Lightning is one of nature's most exciting and potentially dangerous phenomenon. Capturing the beauty of something that lasts only a few hundredths of a second does not have to be a challenge. With the right set up, capturing photos of lightning can be a rewarding experience. More after the bump.

First of all, lets get this out of the way:




Most of us have probably tried snapping a picture of a lightning bolt immediately after they saw it hoping to catch the tail end of its action on our camera and almost always failed. The better way is have your camera ready to catch the bolt before it happens. The most challenging time to capture a lightning bolt is during the day, and I'll explain why later.

Night time lightning

Lightning at night is very dramatic as the flashes can light up the whole night sky. Taking photos of lightning at night is the easiest time to do so because it allows for extended exposures.



  • Remote shutter release
  • Tripod
  • Lens appropriate for the distance to the lightning

First critical step is to focus your camera on a distant object. The farther away (closer to infinity) the better. I like to use distant street lights. Then set your lens to Manual Focus, so it doesn't shift from that point. This will eliminate the need for the camera to focus for each shot. Set your camera up on the tripod and attach the remote shutter cord. In lieu of a shutter cable you may want to try using the self-timer as a way to ensure a steady shot.

Point your lens in the direction of most lightning activity. Set your camera to Manual mode, set the aperture to somewhere between f/5.6 and f/8, and your exposure time 10 to 15 seconds. Take a few sample photographs and check to see how the exposure of the foreground and background is (no need to attempt to capture lightning yet). The aformentioned settings may need to be adjusted for your environment. If you are overexposing, try 8 seconds or faster. Once you are satisfied that the exposure is OK, its time to start taking photographs.

I've found that the easiest thing to do is to set my exposure settings, point the camera in the direction of the storm and lock the shutter button down on the remote (in my case, its a slide switch to lock it). The camera will start taking photos for you. No need to wait for lightning, the camera's shutter will be open for just about every bolt. If you're just starting out, when you see a flash of lightning, check your preview to make sure that the settings are still OK and that you're getting the whole scene. If you're field of view is too narrow, widen it and refocus, re-set it back to Manual.

The key is patience. It could be the case that 95% of your frames are empty, but those 5% of frames with lightning should be very exciting. Don't worry if the lightning is over-exposed, unless the overexposure is affecting its appearance within the clouds or rain it appears in.

In summary, here are some guidelines for night time lightning:


  • f/5.6 to f/8 aperture
  • ISO 200 to ISO400
  • 8-15 second exposure (or more)

Daytime Lightning

Photographing lightning in daylight conditions is a bit more difficult than night time. Generating longer exposures in the daytime without over-exposing the scene will require some different settings than for night time.



  • Shutter release cord
  • Tripod
  • Circular polarizer*
  • Neutral Density filter*

* optional

To maximize your exposure time, set your ISO to the lowest value your camera supports, ISO 50 to ISO 100. Set your camera to 'Aperture Priority' mode ('Av' on a Canon, 'A' for Nikon). Stop your lens down to f/11 or smaller, f/22 if you wish. If you're not shooting in sunlight conditions, these two settings could get lend to an exposure time of 1 second or so. Not a whole lot, but better than 1/250! If you have a circular polarizer, put this on your lens, as this will give you two more stops of light reduction. Another way to extend your exposure time is a neutral density filter. Commonly found for the Cokin filter system, these are simply tinted pieces of glass or gel that reduce the amount of light that passes through to the lens. There are various 'strengths' of ND filters. Use of ND filters can push your exposure time in daylight to nearly 5 seconds, if not more.

Use the testing methods noted above in the Night time section for dialing in your exposure settings to properly expose for the foreground and background. Lock your shutter and sit back and wait!

In summary, here are some guidelines for night time lightning:


  • ISO 50 or ISO100
  • f/11 - f/32
  • Aperture priority


Foreground objects

If you have enough time to prepare for the approaching storm, find a location that has a unique foreground subject that the lightning can enhance. It doesn't have to be anything particularly spectacular, such as a windmill, a grain silo, a barn or church. Just be sure that it is properly exposed. If this building is lit by uplights or streetlights, be sure you meter for those first. This may mean your exposure times are shorter, but that is OK, as long as you have enough digital storage to store shot after shot for your session.

Do not forget to keep in mind the Rule of Thirds for positioning the foreground object. Because lightning is the star of the show, a silhouetted foreground object might enhance the scene better than a lit up statue. Experiment!