How to Photograph Storms: Supercells, Lightning, Tornadoes
I’ve spent the past 19 years of my life traversing through Tornado Alley, USA, in search of nature’s most beautiful and powerful supercell thunderstorms. There have been moments of pure adrenaline filled excitement, moments of extreme fear, moments of sadness, and moments of pure awe.
Without-a-doubt, photographing storms has been the highlight of my photography career and I’ve learned a few things along the way on how to stay safe and how to approach these storms for the best success in creating an image.
Know the hazards
Safety first – it’s as simple as that. When people think of thunderstorms and the dangers they pose, usually tornadoes are put at the top of the list. Tornadoes are extremely dangerous, but there are other dangers that you can easily encounter.
Flash flooding can occur almost instantaneously in some areas, and it only takes about 6” of water to move a vehicle. Hail up to the size of grapefruits can crush car roofs, smash out windows, and kill people and livestock.
Lightning can strike anywhere, at any time, even at up to 80 miles away from a storm – and it can be lethal as well. Straight line winds can be as strong, if not stronger, than a weak tornado and send debris flying through the air that can pierce walls.
These are just a few of the handful of hazards you may face while out photographing a storm, so know how to recognise these hazards before they happen. Ensure that you have a plan of action if they are encountered, and know when to stop if the risk is not worth it.
Always have an escape route planned if you are in your vehicle, and a shelter to take cover in if possible.
Each lens seems to find itself mounted on my camera at some point during an outing. My most frequently used lens is the Nikon 24-70mm. It provides a great mid-zoom range that typically allows me to capture most of the area of interest in my frame. I often position myself about 2 or 3 miles back from the edge of the storm as it approaches.
If the situation safely allows, I will sometimes creep closer to the storm and utilise the Nikon 14-24mm for this positioning. The wide-angle focal length really allows me to embrace the entire storm from a very vulnerable position.
If the storm is moving extremely quickly or producing a violent tornado, I will then swap for my Nikon 70-200mm and take advantage of its telephoto capabilities. This lens gives me just a bit more of a safety buffer, while still being able to capture the emotion and power of the storm.
Focus on the structure of the storm
For me, the past 19 years of documenting storms hasn’t been about the tornadoes; it has been about creating images that capture the astonishing and unique beauty of each storm’s characteristics.
Every storm has a different structure than the previous. Some look like giant upside-down wedding cakes, some look like alien spaceships, some mimic ocean waves through the sky, and it’s this beauty that captivates me.
Closer isn’t always better when it comes to capturing storms. If you are beneath the storm, up close and in search of that tornado, you aren’t going to be able to see what’s going on above your head. Take a moment to trek a few miles out from the storm and you will be in awe of what you see.
When you are photographing storm structure, you will want to use a wide-angle lens. You can either capture the storm all in one frame, or create a panoramic image of the entire scene.
Also, keep an eye out for unique formations like rainbows, mammatus clouds, inflow bands, and more when you have some distance between you and the storm. These features are far more interesting, in my opinion, than being up close and personal with a tornado.
Keep a keen eye on how light is playing through the clouds, as sometimes amazing colours can appear when light reflects and refracts through the atmosphere.
Whether up close or at a distance, make sure you have your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod and don’t leave it unattended. Strong gusts of wind can topple your tripod over at any moment!
How to photograph lightning
There are so many fascinating aspects to photographing storms, but I believe that lightning is my favourite subject matter to document. At only one inch wide, five miles long, and 10 times hotter than the surface of the sun, being able to document this electrical energy as it reaches from the sky down to the Earth’s surface is unavoidably addicting.
Lightning can occur at any time of the day, but lightning photography has varying difficulty depending on when it occurs.
Lightning at night is by far the easiest time of day to shoot, as you can leave your shutter open as long as you’d like in order to capture your scene. Day time lightning is the hardest time of day to shoot lightning, as brighter skies contribute to shorter exposure times and large numbers of images having to be taken in order to capture one bolt.
Typically, during the day, I will use a lightning trigger in order to increase my odds of capturing a bolt. I recommend checking out the Strike Finder trigger if you plan on shooting day time lightning (of course, it works at night too). But even with a trigger you can still miss strikes due to the bright scenes in daylight.
Lightning during twilight is my favourite time to shoot. Blue hour, and even reminiscent sunset colours, can add a whole different feel to your image. The lightning just pops more during this time of day. The light is low enough that you can utilize longer exposures, but still capture color within the sky.
Camera settings for photographing lightning
Photographing lightning can be quite the challenge to prepare for, and it doesn’t get any easier with your settings. By understanding what kind of lightning you want to photograph, what kind of lightning your storm is producing, and the time of day, you can figure out a good starting point for your settings.
With lightning you cannot utilise metering. The meter will simply read off the dark sky and not the lightning itself, so getting the correct exposure takes some trial and error.
Here are some of the settings which I recommend for each type of lightning. Please keep in mind that these settings are more like guidelines and based upon a twilight / night storm photography session. You will want to adjust your settings accordingly.
- Close strikes (within 0-3 miles distance): ISO 100 | F16 | Bulb
You are utilising your cable release to open your shutter. Wait until a close bolt strikes and then release to close your shutter. If the storm is producing a lot of in-cloud lightning, be sure to make sure your frames aren’t becoming washed out.
- Distant strikes (3-10 miles distance): ISO 200 | F8 | 20”
As the lightning is much further away, it is not as bright in your frame and so you will need to utilise a higher ISO and wider aperture to allow for the lightning to be visible.
2. Anvil Crawlers
- ISO 125 | F13 | Bulb
Anvil crawlers usually don’t happen as frequently as the other kinds of lightning, so you will need to take multiple attempts and be patient to capture them.
Although they can be quite bright, you want to once again make sure that any in-cloud lightning does not wash them out. If you feel that your storm is producing too many interior flashes, close your shutter and try another frame.
You want to capture anvil crawlers towards the beginning of your exposure to avoid too much motion in the clouds and having those details softened.
- ISO 400 | F8 | Bulb
This kind of lightning is best used to reveal storm structure and shapes. I prefer to distance myself from the storm by a few miles.
Make sure to open and close your shutter in between bright flashes as too many flashes can create a double or triple exposure effect to your frame.
How to photograph tornadoes
If you do find yourself with a storm that produces a tornado, embrace the moment first because you are witnessing one of nature’s most powerful events.
Keep in mind your escape route and be ready to leave sooner rather than later. Use both wide and telephoto lenses if the scene allows, and try to tell a story with the tornado.
If the tornado begins destroying homes, for me the photography aspect is over and if I can safely get to those homes I will begin to render aid. If you do not know how to safely help someone with injuries, please just leave the storm and make room for the first responders to get in and help.
It’s called storm chasing for a reason, because 99% of the time you are in the wrong spot or on the wrong storm to create captivating images. This is just part of the game. Be patient and persevere.
If you go out on a particular day and see nothing, try again the next. If you miss that awesome lightning strike, don’t worry because it’ll happen again. It takes a lot of time, effort and failure to create beautiful storm images, but when you do, it’s worth all the pain.
If you are just getting into starting to photograph storms, I recommend staying away from the severe warnings and tornado warned storms.
There are also plenty of experienced storm photographers and storm chase groups that will take you out to Tornado Alley, teach you the ropes, and allow you to safely get your images in future.