Natural phenomena arouse a particularly great photographic interest in many of us. Thunderclouds and lightning are a popular subject. In order to be able to capture such weather events, you need some luck and some technical skills. Since thunderstorms are only partly predictable for a certain region as well as relatively temporary, a thorough preparation is recommendable for the eventuality.
Your safety always comes first
The enchanting photo motifs of thunderclouds and flashes should always be taken from a safe location, because the risks of thunderstorms should not be underestimated. Shooting from the inside of a house or a car can also be an appropriate location, despite the presence of windows in between. Perhaps the raindrops on the windscreen offer a special charm for the photo.
So always remember: Your safety comes first. You should always keep a sufficient distance to the thunderstorm.
Which camera settings you should use with a DSLR
First, you should select the desired image section so that an interesting scenery can be seen. We also recommend a small focal length, which makes it possible to take large photographs of the surroundings and the sky and thus increases the probability of catching a flash.
Ideally, you should use a camera that allows you to make manual adjustments, such as an SLR camera. The camera settings depend on the time of day or night when the pictures are taken. Night shots of thunderstorms are particularly interesting. A high exposure value, i.e. a long exposure, is recommended. The shutter speed, which usually lasts several seconds – depending on the frequency of the thunderstorms – requires a stable and quiet exposure of the camera. A stand – preferably a tripod – is therefore the ideal companion for these shots. Furthermore, a remote shutter release is recommended, which can also be replaced by the self-timer or an interval function of the respective camera, so that you do not blur the picture by pressing the shutter release.
The long exposure time should be set depending on possible light sources, such as street lighting or moonlight.
Since a long exposure time does not produce good results in daylight photography, you should use a neutral density filter during the day. This ND filter is a suitable tool for blocking excess incoming light. The exposure time should be adjusted again and again, as the lighting conditions can tend to vary greatly. The ISO values of such photographs should be in the range from ISO 100 to ISO 200. The aperture must be set individually depending on the situation. You should adjust the f-number in relation to the exposure time. The longer the exposure time, the less the contours of the clouds can be seen in your photos. An average aperture value of 8 tends to be a good start.
You should also adjust the focus manually, as the autofocus of a camera is not suitable for such brief snapshots. The short period of time during which the flash is visible is usually not sufficient for automatic focusing. The focus should be set to infinity. Alternatively, you can select a point further away within the image section for focusing.
Alternative to DSLR – Take photos of lightning with compact cameras and smartphones
Thunderstorms often occur unexpectedly and of course you are not always prepared for them. Since the SLR camera and its lenses are not always at hand, thunderstorms and flashes can also be photographed with compact cameras and smartphone cameras. The result is of course a different one than with professional equipment and manual adjustment possibilities.
Smartphone cameras offer numerous filters and settings that allow us to take photos of ever higher quality. If the aperture, the exposure time and the ISO value can be set manually, the relevant conditions for the success of such photos are met. In addition, burst mode functions make it easier to capture thunderstorms. With this method, numerous photos are taken one after the other in the shortest possible time, among which a good result can certainly be found.
You can also use apps that allow you to insert or even photograph a flash up to three seconds after the event. For Android devices, there is the Lightning Camera app, for iOS users the iLightningCam Lite app.
Nowadays, manual focusing can also be used with some compact cameras. If the essential parameters can also be set manually, there’s hardly anything standing in the way of your dream photo. As with SLR shots, a tripod and a remote or self-timer are also useful when shooting with a smartphone or compact camera. Subsequent image processing completes the results of the photographs.
The best results can be achieved with SLR cameras and the corresponding manual settings. Although some smartphone cameras also offer manual adjustment options such as ISO values and f-numbers, it is almost impossible to adjust the focus to infinity. Only a lot of patience, some luck and subsequent image processing remain for the smartphone photographers. Alternatively, you still have to resort to additional apps.
And always remember: In the mountains, at home or on holiday – never endanger yourself. Good luck trying it out!