Lightning Photography Guide (2023)
My in-depth guide to lightning photography
Welcome to my in-depth guide to lightning photography. Here you will find knowledge and techniques acquired from over a decade of chasing storms. I'll dive into the settings I use to photograph lightning as well as how I approach different scenarios. I'll also discuss my post processing and development techniques and show you how I make my lightning photos really pop. Whether you're a seasoned pro or a beginner starting out on your lightning photography journey, you'll hopefully learn something useful or glean an unthought of tidbit of information.
Though I chase storms around both the UK and USA, there are some aspects of this lightning photography guide that relate mostly to chasing storms and photographing lightning in the UK. Essentially though its all pretty much universal stuff.
This comprehensive guide to lightning photography assumes you are using a DSLR with a tripod. Though I reference some extra third party equipment throughout this guide, they're not essential.
my lightning photography journey
Any in-depth guide to lightning photography has to start with a little bit of history of the author's experience. Feel free to skip this bit if you wish (because zzz) but the image below represents my earliest attempt at lightning photography. It was captured on a now battered old Canon Ixus perched precariously on a groyne along Brighton beach in 2013. It's noisy, over exposed and generally just a bit rubbish. But I loved it and from that moment on I was hooked.
As a severe weather photographer I’m fascinated by all aspects of a storm. I'm fascinated by its colour, its structure, and the additional phenomena it can produce such as mammatus or a tornado. Lightning, however, holds a unique fascination for me with its transient, ethereal nature. After a decade of photographing lightning, I want to share with you the knowledge I've built up over those years by writing this in-depth guide to lightning photography.
Throughout my storm chasing career, I've noted that diversity not only exists between each lightning strike, but also in the storms that form them. From supercells to squall lines, each mode of storm will have its own lightning variation. This variation depends on the atmospheric, geographic and orographic environment that shapes the storm. The New Mexican plateau for example is, in my opinion, distinctive for its strikingly colourful bolts. These bolts usually consist of many branches and strike out of the upper part of the storm.
My first 'proper' storm chase started way back in June of 2007. Back then I joined Silver Lining Tours for a 7 day tour around the Northern Plains. Instantly hooked, I joined them again the following year in what was a stand out season for storms. Photography back then certainly wasn't the pursuit for me that it is today. Back then I relied solely on the aforementioned Canon Ixus to document any storms.
It was during this tour in 2008 that I began to recognise a variance in lightning bolts. Different storm modes would have a different 'character' of lightning. Frequency, size, intensity and the regions of the storm from which they occured could all be attributed to certain factors. This could be storm strength, mode, height, depth and geographical location. One day we were chasing a monster of a storm near Greensburg, Kansas which had a 74,000ft cloud top. The bolts raining out of this thing were staggering.
Not all storms are equal though therefore not all lightning is equal.
Screengrab from my Canon camcorder with fisheye lens attachment. Quality has improved somewhat since 2008.
It was on this tour when I noted that smooth laminar bolts often seemed to accompany tornadogenesis. On this occassion it was during the Glen Elder, KS supercell and tornado. I would observe this again during the La Crosse tornado when I next joined Silver Lining Tours in 2012.
These bolts were brighter, lasted that little bit longer and the thunder would boom rather than roll.
After that, I didn't chase Stateside again until 2017.
Screengrabs from the LaCrosse (2012) and Glen Elder (2008) storms undergoing tornadogenesis. Note the lack of branching along a single smooth channel. They also had a much brighter intensity owing to their positive charge.
My History of Lightning Photography
It was in 2015 during the interim that I invested in my first DSLR and started my photography adventure. I started by chasing storms along the south coast and home counties during the summer months.
They were usually 'high-based', meaning the base of the storm cloud was elevated higher in the atmosphere. This was a requirement if they were to ever make the Channel crossing. (The difference between a surface-based storm and an elevated storm and their subsequent ability to make it across a large body of water is a topic for another discussion).
Elevated storms migrating across the Channel taken with the Canon 700D. Love those undulating bases.
