A lot of people ask me about what settings I used on specific photos, if I used a tripod, etc. and while most of these questions have a clear answer, others are still a big question mark to me.
I do have a “checklist” (can’t help it, I’m a pilot) to go through every time I shoot a Storm Portrait. Always fix the focus to infinity even before takeoff. Always use the manual mode. Always use the widest aperture of the lens (at least the widest usable: I found myself using a f1.8 lens always at f2.2 because of the crappy performance at f1.8 and the great results at f2.2)
However, I always end up messing around with some other settings for every shoot and they end up being really different from scenario to scenario. The ISO for example really depends on the lens. If I have a very fast lens (the f2.2 I was talking about) then I can begin with an ISO somewhere around ISO400, whereas for a not so fast lens (f4 or f5.6) I prefer to begin with something around ISO1600 which in today’s DSLRs is not a problem at all.
I believe the most discussed setting is the shutter speed and it turns out to be the one that I always end up changing the most. Not all storms are equal, they’re not even the same from one lightning to the next one. Light from a first lightning can be so low that it barely shows up on the screen, but the next one could be so powerful that it completely blows up the highlights. So YES, luck plays a big role on my storm portraits.
Compare this shot with the first one. They’re both about the same storm, just seconds away from each other. The first one while still a great photo, could have been improved by a lower ISO, so the highlights are not blown inside the storm. Of course I didn’t know the lightning was going to be so powerful, this is where intuition and luck play a big role.