Of utmost importance in shooting any storm, and especially those producing electricity, is a healthy respect for the lethal potential of lightning. Don’t push the envelope! Stay off elevated spots and, if possible, stay in the car while shooting. I often mount my camera on a tripod with one leg in the seat and two on the dash for stability. Standing alone with tripod extended in the midst of a storm may seem macho, but I can guarantee that this act of machismo won’t be mentioned in your obituary!
Some of my most productive shoots are in winter when, in the grips of a good storm system, the landscape is blanketed in a sheet of ice or snow. While not the most comfortable conditions in which to shoot—subfreezing temps and howling winds often add to the challenge of maintaining an upright tripod—early-morning or late-evening settings can offer fantastic light displays. As a general rule, shooting winter settings doesn’t offer the same dynamic skyscapes as do spring and summer due to the lack of colliding warm and cold air systems, but there are still opportunities. Even in situations when great cloud structures don't have a chance to form, there's great photography to be had. I’ll go out to find a brilliantly clear morning sky over a winter wonderland and, in these cases, I lean more to a landscape approach with the sky added for depth and dimension.
A point to remember with winter photography is the problem of high-reflectance values when exposing the image. Like taking an exposure off a pure white cloud, it’s easy to underexpose an image despite today's camera meters. A rule of thumb that I use when time is of the essence is to meter half in the blue sky and half on the landscape. This generally produces consistent and accurate results. Of course, the time-honored back-of-hand "gray card." A approach is also effective.
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM and Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II U
One of my most memorable winter shoots occurred in the Davis Mountains of west Texas when a Pacific cold front dumped a four-inch white blanket on Sawtooth Mountain. After traveling over the Davis Mountains backbone for 30 miles on an untracked highway before dawn, I set up my camera and tripod in the freezing conditions and waited. As the sun spilled over Mount Livermore, a pristine magenta ligh streaked over the peaks of Sawtooth. With exposure values within acceptable parameters, I focused my Canon 24-70mm lens and recorded a brilliant performance of nature. The 700-mile one-day trip was worth the effort!
Correct lens selection is essential. A rule of thumb for me is the wider the better. If I’m working a storm with extensive clouds that displays color throughout, my favorite lenses are the Canon 14mm ƒ/2.8L or 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L. On those occasions when I find that only one portion of the sky offers the intensity of color and structure I need, a medium telephoto such as the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L is my choice. Depending on the contrast issues in a cloud formation, I generally prefer to expose images at ISO 50 for maximum color saturation. If highlights offer insurmountable problems, I resort to a higher ISO to overcome washout in highlight areas.
As a last bit of advice, I suggest a vigilant watch on the National Weather Service. The predictions of squall lines and impending storms are generally accurate and timely. If I’m planning a major sky photo shoot, I select a window of several days when atmospheric chemistry promises unstable conditions aloft, increasing my chances of encountering outstanding cloud formations.