The camera I invested in was an entry level DSLR - the Canon 700D. After chasing the occasional French imports for a year or so, I then invested in the Canon 80D. Having acquired some extra lenses, I found myself in Tornado Alley again the following year. Here I met Dave and Arron who would subsequently go on to form See Nature’s Fury. Though 2017 was a poor season overall, it seriously kickstarted my drive to photograph storms and in particular, lightning.
Ironically, there was little opportunity to capture any lightning while I was out there. The following month when I returned back home to Brighton however, one of the greatest lightning displays I’ve ever witnessed passed directly over my apartment.
Huge lightning bolts and rainfall from the MCS that crossed Brighton in 2017.
At this time I was fortunate enough to be living on the top floor of an apartment block. It had uninterrupted views up and down the coast and out over the English Channel. After studying the forecast, it was merely a case of sitting on the balcony in the warm summer air and waiting for the mother of all MCS’s to arrive.
And wow, did it!!
In the distance over the horizon, through the twilight haze whilst gazing out to sea, I could see faint orange light flashing sporadically from developing storm tops. Their bases were high but the cloud tops were relatively stunted. Darkness had fallen by the time the system was in full flow, seemingly taking its time to ramp up and move ashore.
Elevated bases and low tops were noted as this system approached which was likely more castallanus than cumulonimbus. The elevated base of the storm means there are more ice particulates which leads to increased electrification. Note the dimness of the bolt due to distance, haze and precip.
Activity appeared to be focused by the presence of a wind farm some 8 miles out to sea. Some unbelievably crazy lightning strikes would hit the windmills and crawl under the updraft base. To this day I’ve still not seen better lightning than that evening and I would say that this was the moment that arguably cemented my love of lightning photography. I have been on the hunt ever since.
the hunt begins
Since that MCS back in 2017, I've chased storms and lightning whenever possible ever since. Persistently honing and developing my photography and my preferred method of lightning capture has reaped some great rewards. To date, though I've seen and captured some great displays, there are 2 images that have stood out thus far and they both occured in 2019.
The first was during a chase in New Mexico around the town of Hagerman. Timelapsing the slow and steady approach of a supercell, I managed to capture a fantastic strike hitting the end of the highway. The lightning from this storm was atypical of any I've come to expect around New Mexico - tall, straight out of the upper regions of the storm, vibrantly coloured with many branches. That same year I entered this image into the RMetS Weather Photo of the Year where it made the final.
The other image is this stacked lightning shot of another MCS that passed to the east of Brighton in July that same year.
This shot came about because a couple of years earlier I was photographing the Harvest Moon rising above the city. Whilst standing in the same spot I thought to myself; you know what this view needs? A massive storm!! Lo and behold…
What is lightning anyway?
Lightning is the resulting spark when opposing charged regions between cloud and ground break down. The key word here I guess is ‘spark’ as there is a common misconception between forked lightning and sheet lightning. Truth is, there is no such thing as 'sheet' lightning. What some might call sheet lightning is just forked lightning that occurs within the cloud or behind curtains of rain. What you’re actually seeing then are those areas being lit up from behind by 'forked' lightning. Though this might seem basic to some and shouldn’t need explaining, there is an important consideration to be had here. If you’re out chasing storms and all you can see is ‘sheet’ lightning, then you might want to consider your positioning.
techniques for lightning photography
Lightning is, believe it or not, inherently tricky to photograph. Transient and unpredictable, you’re basically trying to capture something that is instantaneous, intensely bright, occurs in a split second and you’ve no idea when! Not only do you have to expose for it accordingly, which in itself can be a variable, but you also have to try and expose for the scene.
Lightning photography is by no means simple.
If lightning is frequent and consistent enough then you can hazard a guess as to when a strike will occur. Then you just fire away until one does. Sometimes, on rare occasions, the storm might be generous enough to give you a little precursor by first rippling through the cloud deck. You might even get one of those super-charged positive strikes that discharge multiple times down the same channel. In this instance you'll have plenty of reaction time to open the shutter.
By and large though, a lot of it comes down to luck, guesswork and a bit of good judgment. There are of course ways in which you can stack the deck in your favour. Do this and photographing lightning can become fairly straight forward.
