How To Photograph Lightning

How To Photograph Lightning

Being one of the most unpredictable forces of nature, lightning storms present a unique challenge for most photographers.  We’ve all seen powerful photos of lightning in action and you may be wondering how you can capture the majesty of a storm the next time you’re fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to witness one.  While a lot matters on what Mother Nature decides to do with all that electricity, the tips below should help in capturing a great shot of lightning.

1. Use a steady surface

While a tripod typically works best, in reality any steady surface will work.  Some people use a beanbag or other malleable item, like a pillow.  This will be import as #2 is….

2. Long Shutter Times

While lightning is unpredictable, it’s extremely hard to make a decent capture by tripping the shutter when you see a flash.  There are some fancy remote controls that have the ability to trip when the flash is sensed, but I’m guessing you don’t want to invest in these types of gadgets.  Depending on your cameras ability to manage noise on slow shutter speeds, using a timing of 30 seconds can work well. The bulb setting can also be handy if you have a way to keep the shutter open.

3. Horizon Up

It’s safe to say most of the lightning action you will see will in the sky.  I know it’s obvious, but it needs to be stated that your field of view will be skewed toward the sky then.  Depending on how close the lightning is, you’ll be including more blank looking sky than normal.  But fear not; that sky becomes far more exciting when the lightning starts

4. But Include Something Interesting

While the action will be in the sky, don’t forget to keep something in the frame to give relevance and perspective to the shot.  Buildings are a favorite, but really, anything that can give an idea of the size of the storm works well.

5. Manual Focus

It’s best to use manual focus when shooting in lightning situations.  Mainly because the view will probably be at night (but not always) with a fair amount of darkness.  Rather than allow your camera to hunt around for something to focus on with each new shot, get a good manual focus on the sky and leave it there.

6. Manual Shutter/Aperture Too

As mentioned in #2, if your camera has the ability to set the shutter speed, pick a long shutter time and a fairly wide aperture.  The action will be far from you so a wide aperture and shallow depth of field won’t be a problem (unless you have some very near objects you’d like to include).

7.Stack ’em

If you can keep your camera in a steady spot, shot after shot, you can use stacking software to combine multiple strikes into one image. You’ll often have many unexciting shots with maybe just a single strike or faint action between clouds.  These can all be combined to make a spectacular image.

8.Be Patient

This is a big one and a key to success.  Get familiar with your gear and settings so when there is a lightning storm you can set up the camera and then let it do its thing while you enjoy the show.  You’re going to have a number of times when you miss “the shot” for one reason or another.  Don’t sweat it.

Shooting lightning storms can be a very enjoyable experience but it takes a little practice to get it just right.  Follow the steps above and you’ll be well on your way to creating electrifying photos (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!).

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Phil July 23, 2013 10:53 pm

    I tries shooting a lightning storm but could never get the shots right. In the end i recorded about an hour of Video then took screenshots afterwards during playback. Unlike taking pictures live you can wind back and try again if it's not quite the best it can be.

  • Kasandra April 9, 2013 12:39 am

    My first lightning picture :]
    cca kasandra 10871|kristA rescheduled appointment

  • Kasandra April 9, 2013 12:35 am

    My first lightning picture

  • Chris Kotsiopoulos January 21, 2013 08:03 am

    Hi there!
    Nice article.
    I have capture 70 lightning strikes and stack them to one image:

  • glenn kasner November 7, 2012 05:52 am

    Nothing beats a good electric storm! I captured a rare Cape Town storm a few years ago and cant wait for the next storm!

  • Tracy Harris July 24, 2012 07:15 am

    Thanks for the to find a storm.

