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Photographing into the storm

As I pack my bags and try to narrow down what I need, there is no way I can leave without the right camera gear for what is now a yearly trip to Tornado Alley for the past 4 years. There is nothing worse than getting to the airport and you have forgotten some essential item.
Never leave home without my Manfrotto camera bag & tripod.

 


As we wait to board the plane, the excitement begins to hit. We love chasing storms, especially when you do it with good friends and who are masters of getting us in to the best position to capture these beasts of nature.

As soon as we touchdown in Dallas, we pick up our car and meet up with Colt & Lauren who are our Meteorologists that are based just outside Oklahoma City.

It is a long and tiring experience storm chasing, some days you will travel 800km just to get in place for the next day where there is potential of supercells developing. On the flip side there will be days where you just sit in the same spot as there is no weather for days on end. It’s one of those things that is in the hands of the weather gods. You may go over for a few weeks and see a few ordinary storms and that’s all you witness; however, you may be lucky to witness some of the most visually stunning storms on the planet… so in essence it’s a gamble, but one that is worth it.

Also, you get to see a whole part of the United States you would never of think of visiting as the storms can take you from down near the Mexico border all the way up to Canada. Photographing these spectacles is always exciting, doesn’t matter how many times you have chased storms each one is always different.
It becomes an addiction, always wanting to improve on the shots you took the day or week before, maybe shoot a little faster, take the time to get out your tripod, which isn’t always a possibility when you have a fast-moving storm and or a tornado on the ground that is reasonably close.

I travel with two DSLR bodies, Canon 5D SR & Canon 5D MII. One with a wide angle, generally 16mm and the other 24-105mm or 70-200mm. This gives you a good wide range of angles, because these supercells can be absolutely massive, a wide-angle lens is a must.

It can be very fast paced when chasing storms. You are constantly changing positions, to get ahead of the storm or when there is a tornado on the ground you really have to be weary of all roads that can get you out of its path if it changes direction or begins to pick up its speed, so you have to really quick at adjusting your cameras settings. I shoot in manual mode and tend to switch between auto focus and manual, all depending on the situation.

Big Spring, Texas (2016) – 24mm 15sec f/10 ISO100

When you have a slow-moving storm or a system with stunning lightning, this is when ill grab out my Manfrotto tripod, so my camera is tightly locked in place and start shooting some long exposure to capture natures electricity.

Lightning is an interesting one…
It becomes trial and error with this type of photography. All because the storm is moving and they are going to either get closer or further away from you. You might be capturing some nice crawlers overhead and they are producing quite well, and then a huge CG (cloud to ground) hits the ground and its super bright and your shot is just blown out, the exposure is cooked. This is where you have to adjust your settings for the closer lightning strikes.

There is a nice technique to use in post called stacking, so you can take X amount of shots of lightning and stack them all and have a single image of 20 lightning bolts striking the ground which does look quite impressive. It is good to let the viewer know you have stacked an image or it’s a composite, people don’t like to be lied to whether it’s in life or art.

Supercells & Tornadoes, the most exciting spectacle I have photographed.
Watching a storm produce is quite amazing, especially when it creates a visual display that will have you picking your jaw off the ground.
You don’t always succeed mind you, plenty of times we have had a blue sky bust, where there have been storms that just don’t form, so there is plenty that can go wrong, but when it goes right, it goes very right.

Lamar, Colorado (2015) – 17mm 1/90sec f/6.7 ISO800 – Canon 5D MII

In the heart of the USA you chase the best storms on the planet, and with that, you get to see amazing coloring in the storms. Mix that with some incredible landscape, and you can capture yourself some quite stunning images with your time in Tornado Alley.

Adrenaline. Once you know you are onto a special storm, this begins to kick in. You are trying to get in to the best position to capture the storm, whilst avoiding any danger areas as the supercell is rotating and potentially about to put down one of natures must see spectacles. A tornado.

Canadian, Texas (2015) – 24mm 1/90sec f/8 ISO800

I’m always trying to get different perspectives on mostly everything I shoot.
When you are out in the field chasing storms, you have to work with what you have.

