How To Film a Thunderstorm - A YouTube Guide to Filming the Perfect Thunderstorm

I just wrote this after watching a number of thunderstorm videos on YouTube. I thought it might be interesting for some of you. Comments welcome!

We all love thunderstorms (well, most of us who don’t have a morbid fear of thunderstorms, or astraphobia) and we all want to get the best shots of the incoming storm with all of its flashing lights and rumbles of thunder!

If you’re like me and you live in an area of the world where there aren’t very many thunderstorms at all, perhaps 2 or 3 per year, when it happens, it’s a major event. You get all excited and whip out your video camera to start taking video of the oncoming spectacle. But if you’re a fan of YouTube where there are literally thousands of thunderstorm videos, you’ll know that there are some terribly filmed videos, and some very good videos. See some examples below.

Let’s be clear about what an actual thunderstorm is. A thunderstorm is a naturally occurring weather event that takes place when a cold front meets a warm front, producing lightning and thunder, sometimes with or without rain. Some people on YouTube, with good intent, do not know what a thunderstorm is. It is NOT simply heavy rain and wind, as a lot of videos on YouTube depict. These are simply rain storms, (using the term loosely because these really aren’t thunderstorms).

Here are some tips to help you get the best video:

  1. Ensure you are in a location where you are not likely to get struck by lightning. Open spaces such as school yards, or public parks with few trees (or even a lot of trees), or on a building rooftop are some of the worst places you can be when there is active lightning nearby. Incidentally, taking shelter under a tree is not a good idea. Lightning is attracted to objects that are high up and when you’re under a tall tree, you could be asking for trouble. Bear in mind that if you are the only tall object in an open field, lightning will be attracted to you while it makes its way toward you, and the thunderstorm doesn’t have to be close-by. Lightning only wants to ground itself and if you are the conduit, so be it. So be forewarned. An open garage door where it is dry, or believe it or not, in a car is best. A vehicle with rubber tires is about the best place you can be in a thunderstorm, because you are naturally grounded if lightning happens to strike your vehicle.

  2. Ensure your video camera is battery operated and fully charged, because if you’re using electricity to power your camera while the storm is passing and the power goes out, you have captured nothing but the first few exciting minutes on video. I find it is best to charge your camera when the first reports of a possible thunderstorm are coming in over the (weather) radio or TV. Then, when the storm is fast approaching you’re not scrambling to find an electrical outlet to plug your video camera in and waiting for it to charge while you’re missing some of the best bolts and bangs. Make sure your camera has enough memory to store all the video you’ll be shooting. If the storm goes on for hours, you may be tempted to take the memory card out and replace it with another one.

  3. First and foremost, as the storm approaches, to the best of your ability, HOLD THE CAMERA VERY STILL, or place the camera on a tripod, or at the very least, a set of piled up boxes or crates, or on a window sill and point it at the area of the incoming storm where you see most of the lightning coming from. It’s OK to pan around very slowly, but be sure not to make the video too jerky or move too fast. Yes, there will be bolts of lightning behind you where the camera is not pointing, but having the flashes appear in the area in the camera’s line of sight and listening to a big crash of thunder is better than trying to whip around AFTER you’ve seen the flash hoping you’ll see more in that same area! Lightning appears at random places, it’s not going to appear in the same place in rapid succession, so don’t try to catch it on film in the same area after the flash. In other words, keep the camera focused only on the area of the storm, and try not to constantly move it around in lots of different directions.

  4. DO NOT VERBALLY COMMENT on what you’re seeing! We all know what thunderstorms are, and we all know some can be spectacular and others can be duds. However, a running commentary or the occasional “Wow!” is not really necessary no matter how hard you try to suppress it and ruins the audio of the combined rain, wind, and thunder and ambient sounds around, such as birds chirping, storm warning sirens, or car alarms in the distance. You want the sound to be as natural and unobscured as possible.

  5. Do we really need to listen to your favourite pop rock music as an audio track over the filming of a thunderstorm? NO! There’s no need to dub any other audio over this wonderful thunderstorm memory you’ll be filming. There’s nothing worse than having a great storm video and listening to some piece of music that nobody else likes (yeah, sure YOU like it, but not everyone does!).

  6. Try to keep the field of vision from being obscured for a clearer shot. For instance, try not to film the storm from inside your house through a screen door. Not only can you see the screen, the camera sometimes tends to auto-focus on what’s in the foreground and not what’s in the background. You might want to try turning the auto-focus of your camera off before the storm starts, so at the very least your screen door is blurred enough for the camera to focus on what’s outside clearly. Also, try not to film in complete darkness. Auto-focus will try to focus on the brightest object in your field of view to determine the amount of light required for a clear picture, and will flip back and forth from in-focus to out-of-focus automatically, producing blurry video. If you can find a street light to focus on point the camera toward it. Be sure to focus on the object with the most light in dark places.

  7. Try not to clutter up your video with snazzy pre-video title credits and on-screen commentary, channel bugs, and end-title credits. Yes, we know it’s you because it was posted by you, nobody is going to steal your video and take credit for your work!

