By Steve Douglass
The tornado sirens wail, a sound that no matter how many times I’ve heard it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But instead of doing what is instinctual, seeking shelter, I am instantly energized at the prospect that THE shot I have been seeking (since I began chasing storms some 30 years ago) could be at hand, the iconic image, imprinted on my brain since childhood (from the Wizard Of Oz) of a serpentine twister reaching out of the storm and sucking up whatever lies in its path.
Photographing storms can be one of the most exciting aspects of photography. It can also be lucrative, with news and photo agencies paying top dollar for exclusive images, especially of large damaging tornados. However, it can also be (second only to combat photography) one of the-most dangerous.
Storm photographers not only risk life and limb but their property as well. I’ve personally lost expensive equipment to hailstones, gusts of wind (toppling tripods with cameras attached) had lenses sandblasted with 100 mph airborne grit and internal sensors ruined by wind driven torrents of rain, and yet when storms threaten, I cannot remain indoors.
Storm photography embodies the often quoted notion of hours of sheer boredom only relieved by moments of sheer terror,or should I say "shear" terror.
Storm photography is exhausting, expensive and dangerous and unless you go out with the proper training, equipment and experience, you’ll either find yourself chasing rain shafts or end up on the wrong side of the storm, while the rain wrapped tornado, you can’t see is heading right at you.
Even with that in mind, and especially if storm photography is something you’d still like to embrace, here are the top six things you should know before venturing out into the wild blue.
Learn everything you can about the science of severe weather. Developing the skills of how to “read” a storm is paramount, not only to prevent getting yourself from getting killed or your vehicle trashed by grape-fruit sized hail, but to be able to put yourself in the best possible location (relative to the storm) for photography. If you find yourself wrapped in torrential rain or hail, not only is it extremely dangerous, but if you can’t see past the hood of your car you can’t shoot. The best way to learn the dos and don’ts is to attend annual storm spotter classes offered by the National Weather Service every year.
Not only will you learn the fascinating meteorology mechanisms that drive the storm but, you also might meet seasoned storm spotters (and chasers) whom you should befriend, because they can serve as your guide to finding the best storms while keeping you safe with their expertise.
If you aren’t confident in your storm-chasing skills, it is prudent to spend your first couple of storm seasons participating in ride-alongs, with a certified NWS storm spotter until you feel seasoned enough to go out on your own.
When it comes to equipment: the more bodies and lenses the better.
Bring along at least two cameras (or DSLR bodies) and assorted lenses. Most of your shots will be of the big beautiful sky so good wide-angle zoom lenses are a must. Telephotos are good when you don’t want to get that close to an angry and unpredictable storm. Since sometimes severe storms can change direction quickly (forcing you to move without much notice) it helps to have two camera bodies on hand, one equipped with a telephoto and one with a wide-angle zoom so you can switch instantly between the two. If a storm is bearing down, you can’t be fumbling with lenses. You have to be able to shoot fast and move at a moment’s notice.
Heavier is better but sometimes one leg is better than three.
In storm photography, a good heavy tripod is a must. Cheap department-store tripods won’t cut it in high winds, but no matter what you choose, make real sure it is one with a quick release head. You can’t be fumbling with a stubborn tripod screw when a storm has turned on you.
However, when shooting daytime storms, and light levels may be low due to heavy cloud cover, (anticipating you may have to set up and tear down in a hurry) consider bringing along a monopod. Not only can it help you hold your camera steady during longer exposures but it can also be broken down and stowed faster.
The Filter Factor.
Photographing severe storms will present you with some of the most difficult exposure challenges you’ll ever encounter. Deep black wall clouds, vibrant neon rainbows, and cloud colors ranging from neutral grays, deep sea-greens to luminescent oranges (and the ever changing pallet of mingling color and intensities) can fool even the most intelligent camera meter.
Split -field neutral density filters will help with the wide variance in exposure between earth and storm. Proper exposure of both the ground and the sky (one is usually two stops brighter or darker than the other) can be difficult with clouds varying in light intensity from bright white to deep black. Having both in the frame establishes scale.
Polarizing filters can help rainbows pop out brilliant from the dark rain. A skylight filter can help eliminate the overall bluish-cast cumulus clouds can have against a clear sky, not to mention, the added protection glass filters can give your expensive lenses from dust and rain.
Also consider purchasing virtual Photoshop filters such as the excellent NIK Color Efex Pro Series. They can make the difference between a blah shot and a wow shot.
Practice makes perfect and may also save your skin.
When skies are fair, rehearse setting up your camera equipment and tearing it down as fast as possible. Sometimes you’ll have all the time in the world to shoot, but there are also those times when every second counts and if the storm dictates you move, you move.
If you are tagging along with veteran storm chasers and they are threatened by the storm and feel they should back away, you best be ready when they are.
Be the calm in the storm.
There will come a moment, after many days and hours of fruitless and boring storm chasing, when everything comes together and you are in the right storm at the right moment.
When that happens, you better be ready. Here are a few good tips that will serve you well in the midst of the raging storm.
A water-resistant professional camera bag or photographer’s backpack, is a must.
Organize your bag and memorize where you put everything, or make a map of the contents so you won’t be frantically tearing the bag apart looking for that remote or gizmo while that rare white tornado dissipates.
Ziplock bags can help keep your equipment dry. Sometimes I cut a hole in a bag and put it over the camera just in case it should start to rain while I’m shooting.
