If you are just starting out with a camera it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can. Start with basic photography fundamentals such as framing and composition to shutter speed and aperture. Take a class or read and watch videos online. The more you learn about photography the more fun you will have. I took a photography class in high school and that really got me going. I am not an expert photographer by any stretch of the imagination. I just really like taking pictures and I love the weather.
I started with a very basic hand-me-down Pentax 35mm film camera. It had very few controls including a needle light meter in the viewfinder. Nowadays most digital cameras are sufficient for basic weather photography. You can go big with a DSLR but a pocket digital camera works fine and of course we almost all have cameras in our phones. I probably take most of my weather pics with my iPhone. It is super easy to use and I almost always have it with me. It’s also great for easy time-lapse photography and slow motion video. I believe cameras don’t take great pictures, people do. However, if you take the time to master a really good camera you can come away with some mind blowing images. This is particularly true if you plan to shoot at night or shoot lighting. If that is the case, it’s crucial to learn the ins and outs of your camera. The more you learn how to use your camera, the more you can do with it and the more creative you can be. Taking weather pictures is often about opportunity and being in the right place at the right time.
If you understand the weather where you live, you can put yourself in the best possible position at the best possible time to capture some great shots. You don’t need formal meteorological training to take weather pictures. That being said, it is very important you understand your surroundings and have a general understanding of how the atmosphere works. Experience is priceless and picking up a comprehensive weather book will be useful as well. The goal is understanding when to anticipate certain weather conditions like when fog or frost is likely to form. Also, the time of day storms are likely to arrive, and if the weather has been calm enough but there are enough clouds for a brilliant sunset.
Sunsets are one of my favorite subjects because this is one of the few things you can plan for every day. Arrive at your location early and stay late and you will end up taking more pictures than you will ever need. Some of the best light happens before and after the sun actually slips below the horizon. Ideally there are a few high clouds in the sky in every direction. While clouds can block the sun they also make the sky interesting by catching the light from the sun. This is why you should never leave your sunset spot until after dark because as the sun dips below the horizon the angle of the rays change and hit different parts of the clouds. Don’t forget to turn around and look away from the sun. There will be times when you will be amazed at the colors the setting sun will paint on the eastern sky. I call this back splash.
If storms are your thing, it is extremely important to understand some of the weather tools to help you get ahead of the storms and to stay safe. These are tips for the casual weather photographer NOT storm chasers. If a storm has a warning associated with it you need to get to a safe place immediately. Looping radar imagery will give you the best idea of the storm direction and its approximate arrival time. The visible satellite is a great way to determine the type of clouds you are likely to see.
Capturing lightning is a bit tricky so if this is your goal do a lot of research first and learn your camera. For the casual photographer I do have a few tricks that may help. First, remember if you are close enough to hear thunder you are close enough to get struck by lightning. Your best bet is to take pictures from inside your house but even then you are not entirely safe because lightning is extremely erratic and unpredictable in its behavior. A tripod is absolutely necessary if you plan to leave the shutter open on your 35 mm. Using a smaller camera or your phone experiment with the burst function. You can also take a movie and then go back and screen capture the lightning. It increases the likelihood of getting a bolt which lasts a mere fraction of a second. You can try the slow motion function on your camera. This increases the number of frames per second the camera is shooting. It chews up a ton of memory on your phone so I only run mine for a minute or two before stopping and starting a new clip. This way I can easily delete the clips that didn’t get the lightning. The quality of the picture likely won’t make a frame on the wall but it is usually good enough to document the event.
Time lapse photography is hands down my favorite way to capture weather. This is the best way to see the atmosphere in motion. A still shot of a tall cumulus cloud is great but watching it grow is something else entirely. It provides insight into the process of a growing cloud and the motion of the atmosphere. Often times you don’t even realize the clouds are moving and they may be moving in different directions at the same time. Time lapse reveals this. This is where you take the skills you have learned from still photography and add a layer of anticipation. Not only do you need to frame the shot, you also have to anticipate what the shot will look like in 30 minutes to a couple of hours from when you start recording. I still don’t always get this right but when I do it can be extremely satisfying.
Be critical of your work. Ask yourself what you like and what you don’t like about the pictures you have just taken and try to do better next time. The most important thing is to practice as much as possible and have fun. Mother nature does all the hard work, your job is to not miss it. Keep an eye to the sky and sniff out the best opportunities for a great weather picture.