Five Tips For Capturing That Perfect Lightning Photo

Five Tips For Capturing That Perfect Lightning Photo

At the young age of 24, photographer and time lapse creator Michael Shainblum has already created an impressive resume. His photography and timelapse work has been featured on countless international publications, and he is often hired by large tourism boards and brands to create unique and appealing content. But quietly, in his free time, Michael has been chasing the stormy weather, and has captured some insane lightning strikes. As a lightning novice, I asked Michael for some tips on how to best capture this incredible weather phenomenon, and I thought I would share them with you. 

Now, I am no expert lightning chaser, I leave that to my friends Kelly Delay, Mike Mezeul and Mike Olbinski. However when the opportunity arises, I try to utilize some tricks to help me capture these beautiful scenes. 

1. Timelapse Mode: The first thing I always do to capture lightning is to use an intervalometer, and set the interval between photos to one second.  This will auto trigger the camera for you every single time the previous exposure is complete. You want to raise your chances of getting a strike by minimizing the amount of the time that the camera isn't shooting. There is nothing worse then seeing an awesome strike and realizing that it happened while the camera was not exposing.

2. Exposure: Exposure is a little less important then people think. A flash of lightning is so quick that it will have the same brightness value, regardless of your shutter speed. I tend to shoot anywhere from 4-8 Seconds for the shutter speed and usually try to shoot at ISO 100 for the cleanest shot, without unwanted noise. The fstop is the last variable and I will usually adjust that according to the ambient light. I usually shoot a little darker then average, maybe by 1/3rd or 2/3rds of a stop just in case there are some areas with unexpected bight highlights.

3. Predicting The Next Strike: I get excited when shooting lightning. So much so that I forget everything about composition and just start pointing the camera wherever the last strike happened to be. I realized though, that as long as you know which direction the storm is moving you can predict where the next strikes will happen and create a more compelling composition. Rather then chase the lighting all over the landscape in front of you, just wait it out at a spot where you already have a nice composition. At the end of the day I would rather have one solid lightening shot over a really cool subject then a bunch of random lightning strikes over nothing.

4. Safety: The chances of getting struck by lightning are slim, but take extra safety precautions when shooting under these conditions. If you are very far away from the lightning shooting telephoto, I wouldn't worry too much. But, if you find yourself in the storm and shooting wider, be mindful of what is around you. If you and your tripod are the tallest objects around you, (ie: in the desert), you are at more risk then someone in a forest or surrounded by buildings. Once you set up your shot and set your intervalometer, walk away from the tripod and go sit in the car unless you are ready to try a new composition. You are safe from lightning strikes in your car, but park away from objects that are in danger of falling, such as a telephone pole. Also if you are on a dirt road or offroading make sure you know how far you are from the nearest road and give yourself time to get back if a giant rainstorm hits.

5. Keeping the camera dry and lens clean: It is always a good idea to bring towels or plastic bags that you can put over the camera if you are shooting in rain. Bring a Rocket Air Blaster for lenses and sensors, as they are a good way to quickly remove water drops from the lens. If you blast air from the sides you cam remove the water spots without blocking the lens. Never use a lens cloth, as this will streak the water over your lens, creating dull and blurry photos. 


I hope these tips help you capture some of those late season lightning strikes. I know I will be using them in the Sierra Nevada mountains next time I am in the middle of a thunderstorm! 

You can check out more of Michael's incredible work on his website, 500px, and Vimeo

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Jaron Schneider's picture

Shainblum is my hero.

Manuel Mauer's picture

Thanks for your tips.

John Qoyawayma's picture

Good article. I'm a little confused though. You mentioned that your time lapse shots are set 1 second between frames but then in point 2 you set your exposure from 4 to 8 seconds. I'm not understanding the math.

Mark Kelly's picture

You set it up to take the exposure say 4'seconds then it waits 1 second and takes the next 4 second exposure and it then repeats the cycle

Michael Bonocore's picture

Exactly, his exposure time is 4-8 seconds. That's how long the shutter is open for. After the shutter closes, there is a 1 second break and then the camera automatically takes another exposure at 4-8 seconds. Basically, the camera is always taking an exposure, so you don't piss any potential strikes :)

Dafydd Owen's picture

Worth noting: On some Nikon cameras (e.g. D800) there is a different TImelapse and Intervalometer mode.
Timelapse will produce a video and NOT keep the pictures.
Intervalometer will just keep photos.