Lightning Photography Basics

Lightning is fascinating, beautiful and dangerous.  The light streaks across the sky in patterns that defy belief and need to be seen to be believed. That is where we step in to hopefully capture some of nature's magic light show. There are three methods for capturing lightning with digital cameras: lightning triggers, bulb mode and video mode. The best method is to use a lightning trigger which allows for daytime as well as night time captures.

Lightning triggers detect the non-visible infrared energy of a bolt and open the shutter of your camera just before the visible light cascades across the sky.  In my experience, your shutter speed must not be faster than 1/20th of second otherwise the bolt will be missed or only a partial will be captured. As fast a lightning is, it is no match for the speed of your camera's shutter which can go to 1/8000th of second depending upon model. Triggers have the added benefit of being able to capture day time lightning as well as night time.

Bulb mode works fine for night time lightning photography as long as you have limited light pollution. The camera shutter remains open for as long as the operator deems necessary. During an active storm lightning strikes frequently and multiple times. After a few strikes the operator closes the shutter and reviews the frame to see what has been captured.

Video mode allows the operator to capture lightning during the day or night. The drawbacks to video are reduced quality and the necessary video editing to recover the frame showing the lightning bolts. Video files become very large very quickly and attempting to find the one or two frames that contain the bolt will consume large amounts of time and disk space. Compresion in video files will reduce the quality of the frame and video frame size is always smaller than the camera's native resolution.