Arguably the most popular choice if you're a dedicated lightning photographer is to use a lightning trigger. A lightning trigger is a small device that plugs into your camera and slots into the hotshoe. It senses sudden changes in light levels and tells the camera to take a shot when it detects a strike. This sensitivity can be adjusted so it can detect even faint distant strikes. If watching Arron and Dave is anything to go by however, a degree of finesse is sometimes needed to gauge that adjustment. I've watched as the trigger is sometimes prone to firing off random 'empty' shots, especially during daylight hours. Other times it can miss strikes completely.
I hasten to add that I myself don't own a lightning trigger but the issues mentioned are ones I've witnessed. One major issue is that the trigger / camera pipeline simply wasn't quick enough to react. Again, I'm looking at you New Mexico. The Hagerman supercell of July 2019 fired out bolts so quickly that the trigger simply couldn't react in time. I even shot video of this storm and half the bolts didn't even show up. Though this isn't really a 'fault' per se of the trigger, it does highlight limitations in this method.
The lightning from the Hagerman, NM supercell was so quick that the lightning trigger couldn't react in time. This shot was taken using my preferred method of timelapsing. Just look at how vibrant and colourful that bolt is. You can view this image over at my lightning photography gallery.
In order to capture as many frames as possible, you’ll preferably need a camera with a high fps rate. My Canon R6 can shoot at 20fps which is more than enough. The major issue here though comes down to how much storage you have. You’ll obviously need a fast storage card to deal with all that continuous throughput and plenty of them because all those 'empty' shots will soon mount up.
The good old hipfire method of shooting and hoping does make me laugh as photographers crouch in front of their cameras with the shutter ratcheting away like an AK-47. Its arguably the best method though if image sharpness and fidelity are your primary concern. There’s certainly no denying the results when you capture that bolt. Basically, you set your camera to high speed continuous shooting mode. When you think there’s going to be a strike, you simply hold down the shutter button until there is one. Conversely, you wait until a strike occurs and you pray you have ninja reflexes (not a hope if you’re shooting in New Mexico).
If you use this method then I imagine you’re probably opting for a faster shutter speed to retain image sharpness. You'll definitely have to use a fast shutter speed if shooting hand-held. Storms by their nature tend to generate windy environments so a longer exposure will mean wind-blown elements in your scene are inevitably going to be blurred. The downside to faster shutter speeds is that traveling bolts can be fragmented. You can always combine those shots later in Photoshop.
Also, and take this with a pinch of salt; a lightning strike can also be too long. Sometimes, as I mentioned previously, the lightning might ripple through the cloud before emerging from the storm. Here the trigger will detect that initial light increase and open the shutter before the bolt emerges from the cloud. If its the case of a bolt travelling a long distance, then the trigger might catch the start of the bolt but not the end and vice versa.
You can overcome this by setting a delay timer on the trigger. This will cause it to wait a fraction of a second before firing. Alternatively, you can just make sure you use a longer exposure, the pros and cons of which I’ll discuss below. If I remember correctly though, the trigger can also keep firing off multiple shots for the duration of the strike. If the strike lasts longer than than your shutter speed then the lightning trigger will still detect the light and thus fire again.
Timelapse is when you take a series of photos at a set interval for a certain duration. For example, when I'm timelapsing a storm I'll take a single shot every second until I've taken about 300-400 photos. This gives me roughly 10 seconds of footage when played back at 30fps. To achieve this, your camera needs an intervalometer function. If it doesn't have one then you can attach a 3rd party intervalometer device such as this one from LRTimelapse.
Timelapse has always been my preferred method ever since sitting on my balcony back in 2017. I got fed up with forgetting to press the remote shutter after each exposure. Simply dial in your exposure settings, set up the lapse, then sit back and enjoy the show. The downside of this method though is the number of bolts that fall between exposures. Both my Canon R6 and 80D only have a minimum of a 1 second interval meaning that it will wait a whole second after the last shot is taken before the next shot is taken.
Have you any idea how annoying it is the amount of bolts I’ve seen fall within that 1 second?
third party devices
Third party timelapse devices like the aforementioned one from LRTimelapse can overcome this by allowing you to use faster intervals. Admittadly this is extra cost on top of what is likely to be an already expensive outlay. I’d recommend checking it out however if you’re serious about your lightning photography.
