Storm Photography Tips & Tricks (Guest post)

Diana Milevska sent in this awesome guest post explaining how photographers can learn to photograph storms, lightning, and other natural features that are likely to cause instant death. Diana is a storm chaser, photographer, and designer. For more on Diana K. Milevska, check her out at BowEchoMedia.com.  The nice thing about being a storm chaser is that the only credential you need is really awesome photos of really awesomely terrifying storms, so I knew Diana was qualified to write this post the instant I looked at her photos.  Incredible.

Thunderstorms are one of nature’s most powerful outbursts, and if you’re anything like me, just seeing one makes your heart flutter and your mouth begin to drool.  Not only are these storms a wonder to behold, they’re also a thing of beauty that must be photographed.  Here are some simple tips and tricks to keep in mind when a good storm does pop up and you want to photograph it.

Photo of a spring thunder storm moving across a farm.

Storm Photography Tip #1: Know what you’re getting into
I can’t stress this enough. Know what you’re getting into before you go out to take storm photos.  Check the Weather Channel (weather.com) or the Storm Prediction Center (spc.noaa.gov) for more information about developing weather in your area. Severe weather, especially storms with the potential for high winds, hail, and tornadoes, are extremely dangerous. Shooting this type of weather has the potential of getting you killed, so reading up on it will help improve your chances of staying safe.  Sign up for a National Weather Service sponsored severe weather spotter training course (it’s free!) or find a storm chaser friend who won’t mind you tagging along. (Hey, you might learn something!)

The best time to take storm photos is before or after a thunderstorm, so don’t think that just because a storm is over you won’t get any good images. Some features to look out for when you’re photographing storms are wall clouds, shelf clouds, anvils, mammatus, rain shafts, lightning, and the thunderstorm itself. To read up on these features, go to weather.gov and click on Education/Outreach or Google.

Storm over a farm

I don't think I'm in Kansas anymore... - by Diane Milevska

Storm Photography Tip #2: You might get wet
You’re going to photograph storms, so the possibility of getting rained on is pretty high. You don’t want to ruin your camera equipment, so what do you do? Get yourself a large zip-top bag (one gallon or bigger), place your camera inside the bag, cut a hole out for the lens, and you’re done! No need to spend hundreds on underwater housing for your specific camera with this trick. Just thrown out the bag once it starts to leak and get a new one. I also suggest grabbing a hoodie or some kind of jacket for yourself (a change of clothes might be a good idea too!) Take it from me, nothing sucks more than getting drenched then having to drive hours in wet clothes before you can go home and change.

Storm Photography Tip #3: Cargo pants are cool
Okay, maybe they’re not, but for a storm photographer, they’re a time saver. I keep everything from lens caps to filters to blank media in my pockets, and sometimes even lenses if they’ll fit. When you’re out in the field, especially if a storm is bearing down on you, you’ll want those extra pockets.

Thunderstorm Panorama - by Diane Milevska

Storm Photography Tip #4: Pack light
Camera, wide angle lens, standard lens, tripod, filters, and a backpack to keep them all in; that’s pretty much all you need in the field. And don’t forget lens cloths. You’ll need them to wipe off any moisture on your camera or lenses.

Funny thing about this picture from Diana. When I saw this cloud, I instantly remembered that my teacher in middle school taught me the scientific name of this cloud once. It was called "RUN AWAY!"

Storm Photography Tip #5: Filters are easy to replace, lenses are not
I think it goes without saying that you should always keep some kind of lens filter on your camera, be it UV or clear. This is even more important when you’re shooting storms because the wind can pick up and throw things at you in a moment’s notice. You’re better off replacing a filter than you are a lens, so keep those filters on your camera. It also keeps pesky dust off your lenses (because, good lord, I HATE cleaning dust off my lenses).

Speaking of filters, you’ll want to carry a polarizing filter with you. This’ll give your cloud shots more depth and reduce reflection if you happen to be shooting through a car window (which is a definite possibility). Other filters that I’ve used to enhance clouds are neutral density, graduated neutral density or color, and color correction filters.

Storm Photography Tip #6: Your tripod is your best friend
This is especially true in night settings when you’re trying to photograph lightning. It’s good to have a sturdy tripod. Weighing it down with something heavy would be really helpful (remember, it can get windy).

Shooting lightning while using your tripod is quite easy. Set your aperture to its highest setting, put your lens on infinite zoom, and meter your lighting to determine just how long to keep your shutter open. I usually keep mine open for 5 seconds or longer depending on how frequent the lightning strikes are and whether or not I’m in a well lit area (you’ll want to keep your shutter open for shorter periods if you’re in a city setting). Don’t wait for lightning to strike. Shoot photos in succession. You’re bound to get something sooner or later. Just remember, you can always layer your photos later in post processing to create a lightning collage (just don’t move your tripod).

Storm Photography Tip #7: RAW + Photoshop = great images
When it comes to post processing my storm photos, Photoshop is my best friend, especially if I’ve taken all my photos using the RAW format. I highly recommend using it whenever possible because there are so many more editing options in RAW than there are in Photoshop alone. You can create some truly spectacular images using the RAW editor; everything from darkening your clouds to making the colors of the sky and ground pop. Personally, I don’t know why it took me so long to really get into using it (I just started last summer).

A beautiful thunder storm at sunset.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Fantastic set of pics and good reading also. Maybe the best advice is, in case of just lightning, if you feel is not safe outside stay in the car, as it is a giant Faraday Cage. It does not protect you from strong winds or water though, but it might be a good thing to remember…

  2. says

    Awesome post. Being from Kansas, storms are one of the most exciting landscape type photography you can do around here.

    For people new to storm shooting: If you are shooting during potential tornado storms, make sure you understand how the storms work. While your are shooting on off in the distance, one could be forming over you or behind you. Make sure you are super aware of your immediate area and not just focused on the shots. A second set of eyes (for your immediate surroundings) is extremely helpful, potentially lifesaving.

  3. says

    Something that I use is a window mount–the type you’d put a spotting scope on. I can stay in the relative safety of my truck and use my intervalometer as a remote. Bonus points for staying dry! Well, unless the wind is blowing the wrong way….

  4. Michelle says

    My son and I dream of chasing a storm and taking awesome photos! Thank you for these tips! I see that I need some more filters and a more sturdy tripod. But one day maybe I can capture a beautiful photo like these in the article! THANK YOU THANK YOU for sharing!

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