Do I Need a Digital SLR to Take Good Weather Pictures?

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If you meet most any well known storm chaser you’ll see them with some sort of Digital SLR. Digital SLR cameras are designed to provide the ultimate in control and flexibility of how you produce your photos. A question many beginners may ask is do I need to buy a Digital SLR?

The short answer is no. In fact I would recommend beginners don’t splash out lots of money on expensive camera equipment. You can actually do a lot with inexpensive compact digital cameras. You could also use a mobile phone camera and there are many great apps for this purpose, but a compact digital camera will always outperform a phone.

I first started out using a Canon Powershot A75 3MP digital camera. I used it for about 3 years prior to purchasing a Digital SLR, but some of my best ever weather pictures were taken with the Powershot. I’ve included some of them in this article.

Stormy sunset photo taken with Canon Powershot A75 3MP Camera

Stormy sunset photo taken with Canon Powershot A75 3MP Camera

What to look for in a Digital Camera?

Any quality brand of digital camera will be suitable for taking photos of cloud formations, sunsets and other common weather phenomena. I do recommend looking at reviews to check the following characteristics though:

  • Low light sensitivity and quality
  • Width of field
  • Manual Controls
  • Bulb mode or time exposure length settings of 10 – 30 seconds
  • Remote control available

Simply having high ISO ratings(a rating of light sensitivity) does not guarantee good low light performance. Factors such as pixel size and aperture will also contribute to performance.

Golden Light photo(unmanipulated) using Canon Powershot A75

Golden Light photo(unmanipulated) using Canon Powershot A75

Storm chasers will tend to use wide angle shots much more regularly than zoom, so I recommend look for a camera with the widest angle lens possible. Zoom is useful, but wide angles more so.

Manual controls give you flexibility to set up the characteristics of your shot. The key manual controls are manual focus, exposure and aperture settings. These become particularly important in low light or at night. For night time lighting photos they are essential.

Essential Accessories for Lightning Photos

There are a few accessories I would consider essential for taking photos of lightning at night.

  • A basic tripod, even a GorillaPod will do
  • Basic remote control

To take time exposure photos you need to have a steady base. Any tripod is better than no tripod, but if you’re on a budget a small GorillaPod will do the job if there’s a table or something to rest it on. For more traditional tripods, one that extends to nearly your height will be the most comfortable to use, but you may find a shorter one more practical. There are all manner of styles with heads and quick releases of all different styles. Any tripod will be better than no tripod though.

Lightning photo taken with Canon Powershot A75

Lightning photo taken with Canon Powershot A75

Remote controls enable you to trigger the shutter button without touching the camera. If you touch the camera at the start of a time exposure it can jolt the camera, streaking any lights in the field of view. An alternative to this is starting your time exposures with a  2 or 10 second self-timer feature, but you will miss lightning you could otherwise capture.

Just Give it a Go!

Playing with the settings and modes on your compact digital camera will help you learn to be a better photographer. Practice framing dramatic shots and try out different manual settings to get the best results. Best of all, if you later choose to move on to a Digital SLR your skills are transferrable!