Lightning photography is one of the most difficult and rewarding types of photography around. It takes patience, dedication, skill, and a lot of luck. The challenges include adjusting for light which can vary, finding a right location, and staying alive by not getting struck by lightning.
There are several things needed in order to be successful at lightning photography.
1) SLR camera (or any camera with bulb function)
3) cable or remote release shutter
4) lens with aperture settings
5) film (ISO 100) if not a digital camera
Set your camera to the "bulb" setting and then put the camera on a sturdy tripod. Attach the cable release or activate the remote shutter. During an active thunderstorm at night frame up the part of the sky that is suitable for lightning. It is a good idea to monitor the storm to see where the most active lightning is before taking photographs. If you are taking lightning photographs, you are always at risk of being struck by lightning. Make sure you are careful to minimize these risks. Set your aperture to f/4 (higher for close/bright lightning, lower for dark skies and distant lightning) and set your focus to infinity. Open the shutter with the cable release or remote shutter and wait for a lightning bolt. Once the lightning strikes close the shutter and preview the results. Adjust your aperture and practice, practice, practice! It can take several storms to get one great snapshot, but with time it can be a rewarding hobby.
During the day when the skies are clear find optimal locations that would be good to snap lightning photos. Keep in mind safety, and background that can enhance the photograph. This can make a big difference. You can frame up a photograph with distant radio towers (perhaps one of them will get struck) or perhaps a cactus plant. A little creativity can go a long way.
Across the country drier regions tend to have more beautiful lightning displays. Arizona tends to receive some of the most spectacular displays in the country.
Types of lightning and thunderstorms
There are many different types of lightning including cloud to cloud, cloud to ground, cloud to air, streak lightning, sheet lightning, spider lightning and ball lightning. Each of these types of lightning can bring its own challenges. Supercells typically bring the best types of lightning with intense lightning in the anvil of the storm and towards the storms center. Pop up single cell storms can bring cloud to ground lightning in localized areas. This can be an optimal situation where you can frame up the lightning. However in this situation the lightning only lasts for about 15 to 20 minutes before dying out. At that time it is common for a new updraft to form and more lightning strikes to form in a region near this parent storm. This can be very rewarding if you catch the new storm while it is developing. These areas tend to form where new rain shafts are forming. So if it starts to rain unexpectedly on top of you, it might be a good idea to pack up and get out of there or hang tight in a safe location. Squall lines typically move through with little photographic opportunities, but don't give up on it. After a squall line passes, there are occasionally amazing displays of spider lightning on the back edge. Another tip is to tune in an AM radio frequency or (low frequencies) with no strong signal. If you hear series of strong pops and pulses you are most likely listening to lightning. By listening to the radio signals you can get an idea of the type of lightning in a cloud or detect if there is lightning up to 75 miles away even if you can not see it.