Don't worry if your camera doesn't have a timelapse function or your budget doesn't extend to buying an additional controller as there is a redneck solution you might want to try. Get hold of a cheap remote shutter release (I use this one), dial in a longer exposure setting and simply lock down the button on the remote shutter. This has the advantage of there being no intervals between shots so you won't miss out on that thundery magic. The downside however is that you're forced into using longer shutter speeds to slow down your capture rate. If your camera doesn't have an intervalometer function then it likely has a smaller image buffer. If it has a smaller image buffer then less photos can be taken before that buffer becomes overloaded regardless of memory card capacity.
I thought I'd give this its own section though you'll probably only ever use it when timelapsing storms at night. To clarify, by long exposure I'm referring to a shutter speed of about 5 - 10 seconds or more.
For me, when I use a longer exposure depends upon the activity of the storm and the lightning rate. If the storm is sluggish and throwing out bolts irregularly - some might be CGs, some might be CCs - then I'll opt for longer exposures. Conversely, if the storm is like a disco i.e. its strobing all over the place, then I'll definitely want to use a longer exposure. Traditionally though, photographers generally like to use long exposures so that there are multiple bolts in the image to highlight the 'barrage' effect.
Long exposure comes with its own unique problem however. Take a close look at the following image...
The inherent problem of using longer exposures to capture lightning; as the cloud moves and evolves between strikes, even if just a couple of seconds apart, the same area of cloud is illuminated multiple times creating multiple exposures. Also note the peach coloured light surrounding the bolt and the lavender coloured light in the cloud which I will cover later.
the multiple exposure problem
Notice the pattern of the cloud across the middle of the screen and how it appears to have 'doubled up'. This occurs because at the beginning of the exposure there was an intercloud lightning strike which lit up certain areas of the storm. This was followed by a CG strike at the end of the exposure which illuminated those same areas again. The cloud has obviously evolved inbetween lightning strikes and thus you get a double exposure effect.
With this in mind, its probably best to use long exposures if the lightning is predominently CG and striking in different areas of the storm. The effect then is much less noticeable and more easily corrected in post.
my camera settings
With my camera set to manual, these are the settings and strategies I've come to use that I know work for me every time.
The key to it centres around understanding the nature of lightning. This includes its variability in temperature, intensity and the environments in which it occurs which I alluded to earlier. Once you can grasp that, capturing lighting, though tricky, can be relatively straight forward. A full break down of the nature of lightning is a little outside the scope of this blog. A good starting guide to lightning activity however can be found in this RMetS guide.
Using the timelapse method, I approach any scene by breaking it down into one of three scenarios. This is dependent on the amount of light in the scene:
- Evening / sunset / overcast
- Twilight / nighttime
I essentially approach Scenarios 1 and 2 in the same way. The biggest difference between them is the increased contrast that can be found in scenario 2. Scenario 3 requires its own unique approach.
An important note to remember is that you wouldn’t approach a landscape photo by exposing for the sun. Instead, you would expose for the light cast by the sun. The same is true of lightning which is hotter than the surface of the Sun and just as bright. Therefore it's important to remember that the core bolt will likely always be overexposed so don't concern yourself with it. You can minimise that overexposure to a degree and you should certainly try to minimise the exposure of the airglow. So with this knowledge in mind, let’s look at each scenario in turn…
I always aim to keep my aperture within the 'sharp' range of f/8 - f/16. This has the important benefit of allowing me to drag the shutter. The smaller the aperture, the longer I can drag the shutter and the more chances I have of capturing lightning. This ratio of smaller aperture to longer shutter speed allows me to properly expose for the scene without the lightning being too overexposed. This is because longer shutter speeds have no bearing here as a flash of lightning is not a constant. It's your aperture in this scenario that's important and I never have to adjust my ISO above 100.
The lightning branches however should not be overexposed at all because they're not as bright. In fact, look closely and you'll see that the branches are actually quite vibrant and colourful. I like to try and retain this vibrance in my photography.
Whereas the main lightning bolt will often ‘peak’, the branches should not, revealing their fine detail and rich colour.
