Photographing Thunderstorms


Warmer weather brings all the things that photographers typically love. The flowers are starting to come up and trees are quickly turning green. In this area of the country, it also brings the threat of severe weather. Photographing weather can be a challenging and fun pursuit, but I can also be very dangerous. Before discussing how to photograph storms, we need to spend a little time discussing safety. It is not really possible to take night shots of storms and lightning with out a tripod, and it should go without saying that standing next to a metal lightning rod (in this case: your tripod) and photographing a storm moving through the area is not a very good idea. Then, you still have to deal with strong winds, hail, tornados, and possibly flash flooding. This is one of those activities that you really should not try at home. Here are some stats about the dangers of being out in severe weather:
ighting safety here: 


Lighting strikes near the HWy 62 Bridge in Henderson Arkansas
Lighting strikes near the HWy 62 Bridge in Henderson Arkansas

Basically, if you can hear thunder you are in danger of being struck by lightning.

But, I suppose, if you are like me… you cannot resist the temptation to try to get a few shots of a landscape with some lightning in it.

Finding a location.

Every storm is a little different, but the formula is fairly similar. I usually have best results after dark. I will watch the weather reports to see where the storm is and which way it is moving in from. Almost always the storms move from west to east here. So I am usually looking for some point of interest that can act as an anchor for the image. Lightning is cool by itself, but you really want your image to tell a story, to capture the imagination of the viewer. You will need some point of interest in the foreground, and something in the background as well. You will also need a spot that has a clear horizon; trees and buildings may block the view of the storm. I highly recommend scouting locations before the storm, so you can quickly get there and set up.

Wall Cloud passes overhead
Wall Cloud passes overhead

Tripod and other stuff

Once you have your location set you will need a decent tripod. Heavy wind and thunder can cause your camera to shake, and without good support your images will be all blurry.
A remote trigger with a lock button is necessary to photograph safely. I use an intervalometer to control the camera. The intervalometer, once programed will make the camera take a picture every second.
You will also need some type of protection for your camera from the rain. I use an optic rainsleeve to keep the rain off of my camera. It works well enough, and is very inexpensive.

Traffic moving towards a supercell thunderstorm
Traffic moving towards a supercell thunderstorm

Out in the field

Once I am at the location, and you have your camera set up and rainsleeve on, and the intervalometer set; I will simply ride the storm out inside my car. Your car will keep you safe from the lightning, and all but the most severe hail. Setting your camera is a little of trial and error. I usually try to get a 15-30 second exposure, at somewhere between f5.6 to 8. I start shooting at ISO 100 and go from there. You will need to fine-tune the exposures from there. A big flash of lightning will act similar to an electronic flash, it will light up the scene during the exposure, so if the images are too bright you will need to stop down the f stop or lower your is. When I go out to shoot, I will bring 2 cameras and set up and let them shoot several hundred images. Then afterwards, I will pick out the best.

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