If I had a nickel for every time I decided not to go out in bad weather with my camera, I’d be a rich man. After all, I can hardly resist a good cup of French roast and a fresh blueberry muffin at my local coffee shop. I sit down in those big fluffy red chairs, start reading my favorite book—what photographer in his or her right mind would go out in the pouring rain? But then a shaft of sun hits the book I’m reading, and outside, a double rainbow is forming. Suddenly, the coffee doesn’t taste so good, and the soft cushy chair feels a little stiff.
I race out to the parking lot, snap a few shots of the rainbow—over a bunch of power lines and gray buildings. If I had just gone out in the rain, I would be shooting this same scene over a lush mountain valley near my house. I make an oath never to drink coffee again and always go out in the rain with my camera ready. Two days later, I’m drinking coffee again, but this time, I’m in my truck waiting on an approaching thunderstorm. Bring on the dramatic storm clouds.
Bad weather is good weather for photographers. We often photograph landscapes and cityscapes from familiar vantage points. One way to create a unique image is to photograph the familiar landmark in dramatic weather. Even though the scene has been photographed a thousand times, chances are, no one has captured a lightning bolt arching through the sky in this popular location.
Just being out in stormy weather doesn’t ensure a good shot. There are a few techniques and critical equipment that will ensure your next inclement-weather shoot goes well. Be prepared when the storm clouds start forming above your house.
Luck favors the prepared. When it comes to storm photography, the more prepared you are, the better. Storm shooting is less about capturing random moments and more about strategic planning and waiting for the shot. Sometimes you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Last year, I was in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the driest deserts in the world. The locals there said they could remember some rain…three years ago! When I was there, it rained every day, and we had massive lightning storms. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my lightning shutter trigger. I was still able to get some nice images, but I would have captured amazing electrical storms if I had been more prepared.
Your local weatherperson is your friend. I watch the TV weather like it’s the Super Bowl. When I’m in the field, I use my iPhone with weather and radar apps to show what’s coming my way and where the most active storms are. Never before has a photographer had so many tools to use in the field for predicting weather.
Protect your gear. Since you’re actively going out to shoot in the rain, bring foul-weather gear for your camera. Even though many of today’s cameras are well sealed against moisture, most cameras can’t take getting drenched in a downpour for an hour.
I prefer a simple rain cover for my camera, like the one from FotoSharp. This simple waterproof cover can be secured to a tripod-mounted camera and keeps my equipment dry. The cover compresses to fit in my pocket when I’m done using it. I also use a protective filter and lens shade when shooting in inclement weather. It’s inevitable that the front of your lens will get wet, and a little water on the front element isn’t a problem. But I’ve seen rain showers soak the front element to the point of creating humidity inside the lens. A simple UV filter attached snugly to the front of your lens offers one more layer of protection.
Lens shades are great for keeping rain and dust from hitting the front of your lens. And if your camera gets blown to the ground, your lens shade might just save your lens from breaking.
Have a polarizer ready to go. If conditions are right, rainbows often form after passing showers. In some places, like Hawaii or Patagonia, they seem like a daily occurrence. A polarizer will help intensify any rainbow you encounter. Just screw one on when you see a rainbow and watch the colors pop. Polarizers also add contrast and saturation to stormy skies, which helps add drama to stormy scenes. I use a Singh-Ray LB Color polarizer, which polarizes the scene and punches up the color. For the best results using a polarizer, shoot at a perpendicular angle to the sun.
Catch lightning. There are two basic approaches to photographing lightning. If you shoot at night, you can use a long exposure like 10 seconds and wait for the lightning to strike. If you have an active storm, capturing a lightning strike isn’t too difficult. You’ll have to use manual focus since autofocus doesn’t work in the dark. Focusing at the infinity mark on your lens will work for distant scenes. If you have close foreground details in your scene like trees, try using a large flashlight to illuminate the trees and help you focus.
The challenge is photographing lightning during the daylight hours. Since it’s daylight, your shutter speed will probably be one second or faster. Unless you have Zen-like weather karma, you can’t time your exact shutter release with a lightning strike. To solve this problem, you need to use a device that automatically fires your camera when lightning strikes. There are a few to choose from—I use a system that attaches to my hot-shoe with a cable that connects to my camera. Anytime the sensor “sees” lightning, the shutter is released, capturing the bolt. Similar to shooting at night, you need to turn off your autofocus and use manual focus. You’ll miss images if the camera is trying to autofocus during a lightning strike.
Add a sun star to the image. After passing thunderstorms, the sun often peeks out from the clouds. In addition to creating rainbows, the sun can be photographed as a sun star, adding another compositional element in the image. Try this technique. First, use a small aperture like ƒ/16 or ƒ/22. This tiny opening helps enhance the sun-ray effect in the image. Next, take off any protective filters you have on your lens. Flare can be a problem when you’re aiming at the sun, and front filters are often the main cause.
To determine exposure, meter a middle-tone scene without the sun in the frame. Use this exposure as your starting point. I often underexpose my image slightly so the sun and rays aren’t washed out in the final shot. Different lenses will create different-looking sun stars. Fixed-focal-length lenses generally produce less flare than zoom lenses, since there’s less lens glass to cause flare. My favorite lens to create sun stars is my 24-120mm ƒ/4 lens. This lens creates multi-rayed sun stars that really add drama to a stormy scene. My fisheye lens produces the least amount of flare when shooting sun stars.
Use single-image HDR. Have you seen any storm images recently that seemed almost surreal? The clouds just seem to pop off the shot, and the sun rays are like laser beams. Chances are, this image may have been processed as a single-image HDR shot. HDR, or high dynamic range, traditionally uses multiple frames at different exposures. The bracketed images are combined in the computer, expanding the dynamic range of the shot. The shadows are brighter and the sun isn’t overexposed in the same image.
You can use the same process on a single image and get dramatic results with software lik
e HDRsoft Photomatix or Nik Software HDR Efex Pro. The biggest challenge is deciding how surreal to make the image look. I generally try to keep my shots realistic, but it’s fun to see how far you can go using these programs.
I also use other software to process storm scenes to enhance the shot. I like Alien Skin Exposure 4 and Topaz Adjust 5, which both offer lots of actions to alter the appearance of your image. I use the “Velvia” action in Exposure 4 to punch up the color and the Heavy Pop Grunge action in Adjust 5 to add contrast. If you use Lightroom or Photoshop, try adding 100% Clarity to the clouds in the images to add snap.
Be safe. Photographing storms and lightning can be exhilarating, and it also can be dangerous. Often, the best places to photograph lightning storms are the highest vantage points around—not the place you want to be if lightning is flashing around.
One important tip: You don’t have to be close to lightning to get a good shot. In fact, it’s much easier to photograph lightning in a distant valley than if it’s hitting right near you! Remember this tried-and-true method of figuring out how far lightning is away from you: When you see a lightning bolt, count the seconds until you hear the thunder—”One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand….” Every five seconds equals a mile. Remember, if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to get struck by lightning. Avoid high points, and head for cover if the storm is coming your way.
Get out and shoot. Sitting in my office, I can hear the wind picking up, and see dark clouds forming over the mountains. I really should stay at my computer and finish processing images for a client. But last night, the weatherperson said thunderstorms were likely. A Clash song is running through my head, “Should I stay or should I go now?” Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I grab my camera gear and run out the door. Time to go find some lightning!
Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. Visit www.tombolphoto.com.