I approach photographing lightning during daylight just as I would any daytime landscape scene. Light levels tend to be fairly uniform with a lot of ambient bounce light so contrast is minimised. Using the viewscreen histogram to evaluate light levels I'll aim to slightly ETTR the brightest parts of the scene. In the photo below, this would be the brightest parts of the cloud. (ETTR = Expose To The Right. This is when your exposure settings are so that the main peak of your histogram is located to the right).
There is of course a trade off when dragging the shutter. By doing so you risk introducing motion blur in the scene. Ideally then I aim for a shutter speed of somewhere between 1/5th - 1/2 a second. With the reduction in light found in scenario 2, I can afford to drag the shutter even further.
Light is largely uniform across the scene in daylight settings from this crop of a much larger image. This allows for lightning photography to be a fairly straight forward process. The fairly weak negative bolt isn’t overexposed and its vivid magenta glow shines through. You can view this image over at my lightning photography gallery.
As with scenario 1, I aim to keep my aperture range to between f/8 - f/16. The difference now though is the reduced light levels allow me to drag the shutter further. There may be more contrast in the scene but the sensor has longer to absorb that light which is in shade. I can then recover this information in post processing because I’ll be shooting RAW.
As you’re photographing lightning, the brightest light in the scene is likely located on the horizon due to:
- Hazy afternoon light confined to the horizon by storm clouds overhead
- The sun dropping behind rain curtains
- Hazy and diffuse sunset
Basically any scenario where the sun isn’t directly overhead and unobstructed.
Again, I'm essentially concerned with exposing for this brightest light (eg. sunset) - the lightning will take care of itself. I’ll still stick to an ISO of 100 and only very rarely will I venture into 200 territory. 2022's Morton, TX supercell was one such occasion where the amount of dust had lowered light levels below the ability to use the desired aperture.
Exposing for the sunset areas means this lightning fork remains perfectly exposed with only the areas covered by precip in the upper part of the cloud beginning to blow out slightly. You can view this image over at my lightning photography gallery.
In this shot, I'm essentially exposing for the sunlight behind the rain curtains in the lower half of the image. The 1/2 second exposure allows the sensor to absorb enough light from shaded areas so the information can be recovered in post. The bolt remains beautiful, crispy and colourful. You can view this image over at my lightning photography gallery.
comin' ta getcha
Even with a small aperture, the main bolt is beginning to overexpose whilst the branches are all perfectly colourful, crispy and correctly exposed. The storm is almost upon us in this shot so the lightning is pretty close, hence its more intense appearance, but this was also shot in New Mexico where those positive anvil CGs are just something else! You can view this image over at my lightning photography gallery.
Scenario 3 is where things get a little bit trickier. Whereas before I could expose for the brightest part of visible daylight which would 'match' the lightning intensity, here there is no such luxury. How I expose for the scene now depends on whether I'm in an urban or rural environment. If I'm in an urban setting, then I have to expose for street and city lights accordingly. Any such illumination is going to be nowhere near as intense as daylight and therefore to compensate you might be tempted to increase the ISO. This I would advise against. Instead, keep your ISO low and increase your exposure time instead unless shutter speed is a priority.
If I'm in a rural setting then there's likely no light to expose for other than the lightning itself. This is where good judgement and experience comes into play and both settings require a bit of trial and error to get the exposure right.
I aim to keep my aperture within the f/4 - f/8 range. This depends not so much on how long I can drag the shutter for but on the proximity of the lightning and the air quality of the environment. The shutter I can drag all night long if I want to (depending on any urban lighting).
It is very easy to overexpose lightning photos at night and some care needs to be taken. This is especially true if the bolt is striking through rain or cloud where a 'blooming' effect will likely occur. You'd think that, knowing a smaller aperture works for lightning during daylight and overcast conditions, that a similar aperture value would work at night. The intensity and luminance of the bolt doesn't change after all. Not so, especially if lightning is at a distance. The bolt still shows up in your image obviously but it appears very dim. Compare the image below which was shot at f/8 for 20 seconds at ISO200 with 'Comin' ta Getcha' above which was shot at f/16 at ISO100.
Quite the difference isn't there?
Admittedly it isn't the strongest bolt of lightning in the world. Check out the brightness of the bolts in 'Fourplay' for contrast which was shot at f/7.1. Here though I've had to up the exposure by 0.67 in Lightroom.
