After the November 16, 2015 tornado outbreak — I think I was asked about nighttime photography at least half a dozen times. I’m used to getting questions all the time, but so many questions on the exact same thing is rare! So let’s talk about it: How do you take photos and videos of storms at night?
First, as a bit of honesty hour, I didn’t have the best photo day on Monday. We did solid for sure — but when you set the bar at great solid just seems a downer. I guess the important thing there is that no matter who you are, there are going to be days you simply don’t get the shot you really wanted, no matter what happens.
So don’t fret if you have a bad day.
Ok now onto some tips about nighttime photography and videography:
- First, you need to aperture down a bit to prevent lightning from blowing out (think F/5.6-f/9) and up your shutter speed. I personally try to stick to under 5 seconds always to prevent clouds from blowing out.
- If you want a more realistic and crisper looking result, you can opt to stack exposures. One for the stars, one for the storm, one for the foreground. This ‘realistic’ HDR method is something I have used quite often…but with the movement of storms on Monday night we were really just playing catch up most of the way.
- If storm motions are fast (and they were Monday night) the longer shutters aren’t going to work with closer up items. If you are within a mile or two of a tornado — a 20 second exposure won’t look right and will be blurred. Think about this the same way you do shooting a fast moving car. If its driving right past you it’ll be more blurry than if it were shot a few hundred yards away approaching you at the same shutter. Ditto for storms, they are moving!
- With that in mind, I’ve always thought there were two approaches to nighttime storm photography. A distant structure + tornado approach with a longer exposure, maybe even get the stars or a closer backlit tornado shot — which can easily look close to a daytime shot with the right lightning timing. Your mileage may vary.
- For video, it’s simple: stop your shutter down. This will create a strobey effect — but it lets more light in and allows you to capture the subject better.
- As we’ve pointed out in an article about storm photo settings, manual settings, etc. — ISO is your last resort. Kind of like the red button — only go to it when the settings you are trying are too dark. Depending on your camera, you can get quite a boost with relative little noise.
- Last but certainly not least, invest in a REALLY good tripod. I’m shopping for a new one this offseason and will certainly publish an article or two on this. A tripod, especially for photos, is just essential for great imagery.
These few tips will help get you started. I recommend you play around with your own photo settings by testing out your camera in regular nighttime environments as well as around storms. The only way you are going to get better/more familiar with what your camera can and cannot do is to shoot!