Lessons Learned From Working Years as a Storm-Chasing Photographer
Over the past 12 years, I have spent countless hours finding myself in places that many would deem “the middle of nowhere.” I’m not there in awe of the bland landscape, yet instead I am staring up into the blue sky in hopes that the tiny little air molecules above me will develop into beastly, photogenic thunderstorms.
It’s an obsession I have had ever since I was young. I was that kid at recess lying on the picnic table just watching the clouds go by. Each storm is different – a different color, a different shape, a different intensity, a different beauty – that’s the great thing about photographing these atmospheric wonders, you will never see what you saw the storm before.
With that said, photography has become such an essential tool to me with storm chasing. Photography allows me to capture the magnificence and power of Mother Nature and share that with the rest of the world. Storm chasing has not only shown me some of the most phenomenal acts of Mother Nature, but has also pushed me as a photographer in many ways. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to capture a fantastic severe weather image and most importantly, keep safe while doing so.
The popularity of storm chasing has drastically taken off over the past decade. Storm chasing and severe weather photography definitely presents its dangers, and I highly recommend not participating in it without a substantial knowledge of meteorology.
If you do choose to check out the next storm that rolls into your area, I’d like to share with you all some tips on safely photographing what I would consider a couple of the most photogenic aspects of severe weather: lightning and thunderstorm structure.
Let’s start with lightning.
So how exactly do you photograph something that lasts merely a split-second, is only an inch wide, and can strike anywhere, anytime around a thunderstorm? The simple answer is, luck. But don’t let that deter you from trying.
Here is the basic setup I use when I photograph nighttime lightning: Nikon D3 body, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (any lens will work, but the wider the lens, the better your opportunity to catch a bolt), Manfrotto tripod, and a Nikon cable release.
Now the most frequent line I hear when talking about lightning photography with people is, “Man, you must be really quick to catch that.” In fact, it’s just the opposite, I’m realllllly slow. My typical exposure time for lightning photography at night is 30 seconds, with an aperture of around f/8, and an ISO of around 400.
You may think that’s not much light for night photography, but in reality the lightning bolts are extremely bright, so that is what you are exposing for. The light from the lightning bolt will actually help fill any foreground in your frame.
Obviously these settings are not set in stone. You will have to tweak your settings depending on how much “in-cloud” lightning there is and ambient light from cities.
In-cloud lightning is just that, lightning that takes place within the clouds and isn’t visual in nature, so all it does is wash out your sky creating a white sky, AKA: boring. If you find your storm having a lot of in-cloud lightning, try shorter exposures, perhaps around 15 seconds.
There are also devices called lightning triggers too that can help you photograph lightning, although I have never tried one.
While photographing lightning, it is extremely important to protect yourself just in case one of those bolts finds you. The best advice I can give is to quickly set up your camera gear outside your vehicle, but close enough to where you can fire your cable release while sitting inside your car. Your car is grounded by its metal frame and rubber tires, so you are much safer inside your vehicle than outside if a bolt does strike nearby.
Also, Manfrotto makes an excellent window clamp camera mount which eliminates you having to leave your vehicle at all.
Daytime lightning is much more difficult to photograph as you are exposing for a bright object (the lightning) against a pretty bright sky. Typically, I use a 10-stop ND filter, the highest aperture possible, and the lowest ISO I can go. This eliminates as much ambient light as possible, and usually gives me a 2-3” exposure. Still, I can rattle of nearly 500-600 frames for a few strikes.
It’s easy to become focused on what’s happening underneath the storm, but you can be surprised to see what visuals await you if you keep back a few miles.
Thunderstorms are massive, bubbling columns of air that can punch skyward up to nearly 60,000’. These storms make everything else around look so insignificant. If you get lucky with your storm, you may see what is called a supercell. These rotating storms are usually responsible for large hail, high winds, and tornadoes. If you aren’t right underneath, you may see that your storm resembles an old school barber pole, or even an upside-down wedding cake — it’s visually jaw dropping.
So, how do you photograph storm structure? When I choose to photograph storm structure, I opt to go with a wide-angle lens with either a graduated neutral density filter or a circular polarizer filter. The ND filter will allow you to expose for both the sky and foreground below it. The circular polarizer will allow you capture deep blue skies around the storm and also deeper shadows inside the clouds of the storm, giving you a nicely contrasted look.
There is no “best” spot in my opinion to photograph a storm. Whether you are looking north, south, east, or west, each direction will provide you with a unique view. Just a quick note, if you have the sun behind you as you are photographing the storm, keep an eye open for a bright rainbow. A circular polarizer will greatly help you photograph the vibrant colors of the rainbow.
There are endless visuals accompanying severe weather – tornadoes, gust fronts, mammatus clouds– just to name a few. As mentioned before, photographing severe weather puts you at risk, so be smart if you try it. Keep an eye to the sky and to the road. Make sure to set up your gear away from roads as slick roads and high winds can impair the ability of drivers and may put you at risk.
Also, if you ever feel like you are in extreme danger, leave. If you see a tornado, take cover immediately, especially if you have no knowledge of meteorology.
Overall though, your odds of seeing a tornado are very slim, so have fun, capture amazing images, and share them with everyone so they too, can enjoy the power of nature.
About the author: Mike Mezeul II is an award winning, professional photographer currently based out of Denton, Texas. His portfolio consists of professional sports, advertising, wedding and concert photography, but his work in landscape and skyscape photography truly separates himself from others. Visit his website here and his Facebook page here.