A workaround in this instance would be to bump up the ISO to 400 or maybe even 800. This inevitably introduces sensor noise to the image which I prefer to avoid as much as possible. Additionally, any other forms of light in the scene, such as streetlights, run the risk of being overexposed.
As a general rule, I open the aperture up to f/4 - f/5 if the storm is several miles away. The reason for this is because a combination of factors can impact the amount of light reaching the camera. These factors can be distance, precip and haze which can diffuse the lightning and act in one of two ways. The first is that at distance the lightning appears muted and underexposed. The second is that, close up, lightning can bloom and can be overexposed. The closer the storm gets therefore, the more I close down the aperture to prevent overexposure. This is achieved largely through trial and error as every storm and environment will vary.
Shutter speeds can range anywhere up to 30 seconds depending on how active the storm is and the type of lightning being produced. Taking test shots is obviously adviseable but be aware that the viewscreen on your camera will likely be brighter than how the photo actually appears. Make sure then to pull up the histogram for the image and make your exposure judgements that way.
The trailing stratiform area of an MCS, like this one over Brady, TX, is one of the best locations to capture lightning. This image, along with many other storm photos, is for sale as a print on my site here.
Care needs to be taken when photographing lightning at night as it's easy for bright areas of cloud or precip to become overexposed. Although the storm was almost on top of us, the lightning was still fairly dim, hence the wide open aperture. You can view this image over at my lightning photography gallery.
Only under certain conditions will I use a 'fast' lens with an f stop of 2.8 or more. Occassions for this are when the storm is somewhat distant and/or in a very muggy environment.
In the image below taken near Dodge, KS, I used a 50mm focal length wide open at f/4. Sadly it was nowhere near enough to capture the lightning and cloud flashes which were muted by humidity and distance. A real shame because I bloody love this image.
An occassion where I wished I'd used a faster lens was this distant storm near Dodge, KS. Even with the aperture wide open at f/4, the intracloud lightning is barely visible. The exposure had to be cranked right up in post resulting in a very noisy image. You can view this image over at my lightning photography gallery.
The perils of using a fast lens however are evident in the image below. Whilst trying to expose for some foreground detail, both the bolt and the branches have blown out. Any artificial light, such as city lights, will also likely be overexposed if long shutter speeds are used. The storm in this image is approx. 10km away and the bolt has struck outside of the main precip core. I can't bring myself to show you the shots where the lightning is striking behind it!!
In the field
On top of everything else, you also have to consider the effects the environment will have on you.
First of all, and this shouldn't need saying, photographing lightning is inherently dangerous. Hands down it is the most hazardous aspect of chasing a storm. NEVER stand under or near tall objects or trees if a storm is directly overhead. Do I even need to state this?! Don't make yourself the tallest object either and certainly don't stand on top of a hill! Even if you're some distance from the storm, lightning can reach out and grab ya, especially if the storm is raining down those silly bolts out of the anvil.
Storms can inherently be wet and windy affairs. Be aware then that raindrops will inevitably make it onto your lens. Attaching a lens hood can help mitigate this but can transform your camera into a sail during windier conditions. This is where you need to make sure your camera is securely attached to the tripod head. There should be little to no give and that the tripod itself should be sturdy. I’ll usually splay the tripod legs out one notch further with 2 of those legs facing downwind. Ideally, you’d have the camera as low to the ground as possible by shortening the legs and splaying them out. However, this is rarely practical when it comes to your composition. Never extend the centre column of your tripod if it has one - that's just asking for trouble.
Pop up storms that form on hot and humid summer days can be the exception. Around them the air often feels “close” and “still”. This is due to the lack of wind to ‘mix out’ the atmosphere. Wind and rain from these storms tends to exist solely in the vicinity of the storm.
Pulse, or airmass, thunderstorms tend to be short-lived, rainy affairs. Lightning tends to be weak and not very photogenic (in the UK at least) especially during the day. This would look far more dramatic during late evening hours however.
I find positioning myself in the right place around a storm provides the biggest hurdle to overcome. Having to factor in an interesting foreground with meaningful composition around where lightning is most likely to occur is a very difficult task.
