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, billowing storm clouds, 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.
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 storms can arise seemingly out of nowhere, tracking a storm can help you better prepare for your shoot. So be sure to get ahold of a good weather app, like WeatherPro (iPhone or Android), and use it to keep up-to-date on impending storms. Knowing the conditions –rain, snow, high winds –and how powerful it will be can help you be prepared and safe while out shooting.
While extreme storms can make for dramatic photographs, you also run the risk of injury if you head out unprepared, so you’ll also want to make sure you check the severity of the storm before you leave.
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 soaked in a sudden downpour.
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 a lens cloth and a couple of dry towels for wiping everything down after it gets wet.
Scout Out a Location
Location is everything! First, you’ll want to determine which direction the storm is coming in from. You’ll then want to find a location that will allow you to capture it from the perfect angle. This will depend largely upon the type of storm and your photography goals. A high vantage point that offers a good view of the incoming storm is ideal for capturing images of storm clouds. Or, you could head to the coast to photograph the waves crashing onto the shore. A field, with grassy wheat billowing in the wind, engulfed by looming storm clouds could also make for some exciting images. Think about the type of images that you’d like to capture when scouting out your location.
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 are valuable for storm photography, where the lighting is 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.
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!
• Shutter Release Cable
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.
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. Of course, if you have a zoom lens, you could bring that as well –sometimes zooming in on certain aspects of the storm can make for some great images as well.
• Spares Batteries and Memory Cards
Be sure to bring plenty of spare batteries and memory cards. They don’t take up much room and if you’re out for a while chances are you will use up the battery and multiple memory cards.
• Weight Bag
Because of the unpredictable weather during storms, you may find a weight bag or sandbag to be useful for keeping your tripod steady and secure.
• A Rain Cover
A rain cover for your camera is also important. You don’t need anything too fancy, just something to keep the rain off your camera. You may also want to bring a towel for drying things off, and a microfiber cloth for wiping your lens. Be sure to bring a warm rain jacket for yourself as well!
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 image.
• Find a Focal Point
Finding a point to focus on can create a more engaging shot, and help to anchor your image. Look for something interesting to use as your focal point, whether that’s a lone tree or rock formation in the foreground, a looming mountain in the distance, or the disappearing point at the horizon.
• 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.
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 of 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.
Tips for Capturing Lightning
Lighting is an exciting type of storm photography! And it can reward you with some striking images.
But there’s more that goes into capturing a great lightning shot than just getting the bolts. There will be plenty of ‘downtime’ between streaks of lightning so take this time to compose your images.
• Find an Excellent Location
While obviously you will need to be where the lightning is –make sure you aren’t too close and keep yourself safe. A safe spot is usually between six and ten miles away from the storm. Finding a good location that offers an excellent vantage point from which you can capture your images is important. While scouting out locations in the middle of a storm isn’t always easy –if you know that there’s an impending storm, try to find a location ahead of time where you can set up. Look for a place that’s overlooking the ocean, or with a mountain range in the distance. Anywhere that provides a great setting to capture the lightning.
• Get the Sky/Ground Ratio Right
When photographing lightning, you’ll usually want to include more sky than land in your shots. When composing your images, remember that the lightning will be the main point of interest, so leave enough room to showcase the streaks.
• Experiment With Different Types of Lightning
Experiment with photographing different types of lightning. Single-bolt streaks of lightning can result in beautiful art-quality images, but multiple streaks can make spectacular photos too. Lightning images taken at different times of the day or at night also have different appearances. Lightning taken during sunset or twilight can result in some spectacular images with beautiful color composition.
• Look for Other Opportunities
While the streaks of lightning are the main event, don’t forget that there can be other photographic opportunities during a storm. At night, flashes of lightning can illuminate the entire landscape spectacularly. The light that’s often found just after a storm can also make for some exceptional images.
• Make Some Adjustments in Post Processing
If you have a program like Lightroom, consider post-processing your best storm images to enhance them just a bit. The focal points –and areas where the light is breaking through the clouds or places that are receiving direct light can sometimes stand to have the saturation enhanced slightly. Or, if you’re out taking images and find that the foreground and background require different exposures, consider taking multiple shots –exposing for the foreground and the background. You can then combine the images into one composite image later one.
Keep in mind that shooting lightning is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of patience. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the shot you were hoping for on the first try –just keep practicing. In time, your results will speak for themselves and you’ll be able to capture lightning photographs that you’re proud of.
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
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.
You may also find it helpful putting the camera into bulb mode and holding the shutter open until you see lightning, then releasing the shutter. Be sure to keep the aperture narrow –something around f/8, to keep the entire image in focus. Keep the ISO as low as possible –below 400, and turn the flash off.
Take a few images and take note of how they turned out, and make adjustments to the settings to improve the images. If the images are too dark, open up the aperture or slow down the shutter speed to let more light in.
You’ll want to use manual focus when photographing lightning. Avoid setting the focus to infinity, your best option is to find a distant light to focus on. This will produce the sharpest results.
• Day Lightning
Photographing daytime lightning can be more difficult than nighttime lightning –mainly because you will want to make sure that the entire image is exposed properly. Still, capturing lightning during the day can produce some spectacular results.
To capture daytime lightning, you may want to use shutter priority mode. This will allow you to control the shutter speeds and easily adjust the exposure. Select a shutter speed of around 1/15 of a second –keeping the ISO low. As with night lightning photography, you’ll want to take a test shot and check the exposure. If the images are too dark, you’ll want to slow down the shutter speeds.
Keep in mind that fast shutter speeds can make it difficult to capture the streaks, so if the scene calls for fast exposures, you’ll want to use a neutral density (ND) filter –which will act like sunglasses for your camera. This will enable you to use a slower shutter speed, without overexposing the images.
• 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.
Finally, it’s basic, but it must be said: staying safe should be your top priority. Running around in a lightning storm with a bunch of metal gear (tripod!) isn’t the best idea. 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. Additionally, never head out into a storm without a safety plan. This should include a plan for photographing the lightning, without getting too close to it. If you’re shooting the lightning from a distance of about five miles or less, it’s a good idea to do this from inside the house, or car. And avoid standing too close to any tall trees or metal poles. Remember –no picture is worth risking your life over!
What about you? Do you enjoy capturing storms? Share your tips with us in the comments!