  • marius2die4 July 23, 2012 02:49 am

    Some o my pics:

  • Eric Dankbaar July 20, 2012 05:24 am

    This result I shot last year, a great skyline of a small Dutch village:

  • Mark Taylor July 20, 2012 03:29 am

    Too many replies to read all, so hopefully this is not a repeat of what someone else said...
    For safety I usually go to a parking garage near my place. I set up on the 7th floor of the 8 story garage. That way I have a concrete roof over my head for rain and lightning protection.
    If I am elsewhere, then I set my camera on a tripod just outside my drivers side door. I set the camera (with a remote timer) to take 30 second exposures, at an interval of 31 seconds. That way its shutter is open 30 seconds, then closed only one second before opening again. I set the aperture for the desired scene exposure. I set the timer to take 20 photos, which is 10 minutes. If I need to restart, it will go another 10 minutes. That way I only stick my arm out the window once every 10 minutes during the storm. Much safer then getting out of the car, as I usually am somewhere high on a hill or some such location. the car may get hit, the camera may get hit, but I'll be safe...

  • Conrad Boginski July 20, 2012 03:15 am

    No lightning photo tip would be complete without some advice about safety. Standing out in an open field with a tripod on wet ground is not too great of an idea. If possible, always try to shoot from inside a building. Keep in mind that lightning is unpredictable and has struck people miles away from the storm. Rule of thumb if you can hear the thunder, use common sense and make sure you keep yourself safe. Shooting from a vehicle can provide a certain amount of safety. I have used this technique with a pillow and bean bag and it has worked well while keeping me dry and out of harms way. Remember to respect the forces you are dealing with and have fun.

  • hazel July 20, 2012 01:25 am

    Lightning trigger sold by Stepping Stones Products in CO is wonderful Have had it for about 4 years.

  • hazel July 20, 2012 01:17 am

    I swear by my lightning trigger which I have been using for the past 3-4 years. Purchased it from Steeping Stone Products in CO. Rich Davis,the inventor has been wonderful to deal with.

  • Christoffer Mårtensson July 19, 2012 06:17 am

  • Steve July 18, 2012 07:10 am

    A little lightning but a great stormy sky as well

  • alanc230 July 18, 2012 06:36 am

    I've never known how to do this. Will try your suggestions.

  • Steve L May 31, 2012 01:22 pm

    There was a storm in CT last night (May 29th) I grabbed my camera and drove down to the best place I could get to fast. This was my first attempt to capture lightning.
    I read this article two days before this storm rolled through, thanks a bunch for the tips.
    here is the image

    Canon T1i kit lens 18-55 @ F11, 8 second exposure

  • Jacob Hogan December 14, 2011 11:37 am

    What's a typical aperture used for 30 second exposures here?

  • Anna Patrick September 29, 2011 06:27 am

    Chasing lightnings with the camera is not an easy job, but it's sure very rewarding. Here are some trhilling exaples of images from people who did it

  • Shauming Lo August 25, 2011 09:55 am

    Been thinking about Lightning shots ever since i got a camera, now with all all the tips i got from here and i am ready to give it a try. Thanks for all the tips and technic.

  • Celeste August 16, 2011 03:16 am

    We get awesome lightning storms here in Trenton, Ontario and I've always wanted to take pictures. Last Saturday presented an opportunity when we went out to see if there would be any meteors. Unfortunately, the storm clouds moved in and we started getting lightning flashes. Rather than going home immediately, my husband suggested we take photos of the lightning instead. I swear I took a few hundred shots before I got two good ones. Here is one of them:

  • Nathan January 29, 2011 05:22 am

    Awesome article! I never knew how to go about this the right way. Thanks a bunch

  • Sean December 20, 2010 09:57 pm

    Hi, I recently purchased a lightning trigger and I am unable to get the camera shutter to fire using manual and low shutter speeds, the camera is a Nikon D300. Appreciate if anybody has any tips and if Ineed to adjust the menu settings as well. The trigger works well on Nikon F5 film camera. Thank you.

