Many of you have seen those insane pictures with several thunderbolts reaching down from the sky. In this tutorial I’ll show you how to stack multiple images using Photoshops blending modes to get this exact result. This technique is rather easy and of course can be used for more things other than just thunderstorms!
Yes, you heard it before – lightning is dangerous bla bla bla, but please, before you go outside hunting for the perfect storm picture, make sure you know what you’re doing! If you notice that winds are getting stronger, it’s starting to rain or simply thunder coming closer and closer look for a safe spot! The best thing to do is to take images from inside your car – you’re totally safe in there!
Basic Equipment Requirements
For this technique you need some basic equipment. Most important thing to have is a tripod – it won’t work without one (except you’re placing your DSLR on the ground or something). The reason for this is that we will be stacking images over another, so you want to have the exact same DSLR position for every picture you take.
Also a remote is quite helpful, but it’s not necessary. You can just manually press the camera trigger, the remote just automates that process, so you can lean back while shooting. By the way you want to aim for longer exposure times when photographing, I’m normally going for something like 13 seconds with a focal length of around 30 millimeters.
Image Stacking with Photoshop
Once you’ve got your shots, edit them in Lightroom, Camera Raw or whatever you are using, just make sure all of your images will have the same colortone, otherwise it may look strange. When you’ve finished the first post processing steps, save the images somewhere (purely for organization purpose).
Now comes the stacking part: Load one of the images you just saved in Photoshop, then add one more images above the layer you added first and set the Blending mode to “Add” (I’m currently using the Germany version of Photoshop, that’s why it says “aufhellen” in the screenshot below). What this blending mode is doing is rather simple: it compares both images, pixels which are brighter on the top layer will be visible, darker ones will turn invisible – it’s pretty straight forward, once you check this mode out I’m sure you’ll understand what its doing!
This way we can stack as many lightning bolts as we want to, you just have to take care of the clouds, as it may look unnatural when changing the blending mode to add. But don’t worry, for this problem we can use layer masks.
Select the layer which is causing the “unnatural light” problem and hit on the layer mask icon (icon below the arrow in the screenshot below). Now select the brush tool and change the foregroundcolor to black. To erase spots from the top layer which you don’t want to be visible, just brush over them, as the brush tool works like an eraser on the layer mask. You have to do this step carefully, it takes some time getting used to it, but it’s necessary for decent post processing!
If you want, you can go on add more layers, keep editing them with layer masks to fit your needs. Also this whole technique works great for long exposure traffic photography for example. If you have any question, feel free to ask in the comment section below!