Behind the Shoot: Catching Lightning Bolts with Jeff McGrath

Behind the Shoot: Catching Lightning Bolts with Jeff McGrath

Photographer Jeff McGrath is an experienced pro working out of Sandy, Utah. Living in Utah allows for unique opportunities for lightning photography. McGrath has an impressive portfolio and was happy to share some inside information on shooting lightning bolts with your camera.

Read on for an informative Q&A with great tips for capturing storms.

Hillary Fox: What draws you to photograph lightning?

Jeff McGrath: The first thing I found out about photographing lightning is that it’s a lot like fishing. It can be hit or miss, and just because others might be catching, doesn’t mean you will. You can be pointing one direction and you will see a bolt strike just to the right of where you were pointed. So you reposition your camera slightly to the right, just to miss the next bolt right where your camera was previously pointed. Go figure. Just because you’re there, doesn’t mean that you’ll get a shot. Just because you’re in a boat, on the lake, doesn’t mean you’ll catch a fish.

I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy photographing lightning. It’s challenging, a thrill, and somewhat risky. When photographing lightning, remember, the “fish” can kill you.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: How do you stay safe while shooting lightning?

JM: Almost all of my lightning shots are taken from under covered porches, inside cars and several miles away from the front of the storm. Once the lightning gets close, on top of me, or if it’s too sporadic, I will call it quits and enjoy listening to the thunder from a safe position. I also keep an eye on the radar, and watch where the strikes are being reported.

Photographing lightning is risky business and several people are killed each year by being struck by lightning. I can only imagine “chasing” it only increases those chances.

Remember that no photograph is ever worth your life.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: What is the most important factor when shooting lightning?

JM: Safety aside, the most important factor is location in my opinion. Just as in real-estate, it’s all about location location location. Lightning is awesome and fun to watch safely from a distance, perhaps from the window of your bedroom. If you, however, have a poor foreground and uninteresting scenery, you’re not going to be happy with your result. Not only is the scenery important, but also your location relative to the storm.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: How do you plan a shoot when lightning is so unpredictable?

JM: Here in Utah, lightning season tends to run through August and September, with a few rare storms in July and October. During this time, I keep a close eye on where the storms are, which directions they’re heading and how fast. If I see a storm brewing, I will try to get ahead of it (20-60 miles ahead) and wait for it to come to me. You also have to be able to leave at a moments notice, at any point in time, even if it’s 3:00am.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: How do you find a safe location to shoot close to the lightning—but not too close?

JM: It’s important to know the area ahead of time and to have several spots already picked out. I look for locations where I can safely shoot across large valleys, and see the storm from 10 to 20 miles away, from a safe distance.

There are several reasons for this. First, you can see where it is going and when it’s starting to get close. Please keep in mind that Lightning can strike several miles away from the storm cell, so keep this in mind. Additionally, the most photogenic lightning tends to be on the front of the storm. Shooting lighting through rain or behind clouds is difficult, miserable, and sometimes impossible to see the lightning. If it’s raining on you, there is a good chance that the storm is already on top of you. You’re most likely late, you’ve missed the action, and most likely unsafe.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: Do you use any special equipment to help catch the shot?

JM: When I first started photographing lightning I was using my Nikon D80 with a cable release, and a cheap tripod. Since then, things have significantly changed. I now use my Nikon D800 with a lightning trigger that responds to a detection of lightning bolts, and will have released the shutter with in 50~70 milliseconds. Most lightning bolts range from 100-500 milliseconds in duration, so this gives you plenty of time to capture the strike.

When I first started, I would put my camera into continuous high and lock my cable release down. This resulted in hundreds, if not thousands of exposures with nothing in them except the black night sky. Using a lightning trigger, you will yield a frame each time it detects a flash in the sky, whether there is a strike in your frame or not. This saves on battery power, space on your memory card and a lot of time sorting photos later.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: What’s the best way to properly expose lightning?

JM: In general, I try to expose for the bolt using aperture and ISO, and expose for the scene using the shutter speed.

Depending on my scenery, I will typically expose for about 4~10 seconds at around f/8~f/11 and ISO 640. I like to leave the shutter open for at least 4 seconds to let the surrounding scenes ambient light trickle in. This also allows for more time, in case any immediate subsequent bolts strike with in the same proximity of the first strike.

Due to the randomness of lightning, you never know how close or far it will be, so I like to shoot with a greater depth of field, to maximize the chance that the bolt will be in focus regardless of where it may strike.

When shooting over a city, a smaller aperture also gives a nice star effect on some of the brighter city lights. The bolt is also very bright, so decreasing the amount of light let in helps prevent from over exposing. I find that if my frames are too dark, I need to leave my shutter open longer. Opening the aperture or increasing ISO will only blow out the detail in the lightning bolt. Again, expose for the bolt using Aperture and ISO, expose for the scene using shutter speed.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: Do you have a preferred lens?

JM: My favorite lens to shoot with is my 70-200mm. I typically shoot around 70~90mm. Shooting wide angle in a lightning storm is a lot of fun, but dangerous because that means it’s most likely on top of you. I typically only do this when I have a place to take shelter.

Storm by Jeff McGrath

HF: How do you minimize camera shake in the midst of a storm?

JM: If there is wind, I will also remove my cameras strap and widen the stance on my tripod, as well as getting it lower to the ground to minimize vibration. Nothing is more irritating than getting a shot where the bolt is perfectly frozen in place, while the rest of the image is blurry.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF:  Who inspires you?

JM: Lightning photographers I look up to, Scott Stringham. Scott is one of the reasons I got into photographing lightning. His work is inspiring to me and always amazing.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: What’s your favorite shot?

JM: That’s hard to say, because they tend to be very different. One of my favorites would be a bolt that I photographed in August of 2010. The composition worked out nicely, it was ahead of the storm so it illuminated the clouds in the background, and you can see the ground lighting up around the strike. I’ve tried again and again to get similar shots, but haven’t been able to.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: Do you ever get nervous?

JM: Yes. Oh yes. There have been times where I will move from the back seat to the front seat of my Impreza without getting out of my car, to drive away. This is no easy task being a bigger guy. Lightning isn’t the only hazard too. I’ve seen flash floods carry debris across the roads and encountered 2~6 feet deep mud slides with boulders on the road. Driving at night, in a heavy rain or fog, in mountainous terrain can be intense at times.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: How do you shoot from your car?

JM: I will set up my tripod in the center of my car, slightly roll down the window, reposition my car, and zoom out the window towards the storm. If it’s raining, I try to angle my car so that the rain is going away from the window, and not in it. Although, this rarely happens and the interior of my car ends up getting soaked.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: Has your gear ever gotten wet?

JM: Yes, lots of times, even with rain sleeves and getting my camera as close as I can to the ceiling.

Lightning by Jeff McGrath

HF: Can you capture lightning in the daytime?

Yes I can, and I have, although they are usually so low in contrast, they are rather boring and uninteresting.

Storm by Jeff McGrath

HF: How often do you get out to chase a storm?

JM: This year, I think I chased about 20 storms, only successfully catching lightning in 10 of them.


Big thanks to Jeff McGrath for sharing his expert storm photography tips. You can follow more of his storm photography and landscape work on his Facebook page, over at 500px, and on Twitter.

Photo credits
Storm & lightning photography © Jeff McGrath



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Written by Hillary Fox

Founder of OnGoingPro, Hillary Fox is a travel and lifestyle photographer working throughout Europe and Africa. Visit her site at hillaryfox.com.

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