  • Gordon October 6, 2010 07:04 am

    Hey, photoshopprincess,

    I've been fortunate enough to capture quite a few half decent shots of lightning and I've found a method that works for me, although it is a stab in the dark most times (ho-hum). I don't know if the EXIF meta data from the attached shot has survived the resizing, cropping, etc. but this shot was set up like this, and it was a single exposure with no stacking layers in Photoshop:

    18mm, manual focus set to infinity, camera mounted on a tripod
    Manual exposure: f/5.6 at 12seconds (in BULB mode on my Canon 400D)
    100 ISO

    During a storm, I've noticed that lightning strikes can be quite regular-ish so I basically wait till I think there might be a strike and just open the shutter (using a remote shutter release cable to avoid camera shake), and leave it till shortly after a strike. If it gets to more than about 20-30 seconds I just abandon the shot and try again. I keep repeating that, occasionally moving the camera if the storm seems to move elsewhere. I usually get at least one or two good shots.

    I've found that using a wider aperture, I don't have to have the shutter open as long so the images are less prone to washing out. Also, since you can't really see much of the scene anyway, because it's dark, I'm not bothered about foreground and background being pin sharp, like if it were a landscape shot during the day. Setting the focus to infinity seems to keep the lightning pretty sharp so I've kept to that technique. The other thing that could contribute to non-washed out shots is that I live in the countryside and there are very few distracting lights around, so (cough cough), this might not work in bright surroundings, I've not tried it :)

    I hope that helps.

    [eimg link='' title='Strike 2' url='']

  • PhotoshopPrincess October 6, 2010 04:08 am

    ahhhhh... THANKS A LOT FOR THIS POST!!
    i would have missed all the photo ops through trial and error if i ever stumbled accross a storm (and theyre really rare in ireland, at least where i live... and nothing like the one i witnessed when i was on holiday in spain!!..)
    i would have thought that the shutter speed would have to be fast... 1st mistake... and if im right the second mistake would be worrying about over exposing the image and making the aperture small?... yeah, as far as im getting this that would be mistake number two... im gonna reread this :D


  • Bryan Lao September 16, 2010 07:32 am

    When I use long shutter speeds, the image tends to be washed out. What do I do? :(

    My ISO is already on 100 and my aperture is f/11

  • Scott July 7, 2010 07:09 am

    Great idea on stacking the individual lightning strikes to make a more interesting photo. Going to have to try that one.

  • ThierryD June 19, 2010 01:37 am

    I can speak on this post because I just make a lightning detector for photography and SLR cameras.
    This very small electronic assembly is very easy to make and costs less than 10 dollars.
    It works very well and can shoot lightning even in daylight.
    You will find all the details, explanations, schematic and example photos on my website:

  • PatchMaster February 28, 2010 01:14 am

    You can visit the following link for the cheapest lightning trigger:

    No need to pay for +300$.

  • Richard January 2, 2010 08:17 pm

    When you say "don't seem to work" I am guessing that the moon is too small in the photo. That's because your brain tricks you when you look at it and sort of enlarges it in comparison to the background. To make it look like other photos you see, you need a really long lens for the photo or you need to insert the moon in your "normal" photo and make it larger using the transform tool or whatever you use. Also, the moon is really bright in a night scene, so doing a longish exposure of, say, a church at night, the moon is much brighter than the floodlighting so will be burned out, hence the need for inserting a well exposed shot of the moon afterwards. ALSO again, things in the sky are moving, and even an exposure of 5 seconds or so will show stellar / lunar motion.


  • Suzanne January 2, 2010 12:46 pm

    Great lightning shots and thanks for the tips. Now, what about the full moon? How do you capture what you see when there is a full moon. My moon shots don't seem to work.

  • Ricky September 10, 2009 06:18 am

    Anyone ever try using a film camera? I have an old Minolta Maxxum 5. It seems like any rich person can pick up a Cannon rebel x, make a flickr account, and call them selves a photographer. Personally i think that's crap, I don't call my self a photographer, i just know how to set my camera to the right settings and get good shots. Not none of this pre set crap. I'm just expressing my opinion on today's photograph, i think it's crap!

    If anyone agrees, and is a film user as well, reply!!!

