How do you capture spectacular thunderstorms on camera? In terms of recording technique, it isn’t as difficult as you might think. The hardest part is being in the right place at the right time. I’ve put together a handful of tips for you.
I don’t normally give advice without having first-hand experience in the matter. However, when I started writing this post, it hadn’t stormed in weeks. I had my mind set on publishing it in time for the next storm wave so you could head off and capture those lightning bolts. Therefore, I didn’t draw from my own experience but from Andreas Hostettler – a keen storm photographer and meteorologist by profession.
Let’s start with the recording technique. You’ll never know when and where the next lightning bolt will strike. That’s why you take long exposures: Keep the shutter open until lightning strikes within the camera’s field of view. As the image section should be large, a wide-angle lens is the way to go. Long exposure also means you need a tripod. A sturdy one that won’t tip over at the smallest gust of wind. Speaking of equipment: A spare battery won’t hurt. Long exposures eat up a lot of power.
Slow shutter speed works best when it’s dark. So it really comes in handy that storms tend to unleash in the evening or at night. With a neutral density (ND) filter, you can also do long exposure shots when it’s still light out. Although lightning is less impressive in daylight, apocalyptic thunderclouds and dramatic landscapes really come into their own.
Alternatively, the daytime is also a good time to use your video function – especially with 4K-enabled cameras. It’s particularly easy with a special recording mode some cameras have. This mode constantly shoots videos or takes photos in burst mode but only saves the recordings when you press the shutter release button. Andreas Hostettler tried this with the Panasonic Lumix G81 and was pleased with it. Panasonic calls this function «Pre-Burst» and has also fitted other models with it.
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Set the ISO sensitivity to the lowest value (normally 100 ISO). The right aperture depends on the brightness and light sources you can see in the picture. Obviously, it also depends on the exposure time. If you want perfect exposure for both the lightning bolt and the surroundings, it’s best to predefine the exposure time and the aperture (e.g. 30 seconds and aperture f/8). This also means you have to endure those 30 seconds – even if three bolts of lightning strike. It does have its disadvantages.
To set your predefined exposure time, switch your camera to manual mode (M) and select aperture and exposure time. Turn it up to the maximum time of 30 seconds and most cameras will go into bulb mode. Some models are a little different and will not only have an M mode but also a separate bulb mode with the abbreviation B. Either way, when you’re in bulb mode, the camera will expose for as long as you’ve got your finger on the shutter release button. This can be 30 seconds or longer. To prevent blur, try using a remote release or release the shutter via the camera app on your smartphone.
If you have a mirrorless camera, the viewfinder will indicate the brightness resulting from a long exposure time at the current aperture. If it doesn’t, this option has probably been deactivated in the settings. For the Canon M50, for example, this menu item is called «exposure simulation».
For SLR cameras, you can’t see this in the viewfinder but in LCD live view mode. If, for some reason, you can’t make the exposure simulation work, try the conversion trick. After all, you won’t want to wait for 30 seconds each time to find out that you messed up the exposure. So try cranking up the sensitivity to 3200 ISO for your test run. Let me explain: Increasing sensitivity from 100 to 3200 ISO means you’ve doubled the value five times. To reach the same brightness, you must half the exposure time (at the same aperture) five times. At 30 seconds, this makes 0,93 seconds. A number I generously rounded up as it doesn’t have to be that precise.
The biggest challenge when it comes to snapping storms is being in the right place at the right time with all your equipment ready to go.
The weather forecast will give you a rough idea of what to expect in the next two to three days. As the possible moment approaches, you need to take a closer look. Consult a rain radar like the one on the MeteoSchweiz website or better still, the mobile app.
Rain isn’t the same thing as lightning, I hear you say. Is the rain radar really a good indicator for potential lightning? The web is full of differing views on the matter, so I decided to get in touch with MeteoSchweiz – that’s how I was introduced to Andreas Hostettler. He says: «Yes, the rain radar is a good way of telling where storms are. Different colours show the amount of rainfall. This colour code allows you to see storm cells with heavy rains. Intense downpours are usually orange, red or even violet if they reach the highest level. The latter level is usually hail.»
Additionally, you can use lightning maps to see which places were recently hit. The different colours indicate how long ago lightning struck. Similarly to the rain radar, the colour gradient shows you in which direction a storm is moving. International lightning maps are available on websites such as blitzortung.org and lightningmaps.org. The latter is easier to read but based on the same data as blitzortung.org – data that is delivered by a worldwide community. Their respective mobile apps are called BlitzortungLive (iOS) and BlitzortungGewitterMonitor (Android).
What do you do with the information provided by rain radar and lightning map? Drive to where the action is? Pick a spot beforehand and wait for a storm to come? Andreas Hostettler says some storm photographers drive «right into the storm, no matter where it is». Hostettler adds that he’s had bad experiences with this approach. He explains that it’s not just about being in the right place. You also need to find a good spot – a spot with a view of the storm. Ideally a viewpoint that also overlooks an interesting foreground. Remember that you’ve got to be quick to catch that moment. Without knowing your whereabouts, this could turn out to be tricky.
That’s why Hostettler does things the other way round. He looks for a good photographing spot first. In his vicinity, this would be the panorama terrace Bäumli in Winterthur, for example. «This place has the advantage that the view is facing southwest, where storms often come from. There is also a view of the city and not just the next building.»
He recommends the website turmfinder.ch to discover suitable lookouts. The site features a map of accessible observation towers in Switzerland.
Please be safe and remember to stay on the sidelines and not to get caught in the middle of the storm. Lookouts are particularly exposed. Hostettler says: «Certain apps will give off a warning signal if you’re getting too close. Keeping a safe distance of about 15 kilometres also makes photographing easier as the wind and rain aren’t as fierce.» But not always. Some storms as far away as 20 to 30 kilometres are sometimes preceded by wind forces of over 70 km/h.
According to meteo expert Hostettler, the following is also important: It’s not unusual that new storm cells form in front of a brewing storm front. That’s why it’s important to regularly check the sky for looming cloud formations above your photo location. «You can often hear a kind of mumble when new storm cells are forming. The sound is caused by small discharges in the upper cloud levels and indicates that an electric storm is imminent.»
There’s an old trick to estimate the distance of lightning: Count the seconds between the lightning and that first rumble of thunder. Sound travels at about one kilometre per three seconds. Light at zero seconds. So if ten seconds pass, you’re a bit over three kilometres away from where lightning struck.
So if life is dear to you, don’t try to force anything and, if in doubt, abandon your mission, even if you didn’t get a good photo. «One time, I made it back to the car by the skin of my teeth and saw lightning strike a crane just 100 metres away», Hostettler tells me. A further safety tip: Don’t stray too far from your car – it will protect you if lightning strikes.
Cover photo: Andreas Hostettler
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