Stuff's Guide to Photography: How to take great lightning photos

Storm chasing is easier than you think. Here’s how to capture it (safely)

Photographing lightning is awesome, fun and actually not that difficult to shoot.

It’s also bloody dangerous. As we’re located near the equator, Malaysia has the third highest number of lightning strikes in the world. Then again this also means that we get thunderstorms throughout the year, so we don’t have to go searching for one. Just don’t go out with a metal tripod in the middle of a storm.

Now that we’ve got that warning out of the way - it’s time to go chase storms. There are many ways to get impressive lightning bolts striking across your frame, but here’s how we do it. Oh, and just like you, we have no idea where or when it’s going to strike. 

1. It’s dangerous to go alone! Take these

Before you start chasing storms, here’s what you need to carry along:

  • Your DSLR or mirrorless camera - It’s best to carry a camera with manual controls so you can control the length of your exposure. Some compact cameras and smartphones with a manual mode may be able to get the job done. Plus points if the camera comes with OIS (optical image stabilisation).
  • Any kind of lens would do the trick, though wide angle and zoom lenses in the 28-150mm range should gives you a broad angle to frame your shot with.
  • A super sturdy tripod, as you’ll be working with long exposures at roughly 30 seconds or more. A steady surface like a beanbag or pillow might be able to hold your camera or smartphone in place, but your hands might get a good workout holding your device still for a minute. Which brings us to....
  • A cable or remote release. You may not think much of it, but just the simple action of pressing the shutter button could result in a blurry photo, so invest in a cable or remote shutter release if you don’t have one. Newer DSLRs and mirrorless shooters can connect to your smartphone via its proprietary app, but test it first to see how fast it responds, it’s usually not quick enough. 

2. It’s all about the location

Pull out the weather app off your phone and check where the thunderstorms are. Then, it’s time to head out.

Try to park yourself somewhere that has a great view of the sky, with a reasonably good background or foreground to complement your shot. A good shot will have the storm moving across your field of view, instead of towards or away from your spot.

We can’t stress enough for you to pick a safe spot to shoot from. To figure out how far away you are, count the time you hear thunder from a lightning bolt. At about 10km it’s roughly 30 seconds.

Stay under the cover of a building or overhang. It will not only keep you safe, but keeps your equipment dry. Also, don’t stand around trees, cables and metal poles, and don’t use an umbrella. Getting struck by lightning is no joke.