    Oh and i do have some lighting shots that i took a couple of weeks ago, they came out decent, what a love about film photography is the trial and error process. Not like today if your shot comes out bad, just erase it and try again. I think those people are lazy.
    Thanks for reading


  • ahhphoto August 20, 2009 02:53 am

    Now why didn't I open up my email weeks ago. LOL .. I just returned from a summer roadtrip through AZ, NM and TX. Witnessed beautiful thunderstorms. Didn't get a single good "still" shot. But did get some interesting video.

  • SCA August 18, 2009 12:48 am

    There's a less expensive Lightning Trigger available on eBay right now. It's getting lots of great reviews.

  • Jennifer Moroe August 15, 2009 07:13 am

    Great tips, and the photos in the post are just stunning!

    Jennifer Moore
    JenniferLynn Productions, LLC

  • jobob Arikan August 7, 2009 10:31 pm

    Here is an old chrome overlooking Lake Caloosa from the 70s

  • Soulboxx August 7, 2009 01:41 pm

    Great article... I just took some shots tonight using a Nikon D300 with a remote set to Bulb. As I held the remote down keeping the shutter open... great lightning show in the sky. But when I close the shutter... not all the lightning show appeared in photo. Why am I missing the great lightning show? At what point should I close the shutter?
    I am shooting at iso 200 f22 using a 12-24mm wide angle lens.

  • Ben Moore August 7, 2009 04:22 am

    Hey everyone! I found the best way is to put it on a tripod and shoot continuously. I had my shutter at 2 seconds, aperture at 5.6, and ISO at lowest setting... the night i was shooting the lighting was going off fairly often, so leaving it pointed at one spot I was able to get a few good ones... please feel free to email me comments... thanks!


  • Brian Duddy July 29, 2009 07:36 pm

    If you are that serious about photographing lightning ya gotta buy a lightning trigger. Hands down the best investment I have ever made. It works great, especially with the almost impossible to photograph daytime lightning. I haven't uploaded any shots from this summers storms yet, but check out my website to see some of my results, especially when I was on vacation in Aruba !

  • Richard Lycett July 27, 2009 09:52 am

    Great Photographs, I managed to get some on holiday a couple of years ago, will post later.

  • The Arizona Photographer July 23, 2009 09:18 pm

    Very useful tips. Monsoon season is upon us in Phoenix, AZ. A great time for dramatic lightning! I will use the tips you shared. Thanks!

  • Mark Stanley Photography July 23, 2009 08:46 pm

    I presume a neutral density filter would help with reducing over-exposure when working with those slow shutter speeds? Can anyone with experience of ND filters and shooting lightening please confirm?

  • Bim July 23, 2009 07:52 pm

    Interesting. Thanks for the advice. There has been a bit of thunder and lightening over the last few weeks in London.

  • ricardolumpas July 20, 2009 04:54 pm

    CAn't wait for the next lightning storm. I guess I simply need a good and dry spot for the shots and a remote shutter too. Thanks for the post.

  • Vaibhav July 20, 2009 04:23 pm

    I took some lightning photos almost a year ago. I kinda self discovered how to get them right - and now I am glad to see that I wasn't too far off in my approach - here are my photos and some comments on how I did it:

  • jeff July 19, 2009 12:21 pm

    I set my camera on bulb and place a piece of card stock painted black over the end of the lens and remove it when the lightning strikes. Works very well.....just have to be quick. You can also use it to place several strikes on one frame.

  • tjmred July 19, 2009 08:13 am

    LOL I wish that I had this on Thursday the 16. Lots of lightning and was able to get one strike. This will come in handy the next time we have a storm

  • liz July 18, 2009 08:28 am

    Yay! Florida summers certainly have their share of lightning, finally somthing to be happy about, lol! Great article, I'm totally trying this. Thanks!

  • omgzergrush July 17, 2009 10:12 pm

    I read this article yesterday and got to put its teachings to use sooner than I expected as one of the first lightning storms this summer decided to come for visit during the very same evening. Got this photo out of it: lightning at sunset

  • Gordy B July 17, 2009 06:50 pm

    Hi, good post, and some good comments above. Seems to be an interesting discussion around wide vs. narrow aperture...

