Notice how the following elements combine to make the above one of the best lightning photos out there:
- The extraordinary lightning strikes themselves
- The incredible mountain, lit beautifully by the lightning
- The leading line of the road right into the main subjects of the photograph
- The extra interest added by the tail-lights and lights of the town
It's important to have foregrounds/backgrounds pre-scouted before a storm rolls through. I have a mental checklist of all attractive backgrounds/foregrounds within a 15 minute drive, along with all North, East, South, West directions that are possible with that particular location for easy road access, depending on the location/orientation of the storm or sunset/sunrise (the latter not only shifts north/south throughout the year, but often the best bits are the reflections of light off of cloud banks, not necessarily in line with the sun).
There is an old saying in photography regarding photographic settings: "f/8 and be there!" This was basically true in this case, with a few more 8s thrown in for good measure; my settings were: f/8, 8 second exposure, ISO 800. (I used this fantastic, inexpensive, incredibly sharp lens, the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, that is available for all main camera mounts. It's wide-angle and fast to boot, the perfect combo for astrophotography and lightning of all brightnesses.) Those settings are a good starting point for lightning photography at night.
But you WILL have to adjust for the average intensity/brightness of the lightning that is happening near your location. Because of lightning's unpredictable behavior, you will get pictures that are too dark or blown-out and overexposed. (It helps a TON to have the two extra stops of dynamic range offered by Sony gear while shooting RAW, in order to correct such things in post-processing.) The key is to get a balance of settings that includes a long exposure in order to increase your chances of catching the lightning when it strikes.
Once you have your framing selected and your settings correct, I set my camera to continuous shooting and use something like this or this (linked to Sony versions, but similar available for all camera systems) to lock the shutter button into continuous shooting.
It should go without saying that a tripod is nearly non-negotiable, though in an extreme pinch, you can set your camera on some stable surface, propped up with various items to get things at the proper angle.
Finally, you're going to have to use manual focus. Please see this post for instructions on how to focus in the dark.
That's just a quick primer. For a more in-depth, comprehensive tutorial, Mike has a great post on the subject.
Storm Chasing Primer
The second introductory tutorial in this post is on storm chasing. Because it's such a huge topic (and because I'm no expert myself), I'm going to just provide a list of links to resources and tools that go more in-depth:
Thanks to my friend Taylor Wright of ExtremeInflowMedia.com for adding a few of his favorites to the above list.