Lightning Photography Recipe
Lightning Bolts (as many as you can safely get)
1 Camera with manual control settings
1 Tripod or other camera holding device
50 lbs (20 Kg) patience
Editing software (optional)
First and foremost remember to be safe. Follow all lightning safety rules. Having said that I'll tell you that you can't take photos of lightning from the basement of your house, which is where the NOAA would have you, but do be careful. An estimated 24,000 people are killed by lightning strikes around the world each year (that is about 66 people every single day) and about 240,000 are injured.
Once you have established that there is lightning in your area observe where there are frequent bolts. In many cases you might see it on all sides, but generally there will be a direction where there are more than the others. Get your camera on the tripod or some other device where it will hold perfectly still and aim it in that direction. Remember most of the lightning is going to happen in the sky. I like to have just a little bit of the ground at the bottom for reference and there seems to be more drama when the lightning is shown hitting the ground. Put your camera in (M)anual mode to include manual focus. Set your focus on infinity. If the lightning is so close that it will be out of focus when the camera is set on infinity, it doesn't matter; no one will ever see the photos anyway, even at your funeral. I like to have my lens fairly wide angle to cover more area. Set your camera ISO as low as possible. The photos I posted were at ISO 100. Set your f-stop at somewhere between about 8 and 13. This photo was at f 13. Do not use any neutral density or polarizing filters as these will darken the lightning flash.
Unless you have a bunch of money lying around to buy a sensor trigger device, which opens the lens at the instant of the flash, then you are going to have to do it the poor man's way like I do. The trick for us is to try to catch the lightning and you do that by opening up the lens and hoping that some lightning strikes while it is open. Unfortunately there is no trick or magic that I know of. If you have a shutter release cable which allows you to keep the lens open as long as you hold down the button on bulb (b) setting then this is an excellent way to take the photos. You simply open the shutter and wait and immediately after the lightning has struck you release the button to close the shutter. However, you can only hold the button so long or you will over expose the whole scene and even if you do get a bolt you may not be able to see it because the rest of the scene will be too bright. The only way to know how long that is is through experimentation. Try some different lengths and look at them on your LCD screen to decide if you can lengthen the exposure time or if you need to shorten it . . . remember photography is an artful science. The time that you can keep the shutter open will change as the sky gets darker or brighter. Another way to do it, (even though I do have shutter release cable, I do it this way) is to set your camera to be open for a specified period of time. I've used everything from 10 to 60 seconds, again, depending on how dark/bright the sky is. You should look at each photo after the exposure and see if you need to adjust. Immediately after viewing the image and making any adjustments I want to make, I open it again and start hoping. (This is where the 50 lbs (20 kg) of patience comes in.) If the heavier concentration of lightning moves to a different spot then turn your camera on that new area, but don't do it just because of one or two strikes.
Unless you are incredibly lucky or pointing the direction of the most amazing lightning show of all time, most of your exposures will go in the waste bin, but every once in a while you'll get one just right and it makes it all worth while. On those occasions where the lightning strikes when there are still a few seconds or more on the exposure time, I have the lens cap handy and cover the lens to keep the rest of the image as dark as possible; that makes up for not using the cable release and closing the shutter immediately after the lightning strikes.
I mentioned software above in the ingredients. With even the most simple and free software you can crop, increase the contrast and even correct color balance. Both of my posted lightning shots were cropped, color balance adjusted and contrast adjusted.
If you are not already comfortable with all the manual controls on your camera, take a few minutes and get comfortable with them today, before the lightning begins to strike and it's too late. Now get out there get some lightning shots. Leave me a comment to let me know when you get some, or if you already have some you want to share leave a link in your comment.