“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams
Standing in the middle of a thunderstorm with your camera pointing to God waiting for him to strike the earth with electricity is a little spark of madness. Whether you are chasing down a storm or driving through the desert at 2am; you will need to be prepared. Lightning storms change quickly and move even quicker, you need to be able to evaluate the storm before you determine your camera settings.
If the storm is not moving you can adjust your shutter speed for a longer exposure. This is in your favor for many reasons, you have a higher chance of capturing a lightning strike the longer your exposure is open. The longer your exposure the higher your f-stop can be and the lower your ISO settings can be. The higher your f-stop the more depth of field you can have in focus and the lower your ISO the less noise (grain) you will have in your photo. Here are the settings for the image below: Shutter 10.0 sec; f/16; ISO 800.
If your storm is moving fast that will mean you will not want a long of an exposure or your clouds will be too blurry. You need to shorten your exposure, lower your f-stop and higher your ISO. This will make your ability to have foreground and background objects not in focus at the same time so keep that in mind. The higher ISO will give your image noise, which might be a look you are not going for. The lower exposure time gives you less possibilities for capturing the lightning also. You can never know when lightning is going to strict so the longer exposure time you have the better odds you have.
Now with any exposure under 1/200 you are guarenteeing yourself blurry images without a tripod. You might not think so but I can promise you there is a blur. The photo below was shot by hand and luckily I had no foreground images to worry about, here are my settings: shutter 1/80sec; f1.8; ISO 2400 still worked. There is a slight blur but I was pleased with the images from that night. I had to capture the images by gut feeling of when the lightning would strike, because of this I only got 3 images in the span of an hour when the settings from the above image produced over 30 lightning shots.
I suggest never going below these settings for lightning: shutter 3.0 sec; f/5.6; ISO 800. As you can see I keep the ISO low still because I do not like grain in my images unless that is the affect I am going for.
Additional tips for you, use a tripod, set your lens to infinite focus, turn on your long exposure noise reduction, and set up your time interval so you can have your camera do your work for you. Good luck with the photos and remember to keep your spark of madness!