  8. And lastly, for Heaven’s sake, never, ever, slow the video down to re-emphasize a bolt of lightning, or zoom in to see more detail in the lightning bolt! It might be one of those “Wow!” moments but doing these things is a huge no-no when trying to get the best thunderstorm video you can get.

If you can follow these few simple steps, you’ll be a pro the next time a storm rolls around your area and we will be very thankful that you opted to show us your storm video on YouTube!

Here are two excellent examples of how NOT to film a good thunderstorm!

Filmed through a screen door, obsuring much of the lightning and muffling the thunder:

This is a great video with frequent lightning and thunder, but the camera moves way too much, it’s not steady, and not focusing on much of the storm itself:

Here’s an excellent video of a violent thunderstorm filmed from a high-rise apartment in Miami, Florida:

Good luck!

I agree with the comments and suggestions you made.

The one additional that should be made is BUY A VIDEO EDITOR to cut down on all the crap that gets saved. Be merciless, and then cut it in half again.

For instance, your examples included the Miami FL video which clocks in at over three minutes.

You’re rating is excellent. Mine is ‘better than most’. First, the use of the tripod puts it way above all others. Too much graphics on the screen, however, since the truly interested will be able to see the logos and copyright and all in way smaller font size.

But it goes on way too long. I’m thinking about a minute to a minute and a half is a much more watchable video. There was a lot of flashing lightning, but few visible strokes. That’s the nature of poor visibility in a heavy downpour. But after all, it is a downpour and not particularly fascinating after the first fifteen seconds. I kept waiting for the shot showing one of the high rises or the cranes being nailed by a good bolt. It wasn’t there, just the repeated cuts back to the scene and waiting.

I have lost my vantage points over the years, with rapid growth of new trees and road systems that seem to have openings only at the bottom of narrow valleys, so I appreciate how hard it is to get a vista, to be in front of the storm to record while it is approaching and stay safe, while not trespassing on anyone’s land. One can’t be awake all night long every night and day waiting, so to be able to jump and run is important when the rare opportunity does present itself. That being said, just having the footage doesn’t mean it is Alfred Hitchcok quality and most needs to be edited out.

Thanks again for summarizing the tips, and the nice thing about video being electronic, you can make many edits and cuts and if you take out too much, easy enough to add it back in.

Be safe, nothing like a strike to ruin your whole project and life.

Thank you for the good points, Dale!

After watching literally hundreds of thunderstorm videos on YouTube, there are so few out of those hundred or so videos that are really worth watching. I’m not saying everyone should be an expert at filming thunderstorms, but everyone should be aware of how to capture the best videos. I’ve seen some where people are commenting mercilessly and it bugs me to death!

There’s one video of a guy filming an incoming storm where the lightning is flashing all around him, but he’s commenting on how close it’s getting, how the temperature is changing, whether he should go inside or not, and he’s moving the camera all around the deck pointing it at various parts of the sky waiting for the best flashes, but wherever he points the camera, the lightning is off to either side of his line of vision! He’s saying things like, “Wow, that was a big one!” and “It’s getting closer!” and “The trees are really swaying!”. Who the F cares about all of that? Shut up and let us watch the video without all the commentary! Call it a pet-peeve of mine. I just think thunderstorms should be filmed without all the nattering.

As a small child, I was petrified of thunderstorms. I remember my mom and I watching TV in the den, and there was a small window above the TV set. I kept seeing what I thought was lightning, and remember (like it was yesterday), asking my mom if that was lightning. Of course, she knew I was scared, and kept telling me that it was just car headlights passing by the house, so as to calm me down before the storm. I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario and during the summer we’d get some awful thunderstorms and I recall being so scared during some of them and be yelling out for my mom to come to my rescue in the middle of the night. She’d come by my bed, sit down, and tell me to close my eyes and I’d never see the lightning, but if I did that, all I could see was the light coming through my eye lids, which didn’t help! Then she’d start to sing a lullaby to get me to relax and fall asleep again. It helped, and I’m glad she was there. I also remember one Canada Day where myself and my siblings all got sparklers to light and take outside, but it was about to storm so I remember having my sparkler lit and putting my arm outside the door and swinging it around so at least I was inside and away from the storm but too close for comfort. I remember mom laughing about this and she said it was OK to go outside and enjoy my sparkler but I wasn’t going out there! No way man!

Then as time went on, I became less and less afraid of thunderstorms, and more interested in weather phenomena. Today, I live in a region of Canada where I see maybe 2 or 3 thunderstorms per year, as I’m too close to the Pacific Ocean. If the front comes up from the south to the Vancouver lower mainland area from Washington state, then we might see the occasional thunderstorm, but this is rare. Most fronts come in off the ocean from the west which really pisses me off because to see a good storm one has to travel literally hundreds of kilometers away from Vancouver.

Today at 50 years of age, when a thunderstorm occurs, I can’t get enough of it. I want to be there when the storm produces lots of great lightning and loud thunder! And sometimes I have to kick myself for not carrying around my video camera and tripod! Whenever there’s the slightest hint that we could get a storm, I’m charging the camera! Over the last few days, there’s been a chance of storms in the forecast but none have materialized. Bummer.

What’s your favourite storm memory?