Photographing Lightning without a Tripod or Wireless Remote

Hints and tips on how to shoot lightning in a storm

I'm in Turkey and just as I'm getting ready to go to bed, there's an almighty boom from outside. I open the curtain to see a thunderstorm is creeping up on us from the Mediterranean.

As silly as it sounds I get a rush of adrenaline. I've never had a legitimate chance of photographing a storm before. I have a good idea how I'm going to approach it and my experience in travel photography tells me one thing - do not wait around.

Make a split second decision if you're going to go, and if you do go, go all out. Stand by the curtain wondering whether to step outside and every flash is a potential photo gone. I grabbed my Nikon and 10.5mm fisheye lens - that's all I need for this situation. There are plenty of objects that can substitute for a tripod. Also any lens other than a fisheye won't be able to capture the scale of the storm.

Using a pier post as a tripod

Photographing lightning without a tripod or wireless remote

After a brief jog down to the beach I'm faced with an oncoming storm. It's a big one and its approaching land from the south. I walk along to the end of the pier and set up. My tripod consisted of resting the camera on a post at the end of the pier with the strap firmly round my wrist in case it fell. I wanted to capture the bolts of lightning so I set the up camera accordingly. I went for a three-second exposure with a wide open aperture and a low ISO. The low ISO meant the photo wouldn't be grainy but the wide aperture meant the depth of field might be a problem. It turns out it was. In my haste I didn't double check the focus of the camera.

And now a fold up chair and a wallet

Disaster! The setup was brilliant. The angle, field of vision and placement was spot on. But the camera had focused on the rail to the bottom right and I hadn't noticed. Gutted. I decided that I should move back and give the storm more scale. Also, I was worried that if the spray from the sea increased I'd have a soaked camera. I retreated to a fold up chair as a tripod and my wallet under the lens to point the camera towards the sky. The trick to not jolting the camera when pressing the button is to keep your finger on the camera. That way the camera will just keep taking photos as quick as it can. You don't move the camera as you are not pressing the button repeatedly and you don't miss any of the action. Your finger may get tired after 20 minutes of doing this but you have another 9 digits to take over. I kept the same settings apart from increasing the shutter from three to four seconds to allow more light in and make the photo more dramatic. Zeus, the Greek god of thunder and lightning, smiled on me around 1am.

Keep your eye on the coming storm potential 

After seeing this I settled down a bit and started thinking more rationally. Happy in the knowledge I had captured a great shot I noticed that this wasn't the only storm. I'm not too hot on the nature of storms but there were a further two lighting areas approaching from the left and right. All three looking to clash right above my head. So I turned the camera to the storm on the left. There are three main types of lightning. The most common is the one captured and that is lightening that travels within the cloud it originates. Then you have lightning that travels between clouds. I was seeing this on the right of me but to be honest it wasn't particularly spectacular. The third and most studied type is cloud to ground lightning where a fork will come down like a silver finger and touch some poor tree or cow. This was the lightning approaching fast from the left. It would have looked great coming down and zapping a pylon and making 5000 kettles simultaneously boil but alas it was probably touching some poor dolphin or fisherman.

Be patient and set up your shot

The photo above gives a nice feel of an incoming storm but it's not intimidating. I went with a 30-second shutter to try and get the stars and sea in, but I don't feel that the photo gave the right impression of three converging lightning clouds. I relaxed and waited a while for the clouds to approach. I decided to go with settings halfway between the two previous setups. I ended up on an eight second exposure and raised the ISO to 400. I wanted a bit more light to give a stormy feel knowing it would white out the strike itself. The photo I ended up with I was very happy with.

Stay safe!

Soon after this the main storm came close and the rain started. Being on a pier 50 metres out at sea during a storm standing next to a 10 metre flagpole was not the safest place to be so I retreated back to my ground floor hotel room and set up again. The following hour was a delight. The storms as far as I could tell did converge right above us and produced a phenomenal show. I could count how close it was getting using the age old "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, two Mississippi..." BOOM! The photos captured don't even look real, but I assure you they are not photoshopped.

The final photograph of the storm

So there you have it. Just a camera and a fisheye is all you need to photograph a storm. Oh and a wallet to prop up the camera to point it at the sky.

To see more of Luke's photography check him out on Twitter and Facebook.