Lightning Strike, Kansas
Cotton Coulson is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Traveler and nationalgeographic.com. He is based in Denmark.
There's nothing I like more than shooting in what you might call “real weather.” I always seem to be running out on the ship's deck or onto the street in the rain, sleet, and wind when everyone else is running for cover. Why? Because I know from years of experience that this is when the light really gets dramatic and the skies might open up with shafts of sunlight and dramatic clouds, giving me the opportunity to create photos with emotion and energy. Wind, snow, rain, fog—I love all the weather elements. They add texture and dimension to photographs. For practical purposes, I like to keep my shooting gear simple to minimize the fuss.
Be patient, switch to manual mode, and pack a tripod. This photo, taken in Kansas, was one that I spent months pursuing for a magazine article. It ended up as the lead picture. When shooting storms and lightning, you never know when and where they’ll appear next, so you have to have patience as well as luck.
To shoot a successful lightning photo you need to set your camera on a tripod and set the mode to manual. You might also want to enable the mirror lock-up function and use a cable release to minimize camera shake. Adjust the f-stop to 8 or 11 to ensure your exposure is between 5 and 30 seconds, since you want to open the shutter and wait for the lightning bolts to appear in the sky. Since I never know where in the frame they’ll appear, I suggest you focus manually on infinity and include a lot of sky in your composition.
In this case, it was a blessing that it was late in the day when the storm was approaching, allowing for the lightning bolt to stand out against the dark and ominous clouds. As a final tip, be sure not to stand under trees or near metal poles for safety reasons. —Cotton Coulson