A lens can get wet without incurring many problems but get water in your camera body and it can get expensive. If you do a lot of storm photography, consider buying a silicone body suit for your camera such as those made by Camera Armor.
If you camera does become wet, wipe it off as soon as possible with a soft lint-free towel.
If water gets in the body, turn the power off immediately, remove the battery and store it in a cool dry place for a day or more before turning it back on.
It’s also a good idea to remove the media and if it is dry use a card reader to load the photos into your computer.
Always bring along many more media cards than you think you’ll ever need. You’d be surprised (especially on long-duration, long-distance storm chases) how many photos you’ll take. You don’t want to be frantically deleting photos to make room for additional storm shots (you’ll wish you had later) or suddenly run out of room at a critical time.
Same goes for fully charged batteries or battery packs, you can never have too many. If you find yourself shooting time-exposures of lightning, you’ll be surprised how fast it will drain a battery.
It’s also a good idea to store your media cards in a metal tin. I once had an entire day’s shoot ruined because a friend stored my gear in the trunk on top of his subwoofer, the massive magnets erasing all my media cards.
If you are forced to switch lenses in a storm, try and do it inside the vehicle so there will be less of a chance your image sensor becoming fogged by high humidity.
If you have the capability, GPS-tag your photographs, they could be used later by the NWS to chart the strength and path of the storm. Since photos may have scientific value as well, share you photos with the NWS but make sure to tag them with your copyright.
Your chances for success:
The National Weather Service estimates that only one out of ten super cell thunderstorms will produce a tornado. Finding that one storm in ten takes training, lots of patience, experience born of years of observing severe storms and a copious amount of luck. Even then, most tornados are short-lived (less than 5 minutes) so if you are able to capture one on pixels, consider yourself among the privileged few.
But even if you never see a tornado, every storm presents many opportunities to capture something amazingly beautiful such as billowing cauliflower-like storm towers, ominous swirling wall clouds, ponderous-hail-laden mammatus, turning bright gold, then orange and then pink and purple by the setting sun.
But after dark is when the real light show begins when towering thunderheads glow a glassy blue-green as suspended hail reflects the last light of day.
But wait, there’s more.
Pull back from the storm and prepare to capture one of the most captivating and photogenic natural phenomena, bolts of electricity that can light up a thunderstorm like a Chinese lantern, visible even from space.
Severe thunderstorms in particular can be pulsing with high voltage, with some storms spitting out lightning more than 50 times a minute making it nearly impossible to not get at least one good shot.
But whether you decide to plunge into storm photography with both feet and actively participate in the chase or only shoot storms when you have the opportunity, do yourself a favor and take the opportunity.
You’ll find out that not only will you take some of the most striking images you’ll ever shoot but the experience of witnessing the full fury of the storm in such close proximity is a slice of your life you’ll never forget.
Top Tips For Shooting Stunning Lightning Shots.
Storm photographers have a saying, “Those who say only sunshine brings happiness have never photographed lightning.”
Although difficult to do well and potentially dangerous, once you’ve successfully photographed a lightning storm you’ll want to do it again and again. Lightning photos are some of the most (pardon the pun) striking images you’ll ever capture.
Safety first. Don’t get fried trying to get that shot!
Don’t park under tall structures that will attract lightning such as power lines or radio antennas. You don’t have to be in the storm itself to photograph the lightning. In fact the best shots can be had with the storm at a safe distance. When lightning is close, stay in your vehicle. You can even try photographing lightning with a tripod set up inside the back seat of the car, or if you are using a compact digital camera try using a Gorilla Pod that can attach to your car window allowing you to shoot safely inside your vehicle.
When it comes to capturing lightning, slower is better.
I’ve actually had people comment when they’ve seen my lightning images, “You must be very fast on the shutter to be able to capture lightning!” I usually chuckle a bit before I explain to them just the opposite is true.
It’s ironic that the photographic techniques employed to capture one of nature’s briefest lasting phenomena (sometimes existing for only a millionth of a second) involves slowing everything down.
If you camera is not capable of long exposure times (10 seconds or more) then you will be out of luck when it comes to lightning photography. The trick is to (after dark) leave your shutter open as long as possible so when lightning strikes it is recorded on the sensor.
Slow down the ISO as well.
Lightning bolts can be brighter than the Sun, therefore although you may be shooting in near pitch black conditions, you don’t have to use a high ASA/ISO. In fact, ISOs higher than 100 will not only cause the lightning to be overexposed but will also introduce unwanted noise you will have to deal with later, not to mention your images will also be more susceptible to electronic noise caused by the EMP (electro-magnetic-pulse) generated by close lightning strikes, not when the photo is being taken, but while the image is being written to the media.
Observe the storm for a few minutes while setting up your camera on a tripod. Lightning can happen anywhere in a storm, but happens most often where the storm is the most violent and in particularly the area of heaviest rain. Once you found what I call “the lightning core” aim you camera in that direction and start shooting your time exposures.
Depending on how frequent and close the lightning is it will take some experimenting on getting the exposure correct. I usually start with an exposure time of 15 seconds at f8.0 and work up and down the shutter speed dial from there.
Raw power requires RAW imaging.
If your camera allows you to shoot RAW, all the better. Although RAW images are larger and will take up more memory space on your media cards, once in your computer you’ll enjoy more editing control which is essential with lightning and night storm shots.
Especially in urban area, you’ll be surprised by the strange color castes caused by outdoor lighting reflected off low level the clouds. RAW gives you full control to exploit or eliminate the effects of street lighting on your images.
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