightning Safety