‘Knowing’ a storm can help in this regard. An educated guess can be made as to the direction the storm is heading. The region of the storm where lightning is most likely to occur can also be guessed at. Then you just hope the storm is slow moving and long lasting enough for you to be able to position yourself accordingly. You just have to hope there’s some visual interest when you get there.
Therefore I find that the best strategy is not to chase per se. Instead I position myself beforehand where I have a composition in mind in an area where storms are forecast to track over. Rarely will a storm be so kind but this is when knowing where storms occur most often and then getting to know that area pays dividends. For example, MCSs in the summer months frequently make their way over from the continent to the southern shores of the UK. They then track north east in the direction of Kent and East Anglia. CAMs (Convection Allowing Models) are so good now that they can predict roughly when and where a storm is likely to occur. You can and should use this guidance to your benefit.
Coastal areas are a great option as there’s always foreground and compositional interest due to the rugged nature of the coastline. The UK certainly has a lot of it so positioning shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Failing that, bodies of water such as lakes and reservoirs where reflections can compensate for any lack of visual interest. Mountainous areas can certainly offer arguably the most dramatic views but navigating around them is problematic and positioning can be fraught with risk.
Winding country roads (assuming you can find somewhere in the UK to pull over) are also relatively easy to come by and who doesn’t love an ‘end of the road’ shot? Navigating them though can often be a frustrating experience. South eastern counties, where trees and hedgerows are an absolute blight on visibility and accessibility, make for horrendous chase country. The same can be said for the hills and forests east of I35. With this in mind, which probably only applies to chasing in the UK, smaller cars allow far greater accessibility when navigating around country roads. Being able to pullover in front of a farmer's gate is a lot easier in a hatchback and doesn't block the road like a 4x4 would or a van.
radar and satellite
Storm modes and chase strategies, especially around the UK, are probably outside the scope of this blog. However, there is a quick way in which you can tell where lightning is occuring most around a storm. Online radar tools from Meteogroup and Netweather can be a huge benefit in helping you navigate yourself into the best position around a storm as they indicate where lightning is in relation to the precip.
In the image above, you can clearly see a tight cluster of sferics on the leading edge of a couple of thunderstorms pushing towards Reading. If you look closely you can see that the strikes are occuring in front of the darker coloured returns. This indicates they're falling slightly ahead of the updraft column and maybe photogenic. Best photography location in this instance looks to be to the south or south west out of the rain where the skies are clearer.
The downside is that they're not realtime, with updates coming every 10-15 minutes, but this shouldn't matter so much. If it does then you can always refer to either Lightningmaps or Blitzortung which show lightning 'sferics' in realtime. Neither has radar or satellite overlay but it should be fairly straight forward to cross reference.
In this section I’ll refer mostly to stacking techniques in Photoshop. This includes how to avoid the issues that stacking lightning photos often presents such as when shifts in hue and overexposure create ugly artifacting that can go unnoticed. The reason for this comes not from the lightning bolt itself, but where areas of cloud or precip have been brightly illuminated by bolts of different temperature and intensity.
Check out the image below which consists of 9 seperate shots from the 2019 MCS that passed just east of Brighton. All the layers are stacked using just the 'Lighten' blend mode.
Looks absolutely horrendous doesn't it?! And if you think it doesn't, then you need help!
The first thing to note are the 3 distinct colour palettes in the scene. The lightning below the cloud base has a distinct orange / peach hue. The lightning above the cloud base has a pink hue and the post blue-hour cloud has a deep blue colouring. Some very ugly haloing has occured around the lightning strikes, specifically the ones below the cloud base. The reason this occurs is because the Lighten blend mode analyses the luminance values of the pixels in all the layers of your image. It then 'keeps' the brightest ones in your chosen layer/s so that they're the only ones visible. In this image the haloing occurs where the luminance falloff of these different colours overlap. Some of the luminance values of the lightning bolts in the left half of the image aren't very strong either allowing them to be washed out.
There is a secondary issue as well which is the doubling up of the cloud base. Given that the shots in this stack were taken over a period of several minutes, the cloud base has evolved and migrated from the right of the image toward the left.
