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 like 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.