How do you focus on lightening bolts at night?

Jeff Colburn

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Aug 6, 2007
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Sedona, AZ
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Hi All,

I'm having problems getting lightning bolts in focus at night. Here's what I do:

  • Put camera on a tripod
  • Set it on f8, 30 second exposure, ISO 100
  • Set the focus as close to infinity as I can
  • After I get my first lightning bolt, zoom into the images on the screen on the back of my camera to check the focus and adjust as needed.

While I can get close, it's never as sharp as I'd like. And some times it's just way off.

Any advice?

All I can think of is to mark the lens barrel somehow so I know when it's in focus in the dark.

I set mine for 5 sec exposure, but I had a wobbly ladder and a towel for support also, and let the camera do the rest. I think it was on auto white balance also. It was very impromptu though since the storm popped up while I was living in Hawaii. This storm knocked out power all over the state, and almost 2 days before the entire island of Oahu had power.

I would have to look at the EXIF, but like I said it was a grab and shoot. I didn't really know what I was doing since I have never done it before.

Typical lightning settings:

f11-f16 ISO 200 and 20-30 sec. of exposure should give you a really good start.

Oh, and focus just short of infinity. ;)
They few times I've gotten lightning, I've used a remote with 5-10 second exposures with the widest lens. This helps keep from overheating the sensor. Back off inifinity ever so slightly and turn AF off. You don't want the lens hunting in the dark. I used an apeture of f/8 to f/11 (sharpest range on the lens).

Ok cool, I wish I would have known that, but then again I wasn't expecting to see that much lightning. I haven't since.
Thanks everyone.

Usually, I'm shooting in complete darkness. No lights of any kind. I turn the lens all the way (toward infinity), then turn it back a little.

Here's a shot from last night. It looks okay when small.

But when you see it at 100%, it looks like this.

I'll keep plugging away.

Here are 2 examples.

When I shoot lightning I shoot at about 6 sec exposures at about f/16-18. I shoot in RAW. For focusing I pick something off in the distance. Lightning is about impossible to predict the exact distant but if you have an area that is is striking you can focus on something were it hit and 9 out 10 time you will have a good shot. Do no use auto focus. Manual only. In your case I would try to focus on the mountains it is hitting but it will be hit and miss sometimes.

Good Luck
Set the lens on infinity (no reason not to) and turn off autofocus.

If the bolt is closer than infinity focus distance, you won't have to worry about the focus. You and the camera will be vaporized.
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As with fireworks, I back off just short of infinity and it seems to work better than setting to infinity.
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When I shoot fireworks I set the focus on a land target at the base of where I expect the charges to rise from. Then I use a smaller aperture and fire in BULB mode so I have full control. I don't like being stuck in a 10sec shutter if I change my mind. With BULB I open and close with a remote, at will.

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