Last night there was one of the most intense lightning storms I have ever seen. However it's hard to remember the others since they were so long ago. It didn't dawn on me until it was almost too late that there were intense lighting strikes happening about every 2-10 seconds right outside my backyard. I ran for my camera and without a tripod, I shot some handheld exposures up to 30 seconds. I quickly ran out of time and had to retreat as the hail was soaking me and my camera! In the end I love the few photographs I obtained and wanted to share them with you and explain how you can do it yourself!
1. Sit around and wait for a storm with multiple strikes per minute to increase your chances of catching a bolt. Think ahead of time of a landscape you would like to include as your horizon (not a back alley like me!) Grab a tripod and aim for the storm. Get there early so you have good sky definition along the edge of the storm unlike photo#4 which is pure grey sky. Be prepared to pack up quickly from the hail and rain about to hit you.
2. Use an SLR camera with manual or shutter speed priority settings. At first use and ISO that gives you good quality but still accepts a decent amount of lights (100 - 800). Your F stop should default to a setting that produces a sharp image that keeps the whole scene in focus. IE F11. Focus on a distant subject with Auto focus then switch to manual focus to keep that focus. Now you camera won't delay trying to re-focus with each photograph.
3. Play around with your shutter speed. Judge the amount of strikes per minute. If there is lighting every few seconds try a speed lasting only 10 seconds. If they are few and far between, a minute or more is acceptable to capture a bolt. Once the photo is complete, review, adjust as necessary, and continue shooting like crazy! You want that shutter open before the strike because I doubt you will have time to react once there is a strike!
4. Once you know you have a few good ones, experiment with some handheld shots like I did with 15-30 second exposures. Feel free to move the camera around a little to get some artistic effect from other lights in the photo ie streetlights, car headlights, signs, etc etc. This can add a cool effect.
5. Use an editing program to crop, straighten and enhance the image and adjust the exposure. If you shoot in RAW, which I always recommend, you will have more room to edit since the file is not already compressed.
I think that's it! You should be on your way to shooting great shots soon. Oh yeah, and stay safe out there. Lightning storms can be very dangerous. Choose safe locations that you have the ability to retreat quickly and safely.
Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below and I will answer them right away!