Mother Nature is whimsical. She has her mood swings from time to time. When she does she can unleash hell, ravage lands and destroy lives. She wields her power to destroy as effortlessly as her power to create. But even in destruction it is an awe-inspiring sight to see. Humans have always stood at awe, watching the colossal powers of nature at work. Be it avalanches, lightning, thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions or tornadoes – they have learnt to respect and even admire these forces of nature. There is another breed of humans, those who love to capture these moments for posterity on their tiny cameras.
This article is about those roughnecks, crazies or downright loonies who love to throw caution to the winds and literally head on where no one else dares to. We talk about storm chasers and storm photographers.
Photographing storms is a difficult pursuit in many ways. Not just because you are chasing storms and that explains a lot, but there are a lot of planning involved. For one thing, storm photography should never be done on your own. You should always team up with like-minded individuals. It’s not that all of your mates have to be photographers too. You need people who love storms and are mesmerized by nature’s destructive mood swings. So these people are open to the idea of storm chasing. But you also need people who are good drivers. Plus you also need people who are just their for the adrenaline rush.
Photographing storms require heavy-duty gear. You need gear that has good amount of weather sealing. Though you are likely not going to shoot within a few hundred yards of a raging tornado, your gear can and most likely will be, exposed to rain, hail and dust. Cameras like the Pentax K50 is one of the cheapest DSLRs out there in the market which has weather sealing. Another good choice is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. This is an APS-C sensor powered DSLR with decent weather resistance. In pro-grade full-frame category, the Nikon D810 is a good choice and so is the Canon 5D Mark III.
To complete weather sealing you need lenses that also have weather sealing. But first you need the right lens. Right lens will give you the right field of view. Photographing storms, in general bad weather photography, is best done with wide angle lenses. Wide angle lenses allow you to capture a dramatic scene with a vast field of view. Such images impart a more everlasting impression than an image that has been captured with a tele-lens and thus, is cropped tighter.
Here are a few suggestions – Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. This lens has a really wide 14mm focal length and then extends to 24mm. The fast f/2.8 maximum aperture works to capture light under dark, gloomy and stormy conditions. The best thing is this lens comes with weather sealing which means you can shoot with this lens even in bad weather.
For Canon users the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM is a good choice. This lens too, has a fast aperture of f/2.8.This is an L series lens which means this has good weather sealing properties. 16mm is good enough for shooting wide angle landscape shots and certainly for composing breathtaking storm images.
You need lights. Most definitely. That is if you are serious about shooting storm photos and probably are looking to go beyond shooting just nature and want to put in human elements in your composition as well. If yes, then you must have a way to light your subjects. There are a wide variety of lights that you can choose from, but personally, I like the ones that are battery powered and have a fast recycling time. Baja B4 and B6 are two battery powered light heads from Dynalite that would be my choice. There are more. Such as the more powerful Broncolor Siros 800. All of these have either built-in slaves or receivers for remote triggering. Please note, normally you don’t need lights to shoot storms. These are required only when you want to place human elements in the image and you want them to stand out against the dark ominous background of storm clouds.
Needless to say safety is of paramount importance. Every year there are thousands of deaths on highways because drivers were not careful when driving at high speeds. The last thing you would want is to be chasing storms driving at high speeds on the highways without paying attention to the most important thing – the road ahead.
Storm chasers frequently do silly things in the name of getting that once in a lifetime photo. They park in the middle of the road, stop without warning, accelerate and decelerate without warning and often drive with their eyes pinned somewhere else. All the more reason why you need to have a dedicated driver who is absolutely focused on the most important task at hand – driving. It would be great if this individual is a paid driver, someone who drives for a living or someone in your team who is uninterested in storms and the whole idea of storm chasing.
There are a million different other things to take care off, not just driving alone. How you park, where you park, how you pull up or pull away can put your life and others driving on the highways at risk. Sometimes not knowing when to slow down or not understanding the tell-tale signs that danger is lurking can have disastrous consequences. It is not unheard of people crashing at high speed, unable to control their vehicle because of hydroplaning. Only a seasoned driver with experience in driving in wet conditions will be able to handle these situations.
Metering can be a difficult thing especially when you have extremely bright white, deep blacks and dark gray all in a single frame. If you meter for the highlights the shadow areas in the frame will lose out details. On the other hand, if you expose for the shadows the highlights are at the risk of getting clipped. Your aim should always be to retain details in the highlight. If the highlights are washed out they are impossible to be retained during post-processing. On the other hand shadow details are considerably a lot easier to salvage.
A sensor that has ISO invariance allows you to expose for the highlights in such a situation while retaining the details in the shadows which can later be salvaged during post-processing without any additional noise induced in the image to what you would have got had you shot at an equivalent ISO.
Often you would have only a few moments after you arrive at a location and until it becomes no longer safe to continue to be at that spot. Thus, you will have to pre-visualize and do a lot of mental calculations about the exposure and composition that you would want to do. Always shoot in RAW. Always fire off as many exposures as you can in as many variations as you can to give yourself more options later on. If you plan to stack, such as when integrating multiple lightning strikes, use a sturdy and heavy tripod with a quick release plate. You need the tripod to be heavy to be able to withstand strong gusts of wind and yet maintain more or less the same composition across multiple frames.
Editing and post-processing
Some amount of post-processing is always involved. You will need to adjust the white balance to give the image a certain color tone depending on the mood that you are after. You will also need to adjust the highlights, shadows, contrast and tint sliders as per your requirement. If the exposures are to be stacked you will also need to do some local adjustments in Photoshop.