The Low Down on Storm Chasing Photography

What exactly comes to mind when you think of a storm-chasing photographer? Most likely, you are visualizing an insane individual running across an open field towards a spinning vortex of doom. The reality shows for storm chasing have a flare for the dramatic and have many people visualizing a crazy scenario of chasing twisters across state lines. In actuality, it is quite a bit less dramatic.

There are typically two types of storm-chasing photographers. The dedicated storm-chasing photographers that live to chase during the storm season. These photographers will sometimes team up with researchers that have the knowledge and equipment to keep them in the loop of the best storms. Then you have the more low-key storm chasers that only go after the storms that conveniently land in their location. Most photographers that capture storms fall into the second category.

Storm chasing does not pay the bills, so anyone thinking of taking this up as a full-time career may want to reconsider. A typical storm season where you spend most of your time driving around can put well over 20,000 miles on a vehicle. Factor in the other costs for hotel stays, food, equipment and you’re looking at a big expense to make up for with photography sales. Keep in mind that there is no guarantee of a good season.

The Equipment

There is quite a bit of wiggle room when it comes to what equipment is necessary to storm chase. Some photographers will insist that it is necessary to come prepared with the best that money can buy, but others still manage with nothing more than a camera in hand. The following is a list of suggested items that every chaser should consider bringing along for the ride.

  • A DSLR camera should be at the top of the necessity list, unless you plan to sketch the tornados.
  • A wide angle lens in the 18mm to 28mm range and a telephoto lens should cover any situation you get yourself into.
  • A polarizing filter is useful when photographing clouds. The filter will give clouds more depth and also help reduce reflection when photographing through a window.
  • A waterproof case is a good investment. If you don’t have the cash there are several tutorials on how to make your own waterproof case over at Instructables.
  • A tripod or two can come in handy. A full size tripod for shooting weather outside the vehicle and a small tripod with a clamp or mount for shooting from inside.

  • A GPS or laptop with GPS software installed. When chasing you never know where you will end up so it’s doesn’t hurt to have a map.
  • NOAA Weather Radio can be a real asset. It’s a quick way to get updates about a storms location, path, and how strong it’s developing.
  • A video camcorder. If you happen to find yourself in a good location to capture images of a tornado it doesn’t hurt to also capture a video. A high-quality video of a tornado can be worth a few hundred dollars.

The Strategy

The key to getting a good storm photograph is all about location and maybe a little luck. Finding the perfect spot that is far enough away from danger, but still close enough to get a good view of the oncoming storm is ideal.

Even if you can’t locate that perfect spot, many amazing photographs have been captured on the spur of the moment from all sorts of unexpected places.

There may not be a lot of time to mess around with the camera settings. Become familiar with the settings that work best for capturing storms. Capturing storms can be extremely difficult at night, even day storms can make the sky dark and difficult to work with. Storms are very animated so don’t expect things to stay still long enough to change camera settings. A good starting point is an ISO-100 and F8 aperture.

Lightning is usually accompanied by heavy rain that can make it near impossible to get a good picture. Photographing lightning from a distance works best. Start with an ISO sensitivity at 100 and an aperture setting between a F6 to F11. This will vary depending on the intensity of the lightning strikes. Increasing the contrast and saturation settings a bit can also add more detail and depth to lightning shots.

The Danger

Storm chasing is not all hype and although it is over-dramatized on TV, there are quite a few risks involved. The biggest danger however does not come from the oncoming storm or lightning strikes, but other drivers on the road. Traffic can become very dangerous when you have people trying to get away from the storm as well as those chasing after it. Everyone is more focused on looking at the oncoming storm then the actual road, so it can become a hazard unto itself.

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