So how do we clean up this image and make it more appealing?
First of all, I go through all 9 images in the stack and choose the one I think works best as the base image to start from. This image to the left I feel works strongest, especially with the underlit cloudbase, but I can see there being a potential problem with the extent of that precip glow. Notice how the glow from the CG on the left is orange but the glow from the base crawler on the right is a light pink. Stacking other lightning bolts into that glow will definitely cause haloing, so how do we get around that?
Firstly, lets make life easier and reduce the layer count so that the composition is a bit more balanced. That way we don't have as many layers to process either. The lightning bolts to the right and left are haloing strongly into that middle precip glow and the mid level crawler, whilst very striking (sic), is also a little too overpowering. There is also still some pronounced doubling up in the forward cloud base.
Some simple layer masking can clean up most of the doubling effect but the glow from the mid level crawler is still quite overpowering. The rain fall above it has visual interest but below it is quite bland and heavy.
For the uninitiated, luminosity masks are simply that - masks created from the luminosity of the image which are traditionally divided into the 3 tiers of 'brights', 'mids' and 'darks'. In the case of blending the various lightning layers in this image, I will generate a series of 'brights' for each layer using Easy Panel 2.0.
For example, generating a series of 6 'brights' for the base layer gives me the following masks which are incrementally more revealing with each iteration from the brightest pixels toward mid range pixels:
I can then either use these masks directly or adjust them further with a curves adjustment to really fine tune how much masking takes place.
The differences between the 2 images above (before on the left, after on the right) are subtle and the lightning bolt on the left was a little too dim to pull much luminosity information from, but it is brighter now (you might need to squint). The middle bolts have also been nudged up a little.
The next layer adds another bolt to the centre of the image but with a big glow fall off. This was a simple case of masking off the ugly haloing area highlighted in the image on the left. The extra bolt in the middle has equal luminosity values to what is already there so fits in perfectly.
Dropping the bolts in on the right adds balance to the image now but the strength of those bolts is maybe a little too much and draws attention to itself. I'll decide later if I want to keep it or not. The glow in the 'before' image on the left is pretty ugly but some luminosity masking and colour correction sorts that right out.
Time to tackle the big crawler. As I mentioned earlier, the area of precip above the lightning has some visual interest I can use but below the strike is overbearing. The 'after' image on the right shows how selectively editing a luminosity mask has allowed me to remove all the pink glow from beneath the cloud base. However, the inclusion of this layer as a whole means removing some of that forward cloud base which I quite liked so I might have to review this later.
Adding in another bolt on the left helps to bring more weight to the image and compensate for the fairly weak bolt on the far left. Again, a luminosity mask reduces the ugly haloing but its not perfect mainly because of the pattern of the precip crossing over the bolt makes it look like a blending anomoly so might have to review this also.
Lets balance the overall image now by adding in the layer with the bolt on the far right. Its a faint bolt, matching the low intensity of those on the far left which is a happy accident, and in order to avoid the haloing that pushes into the brighter bolts to its immediate left, I've had to choose a luminosity mask that reduces that precip glow substantially.
Though I feel there's now a nice overall weight and balance to the image, there's still room for improvement; those bright bolts 2nd from the right are maybe a little too overexposed and in correcting the luminosity of the precip glow, now has a colour cast that doesn't match the rest of the image. I'm not happy with the bolt on the far right either as, though its dim overall, the bolt still stands out unnaturally from the precip.
Adding a deep red photo filter corrects the colour of those bolts on the right and makes for a more harmonious image.
I feel the lightning bolt on the far right doesn't quite work so I've replaced this with something more sympathetic and now I feel the entire image has a more harmonious balance about it.
A final quick curves adjustment and some targeted contrast in the upper levels of the cloud and we have a final image.
If you have made it this far; Thank You!
Granted, it's not the most amazing image in the world. The bolts were somewhat distant and shrouded in precip making for 'difficult' conditions. Hopefully though I have illustrated how you can make a purse out of a pig's ear.
If you have any questions or feel you have have anything to add, then please contact me. The best way to do this is to drop me a message over on my Facebook page. Your feedback and interaction is always welcomed and appreciated. Of course, if you have any lightning photos to share then please do so.
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