Image: Oliver Clarke – CC BY 2.0

We’ve all seen spectacular storm photography – bolts of lightning shattering across the sky, or tremendous waves crashing against a lonesome beach. Storm photos range from powerful and dramatic to brooding and moody – and make for exceptional and inspiring photos.

While storms come in all forms and sizes – from terrifying hurricanes to funnel clouds, the fact is that you don’t need an epic tale or a near death experience to capture some excellent storm photos. Windy days, minor storms, or waves at the coast all present excellent opportunities for storm photography, and there’s something for every level of excitement.

Regardless of your preferred comfort level, arming yourself with the right tools and know-how, before you head out can help you to capture some stunning images. While storm photography can be a bit trickier than clear-day photos, the results are often worth it.

Here are some tips to get you started.

→ Related reading: Making the Most of Bad Weather

1. Be Prepared

Before setting out on your storm-seeking expedition, make sure you’re well prepared.

Check the weather forecast and see what type of storm they’re calling for. While extreme storms can make for dramatic photographs, you also run the risk of injury if you head out unprepared, so be sure to check the severity of the storm before you leave.

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Make sure you have some emergency supplies –snacks and water, and a cell phone. Be sure to bring a raincoat, warm clothes, and a spare change of clothes –in case you get wet.

Next, prep your camera and gear. You may want to consider getting a waterproof case for your camera, to keep it as dry as possible. Be sure to bring along lens cloths and a couple of dry towels for wiping everything down after it gets wet.

2. Camera Equipment

If you’re heading out on foot, you’ll want to travel as light as possible –but if you’re going via car, bring along everything you may need for capturing that storm. The best gear for the job is what you have available, but if you have time, it doesn’t hurt to bring along the following items.

  • Filters: Filters are valuable for storm photography, where the lighting is always notoriously unpredictable. Often, the sky has patches of light that can easily be overexposed, while the ground is dark. A graduated neutral density filter can help to prevent this, reducing the exposure from the bright white sky – allowing you to use longer shutter speeds. A circular polarizer will also come in handy for darkening the image, helping you to capture deep blue skies and clouds that stand out dramatically. A lens filter will also help to protect your lens from damage.
  • Tripod: Your tripod will be your best friend when shooting in a storm! Having a stable place to steady your camera is especially important when shooting storms, which often call for longer exposures. You may also want to consider getting a camera bean bag, which can be placed over a car’s open window. This allows you to shoot from inside your car, protecting you and your gear!
  • Cable Release: A cable release is especially useful when it comes to shooting in storms, allowing you to release the shutter without having to touch the camera – preventing camera shake.
  • Wide Angle Lens: As with most landscape photography, a wide-angle lens is usually ideal for capturing storms. A wide angle lens renders more distance between the foreground and horizon, allowing you to capture images with more depth. See our Reviews of the Best Wide Angle Lenses for Canon and Reviews of the Best Wide Angle Lenses for Nikon.

→ Related reading: Recommended Gear for Landscape Photography

horse in a storm

Image: greg westfall / CC BY 2.0

3. Composition Tips

It’s easy to be taken in by the excitement of the storm, but it’s important to remember the reason that you’re there! Don’t forget to take a few seconds to compose your picture.

  • Find a Focal Point
    Remember to find a focal point – be it the disappearing point at the horizon, a horse in a field, or a windswept tree.
  • Watch the Horizon
    Where you position the horizon can have a big impact on the resulting image. If you’re trying to capture the storm clouds in all of their dramatic beauty, try placing the horizon line near the bottom of the viewfinder to make the sky look even bigger and more imposing. If you want to include a mountain range or capture some foreground interest, you’ll want to position the horizon line higher up.
  • Balance
    Great photos are all about balance. So take care that your composition’s “visual weight” is evenly distributed. As a general rule, you’ll want to avoid having one side of the image too heavy.
  • Capture Exceptional Light
    The light just before, and after a storm can be especially striking, especially at sunset, so stick around for a few minutes after the storm to see if you can capture an amazing light show. Also watch for rainbows – a circular polarizing filter can help you to capture these.
  • Include Foreground Interest
    Without foreground, landscape photos tend to look flat and one-dimensional. Be sure to include plenty foreground interest in the photo. Getting low to the ground and including windswept grass, some rocks, driftwood, or fallen logs can all help to set the stage and provide a sense of perspective to your photo.
  • Look for Leading Lines
    Look for leading lines –such as jagged coastlines, rugged trails, or fences that can lead the eye through the photo.

Image: John Fowler / CC BY 2.0

4. Camera Settings

The camera settings that you will want to use depend widely upon what you’re hoping to capture, and the available light. As a general rule, here are some guidelines for different types of storm photography:

  • Night Lightning
    Lightning can make for some striking photographs! To capture lightning, a tripod and a slow shutter speed of around 30 seconds is usually in order. Adjust your aperture to about f/8, and keep your ISO below 400. While streaks of lightning are photogenic, the lightning behind the clouds tends to be less picturesque, often resulting in a washed-out sky. If you find that you have a lot of lightning behind the clouds, speed up the shutter speed to around 10-15 seconds to allow less light into the sensor.
  • Falling Raindrops
    For streaky, falling raindrops, you’ll want to use a shutter speed of around 1/30 of a second. To “freeze” raindrops mid-air, a fast shutter speed of around 1/500 to 1/1000 of a second is necessary.
  • Ocean Waves or Softly Streaked Clouds
    Choppy ocean waves during a storm can make great images. For a softly blurred, misty waves or clouds, set a very slow shutter speed –anywhere between 5 seconds and several minutes, depending on how blurry you want the waves to be. Use faster shutter speeds for less blur. Be sure to use your tripod for image stabilization.

5. Stay Safe

Finally, it’s basic, but it must be said: staying safe should be top priority. Running around in a lightning storm with a bunch of metal gear (tripod!) isn’t the smartest idea ever. Depending on the severity of the storm, things could go from photo-worthy to disastrous in an instant, so be smart and know when to seek shelter.

What about you? Do you enjoy capturing storms? Share your tips with us in the comments!

5 Tips for Photographing Storms

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