Do it for the thrill of the chase.
Put safety first in storm photography.
Don’t stand under a tree.
Check radar and be mindful.
Keep your distance from the storm.
Find your vantage point and have patience.
Using a radar app and the National Weather Service website, find out which direction your storm is coming from and decide on a location with composition in mind. “I try and get to a safe location where the cityscape is between me and the storm. This way I can watch the system evolve as it approaches,” says Ulivieri. If you can find a safe elevated spot, that will also add some interest to your images of lightning strikes.
Sturdy tripod and cable release.
Lightning trigger or intervalometer.
Wide-angle lens and rain protection for your gear.
Using a wide-angle lens is a great way to capture a full storm structure in one shot — but be sure to protect it. Even if you are miles from the storm, there may be precipitation. Keep your camera under an awning or shoot from inside your vehicle to stay dry.
Camera settings for getting your lightning shots.
Your ideal settings for shooting lightning will depend on the amount of ambient light and how close you are to the storm. “Some bolts are super bright and will blow out your frame, and others aren’t. You’ll need to adjust accordingly,” says Reed. “It’s a constant flux of adjusting the exposure.” If your goal is to capture as many lightning bolts as possible, longer exposures are key. A shorter exposure (aided by a lightning trigger) is best for capturing a single bolt of lightning.
Start with the steps below, and then experiment to optimize your storm photography.
- Turn off lens stabilization and autofocus.
When shooting on a tripod, start by turning off lens stabilization. Most storms will be too dark for autofocus to be helpful, so you’ll want to rely on manual focus. To help with clarity, focus the camera on a light in the distance before you start shooting.
- Set a long exposure in the evening.
Remember, longer exposures (anything longer than 1/60 of a second) increase your chances of capturing lightning. Experiment by setting the longest exposure possible without overexposing the image — unless you’re shooting during the day.
- Narrow your aperture.
During the day, narrowing your aperture can help you shoot a longer exposure even in the sunlight. Try taking a test shot and then adjusting as necessary based on your results. Continue to narrow the aperture as the lightning gets closer and closer.
Make a lightning composite.
If you have multiple good shots of lightning from the same exact angle, you can create a composite image showing all the bolts at once. Open Adobe Photoshop and stack your images on top of one another as separate layers. Then, set the blending mode for each layer as “lighten.” This causes the brightest parts of each layer — the lightning — to remain visible.
Storm photography celebrates how our complex atmosphere expresses light and color. And it’s important to document the changes in our weather. But before you start photographing storms, educate yourself on the risks and consult the experts so you can stay safe. “Know your subject,” says Reed. “That’s part of being respectful of nature.” And be prepared to be surprised. “There’s always a chance you’re going to see something you’ve never seen before. It’s exhilarating, especially if it’s a good storm and you remember to take the lens cap off.”
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