    I used a tripod (legs fully collapsed for maximum stability) and set it on the windowsill with the window open as the storm passed overhead.

    My Canon 400D (with 18-55mm kit lens!) was set to manual focus (infinity), f/5.6 and ISO 100. I switched on noise reduction, which slowed down processing time after each shot, but it was worth it. I also had it set on BULB and I tried to time it so that I opened the shutter between strikes in the hope of picking up some ambient light and then catching the next strike.

    These were the best of the bunch. Both were single shots with minimal post processing in Photoshop - just a crop to remove the edge of my house.

    What do we reckon?

  • PWJ July 17, 2009 05:30 pm

    Good article, thanks.

    As well as safety, another tip might be to shoot from some kind of shelter so you don't get water in your gear if it rains. If you have no choice other than to be in the open a collapsible beach shelter or 2-man tent could be a good solution.

    BTW the new Olympus E-620 DSLR can shoot multiple exposures. I wonder what kind of result you could get in a lightning storm with one of those...

  • Anas July 17, 2009 04:23 pm

    the monsoon is just here at Asia pacific, will b worth trying

  • Horizons-Photography July 17, 2009 04:07 pm

    This is a wonderful article! I have a Sony A200 (No fancy Nikons for me yet!) and I reckon I might be able to do the job with it. I think I will be able to get a wide aperture on manual with the slower shutter speed.

    No doubt there's going to be a lot of lightning in Phuket when I go but I think I'd like to stay indoors or be in a good vantage point so I don't risk the camera getting wet. Anyone got ideas about covers I can get? I'll probably only need a cheap one that does the job.

    Oh and another thing; how could I stop the lens and lcd screen from fogging up in the humid temperatures of Phuket and Kuala Lumper?

  • Marilyn July 17, 2009 03:41 pm

    Check out the photo at my web site...

  • Marilyn July 17, 2009 03:40 pm

    And then on that rare occasion you just press the shutter. I happened on July 4 at 7:30 in the morning. It was the third shot and the last shot of the day.

  • R. Campbell July 17, 2009 08:50 am

    I found that if I had a fairly wide aperture, the lightning bolt came out over exposed, and I had more success using a small one and manualy holding the shutter open until the lightning flashed. Ialso used timer but Murphy's law applied, the lightning flashed after it activated. I also used a low ISO (100). I guess the downfall is with a small aperture and ISO is that the foreground comes out as siluet, unless a very long time is used. I have only had one oportunity to photograph lightning since getting my 400D and the best was over by the time I got my gear out, set up, and worked out the best settings, nature wouldn't co-operate again for me after that.
    Any thoughts?

  • J Kenworthy July 17, 2009 07:38 am

    Nice post. I live in Texas and we have some great storms in the spring and fall. There are 2 things I would have liked for you to have covered. When I'm out taking photos of lightning it's raining. How do you stay dry and most importatly is doing it safe. I've had some close calls and standing next to and holding a lightning rod in my camera and tripod is not a good idea. My wife thinks I'm crazy for going out taking photos during a storm.

  • Alejandro July 17, 2009 06:43 am

    If you have a canon camera, CHDK could be used and the Motion Detection Script can be used. Once a change of light is sensed it shoots. I'll let a picture taken just to test the script. The composition is awful, but the lightning was caught perfectly. Regards and thank you for the tips.

  • uwoluwu July 17, 2009 06:43 am

    just get a Casio EX-F1 ... and u don't have to wait... first time i tried it on lightning i got about 3-4 good pictures on the same lightning bolt... just need to turn the camera fast enough to catch it (hand held) ... focus to infinity and set it at 40 fps .. shutter speed 1/60, ISO 100, aperture whatever :P ...

  • Neeraj Lall July 17, 2009 04:15 am

    Can you post a link to download the Stacking Software to combine multiple strikes into one image or name any such software.

  • Ron W. July 17, 2009 03:10 am

    I have got a few lighting shots using that method.

