Ten Tips

Chance of Thunderstorms

Slight Chance of Thunderstorms
Lightning Bug
Lightning Hits NORAD
Interstate 25
Construction Site
Wide Shot II
Parking Lot
Car With Lightning
On a lightning shoot

For the past seven years I have been addicted to shooting lightning. The first rolling sound of thunder every season sends a wave of orgasmic tingles up my spine. Thunder marks the beginning of magic.

Now for your turn to get turned on...here are my ten how-to tips on shooting lightning:

1. Watch the weather. Besides looking out your window, storm radars on TV or the internet will determine whether or not you might be heading out the door in a mad rush to where you want to position yourself for the big show. Don't believe everything the weather person is predicting, storms have a mind of their own. The experimental 0-3 hour convective weather forecast on the internet, www.nws.noaa.gov/mdl/radar/03h.htm, is pretty reliable predicting the chance of lightning to ground hits in areas around the United States.

2. Be aware of your surroundings. During the day, scope out locations that are high enough to get away from the city lights and places that have something interesting happening in the foreground. Locate a good area facing in each direction so you know where to drive to for every storm. While you are shooting, be conscience of what is happening around you. Listen for animals that might want to check you out and look over your shoulder every once in awhile to make sure another storm is not sneaking up behind you.

3. Be ready! It totally sucks to watch huge bolts of lightning hitting while you are gassing up your car. Keep your camera bag by your front door ready to grab and go. Try to predict where the storm will be active and arrive at your location before the lightning starts.

4. Use a tripod. A sturdy tripod is a must if you want sharp images. Leave the tripod in the trunk of your car so you don't have to worry about forgetting it. Plastic bags, a flashlight, and an umbrella are also good to leave in the trunk.

5. Know your camera equipment. There is nothing worse than missing the shot because you are fiddling around with trying to mount a heavy camera on a tripod and then trying to remember where the bulb setting is located. Set up at least two cameras. The second you point your lens to the East...sure enough a huge bolt will hit to the West.

6. Use slow speed film. To keep the lens open as long as possible, load film with an ASA of 100 or smaller. The longer the camera's lens stays open, the greater the chance of catching a bolt or even many bolts depending on the storm. Fuji Velvia 100 ASA transparency (slide) and Kodak TMAX 100 black and white are my films of choice. The Velvia slide film has wonderful saturation and the grain is small no matter how long my exposure.

7. Shoot at f8. With an aperture of f8, the light within the clouds and all the tiny "fingers" from the bolt are captured on the film. Focus on infinity and remove your lens cap. Set your camera to the bulb (B) setting, lock your cable release (it is your friend, use it for every shot), and expose your film for one to twenty minutes. A black sky or at the end of dusk is the best time to shoot these long exposures. The timing of your exposures depends on the activity of the storm and the surrounding light. By your second roll of film, you should have a better understanding of how long to leave the shutter open. When you think the lens has been open long enough...leave it open longer. Point your camera where you predict the lightning will strike. This will take some practice. Once framed, look at the edges of your viewfinder and make a mental note of what landmarks are there. Now when a bolt strikes you will know if it hit within your framing and adjust your exposure.

8. Safety is always an issue. Depend on your instincts. If you feel like you are too close, then you probably are. Pack up quickly and find another spot that feels safer or wait for the storm to pass (most lightning happens at the beginning and/or end of the storm). I feel safest when I position myself parallel to an active storm. Please research lightning safety before venturing out. No picture is worth losing your life over.

9. Patience young grasshopper. Watch the storm while you are exposing your film. Think about better angles. How can you make the image more interesting or dramatic? Once the first bolt blasts through the sky, take a second after jumping up and down in excitement and say "Thank You" to the Thunder Beings. There's nothing wrong with sucking up to a storm to let it know you appreciate its beauty.

10. You are a freak magnet. Last but not least...you WILL encounter the occasional freak. Keep in mind that people are very curious about what you are doing out in a middle of a storm with a camera and tripod. Bring along a photo buddy, pepper spray, and a cell phone to keep safe and to give you a peace of mind.

Here is a checklist of the equipment and supplies you will need for your lightning shoot:

Sturdy tripod


Cable release

Film (100 ASA)


Plastic bags


Pepper spray

Cell phone


So wait for that first clap of rolling thunder and I'll see you in the field.

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1 response

  • Steven Maguire

    Steven Maguire gave props (26 Oct 2008):

    Nicely written and photographed very well. I wish somebody would have helped me with info like this when I started shooting lightning.

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