You may have a great sky, but I always try to include foreground objects in the shot. It helps give more detail to a shot, and it gives a sense of scale of the storm or tornado.

The shot above shows Lauren looking at the tornado in awe behind the wheel, but you can see just how wide the tornado is. With the extra details of the camera and monitor on the dash it just adds to the image instead of having empty space.
Sometimes you get lucky with certain objects being in the right place at the right time. his was sure the case when we were chasing in South Dakota on June 1st 2015. Our first time in the great state of South Dakota, and what a landscape it is.

After chasing for what would have been hours waiting for the storms to initiate, we found ourselves in the small town of Black Hawk. We began to lose visual and decided to get higher up to get a better view. Driving up a windy road we reached the top of the hill and pull into what would be a cemetery parking lot, with a house to our east. So, I hop out of the car looking for something to be the foreground object, then as I get closer to the house I see an old broken-down car, overgrown grass surrounds the vehicle. The perfect spot to capture the raw power & size of this gorgeous storm overhead.

 

Black Hawk, South Dakota (2015) – 17mm 1/125sec f/8 ISO400 – *This is a stitched panoramic image. 10 shots in total.

To this date this is one of my personal favorite images I have had the pleasure in capturing.

Shooting at a quick shutter speed helps with picking up the details in the sky, if you begin to shoot a little slower then you will get a small amount of blur in the clouds, which is always a nice touch, but for me personally, I like the detail in the ferocious skies. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the ISO, which you can clean up in post-production of your image.
Here I have my Manfrotto tripod setup as we wait for the impending storm to move over the Montana mountain side and down in the valley near the town of Square Butte.

Montana has such a wonderful landscape, here I am trying to capture some rare lightning from this storm near Roy, Montana.


The best chase of my short storm chasing career, June 4th 2015. There was so much going on once we got to the general area where we waited for the storm activity to initiate.

 
As we pull over to get some shots of the nice structure near Matheson, Colorado, it began to quickly intensify, so we quickly get our gear back in the car and get ahead of the storm, once we stop again, the winds are really picking up, as we stand near a barbed wire fence looking out on to the flat plains, the rotation in the wall cloud is really cooking, and within seconds, the first tornado is on the ground for the day, ever so gently it touches the ground in open farm land.

Matheson, Colorado (2015)

For the next few hours we see 7 tornadoes, not to mention two on the ground at the same time, known as ‘Twins’.

But it was one of the last tornadoes of the day that really stood out.
Forming to our east, it formed out on the field outside of the town Simla. As we drive beside it we see it is just picking up all forms of grass, soil in huge amounts, as we turn to get closer the detail in the funnel was astonishing. We take another look at its rotating anti-cyclonic (tornadoes in the northern hemisphere rotate left to right, this was rotating right to left), which happens in only 2% of tornadoes.

As you can tell by the image below, it became reasonable close to this farm house, fortunately is didn’t hit the home, but again, scale. Having the home in the shot really gives you a view at the size of this tornado in relation to everyday objects such as a house, it makes the image a lot more impactful.

Simla, Colorado (2015) – 70mm 1/90sec f/4 ISO100 – National Geographic Photo of The Year 2015.

Capturing these amazing pieces of art mother natures provides us is one hell of a ride, if you get the chance do it, make sure you pack all the right gear into your Manfrotto backpack and think outside the box in the way you capture the next time you’re out in the field.

James Smart

Born & raised in Melbourne, Australia, James took up photography in 2012 whilst visiting Italy. Landscapes were the main focus once picking up his first Canon DSLR, and has not looked back.
The weather photography came only a year later, deciding to venture to tornado alley in the United States of America. Not having much luck on the first storm chasing journey, he has returned every year since and has captured mother nature at her most dangerous. From breathtaking tornadoes to storm structure which you have to see to believe. After capturing such stunning images from storm chasing, James’ has been published in numerous magazines & publications around the world including National Geographic, Australian Photography Magazine & Red Bull.