    Tripod and bulb setting on the Rebel XSi.
    Try to determine the direction in which the storm is coming from. Set focus then keep your fingers crossed.
    A lot of times one can get a local weather radar on the net to see the storms track than set the camera direction accordingly.
    One has to keep safety in mind also. A close hit of a million volts or so will not do much good for the camera electronics. LOL, not much good for the photographer either.

    I think a good lighting shot is more luck than anything.

  • Patrick Mitchell July 17, 2009 02:43 am

    Nice article. I got this on the 4th. If the link works

  • RJohnston July 17, 2009 02:16 am

    The price is in the link, just click on order and it shows.

  • Gene McCormick July 17, 2009 02:11 am

    For safety, there are a wireless remote shutter releases, on eBay and elsewhere, that let you stay in a safe place while the camera does its job outdoors.

    Regarding aperture, a wide aperture, as suggested in the article, lets you capture desired background illumination such as city lights, while a narrow aperture reduces undesired background such as the sky. Either one captures the lightning since it's so bright.

  • Nemanja July 17, 2009 01:26 am

    This is excellent.
    I took some lightning photos.Take a look and please leave some comment:

  • michael wood July 17, 2009 01:26 am
    i understand that at least one needs to find faults in a post
    so here is your safety tips a very small list
    for a bigger and better one go to google and type lightning safety
    i guess that common sense don't exist any more

    by the way good post thanks for the info i enjoy these type of nights sitting in a good storm makes for some interesting shots

  • Arnnie July 16, 2009 11:37 pm

    Great article. I live in Mimai, Florida the capital of Lighting. I'm going to try this next time we have lighting. I'll keep you posted. Thank you for the tips.

  • Eldar July 16, 2009 11:32 pm

    I recently found a great way to photograph lightning without a specialised trigger. The trick is too use the remote such as Canon TC-80. When there is lightning, I set up my camer on a tripod and set the remote to fire consecutive shots in bulb mode with preset shutter to correctly expose for the background light. I then set it to take 150 pictures, go have tea, come back to see awsome results :) Ususally there are about 5-10 usable frames from the 150 shot.

    an example can be seen here:

  • Joel July 16, 2009 10:19 pm

    This sort of adds a sweet spot to bad weather - which is what we have been getting here in Munich, Germany this summer. :-)

  • MeiTeng July 16, 2009 05:29 pm

    I was wondering too about any tips as to where one should be positioned so as to get a safe shot of the lightning without the risk of injury or any untoward incidents?

  • Travel photos July 16, 2009 01:26 pm

    @Major Bokeh, do you know how much that lightning trigger cost ? Can find price on their website.

  • Logan July 16, 2009 12:10 pm

    I got some pretty good shots of some lightning considering my camera doesn’t have the capability of keeping the shutter open for 30 seconds, the longest it can stay open is 4 seconds. I've figured out a way you can tipple that time. I put it on three round burst, and with each shot being 4 seconds; I now have a 12 second gap giving me a chance to catch some cool lightning. Having an ISO of 100, like if you were photographing fireworks, would work well too- Awesome post!

  • Alexandru July 16, 2009 07:02 am

    Shouldn't there be a tip about being careful and about how to protect yourself against lightning strikes?

  • Markus July 16, 2009 05:57 am

    Thanks a lot! Actually this post comes along just a few hours late because we had a great storm yesterday in the sky of southern Germany. But the next is to be expected for the weekend! I'll have a go then.

  • Yuri July 16, 2009 04:14 am

    If you are using Canon Powershot, you can use motion detection scripts that work with CHDK.
    The advantage of doing this that moving objects will not be smeared.

  • Major Bokeh July 16, 2009 02:50 am

    Here's a link:

  • Major Bokeh July 16, 2009 02:49 am

    Great post. When I lived in Arizona and shot 35mm film I got many great images using these techniques. But there's another way... a lightning trigger. It actually fires the shutter fast enough to catch a bolt of lightning. I don't have one yet but my brother has used his with great success.

  • kimrose July 16, 2009 02:34 am

    I have always wanted to try photographing lighting, however we just don't get weather here in san diego! very good tips though :)