Lightning strikes make for pretty incredible images, but they’re so fleeting that they can be a challenge to capture. And a strike by itself, as beautifully powerful and chaotic as it is, doesn’t always make for a stunning photo. The images you remember are great landscape shots on their own, with the addition of the strike.
I spoke to photographer Alex McClure, who is based in the southwest United States and often incorporates lightning in his landscape work, about what it takes to get a shot that will turn heads and rack up the likes on social media. In addition to his insight, McClure captured all of the images featured in this article.
There are challenges, both technical and artistic, to getting that perfect shot. If you’re shooting at night, the tech challenges lessen. You can compose your shot and set your camera on a sturdy tripod with its shutter set to Bulb mode. This will keep the shutter open as long as you hold the release button. Setting your lens to a narrow aperture and the camera to a low ISO allows you to keep your shutter open for minutes, waiting for the strike. In many ways, photographing lighting at night isn’t that different from shooting fireworks—except that you’ll know where the fireworks are going to be in the sky.
McClure shoots with Olympus cameras, which feature a Live Composite mode. It’s an extended version of Bulb, which takes an initial exposure and then only looks for changes in the scene. This lets you get your landscape shot composed to your liking and wait for a strike, or multiple strikes, before ending the exposure.
But neither Bulb exposure nor Live Composite work well during daylight hours. And lightning flashes so quickly that you’re not likely to get lucky with a photograph that often. McClure uses the Ubertronix Strike Finder Touch, a $ 349 add-on available for many camera systems, to automatically trip the shutter when lightning is detected.
As far as artistry goes, McClure always looks to include more than just the basic land and sky in a photo. If he’s able to incorporate a lake, an interesting building, or a cactus plant in the foreground of a composition, he does. Of course, Mother Nature has a lot to say about how a shot is composed—the camera needs to be pointed in the direction of the strike.
Weather Reports and Safety
To stay on top on the weather, McClure pays attention to the local forecasts, and uses a weather app on his phone with storm alerts enabled.
Safety is also a concern—a tripod can act like a lightning rod just as easily as it can a camera support. You should avoid setting up under a tall tree, as they’re more likely to be struck during a storm than unwooded terrain. If you’re able you can set up your camera out of a car window or the back of an SUV, much safer places to be in a storm.
McClure’s lens choice can vary based on proximity to the storm. If lightning is intense and he’s trying to distance himself, he reaches for the weather-sealed M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 PRO, which acts like an 80-300mm zoom on a full-frame body. But if the rain is heavy enough to blur details when shooting with a telephoto lens, the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 PRO is a better choice.
Shooting lightning is challenging, and you should be careful before chasing a storm—the National Weather Service tracks fatalties—on average, fewer than 30 a year—and offers safety tips for dealing with the phenomenon. With some practice, the right equipment, and careful planning, you can capture compelling images that can be framed on your wall or shared with friends and family on Facebook.