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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Storm Chaser

When the weather turns bad, it's time to get the camera. Even in the winter, there are astonishing images to be had if you‚’re willing to look for them.

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Be Storm-Ready

A key element to safe, successful storm cloud photography is a familiarization with the area in which you're shooting. I live in the rolling plains near the small ranching town of Benjamin some 125 miles west of Lubbock, Texas. It’s a fantastic region for sky-watchers, as the early spring cold fronts frequently collide with moist Gulf air to create violent storm conditions. The area is a land of big ranches, few people and open vistas, excellent conditions for unobstructed views and mobility—essential ingredients for ease of composition when photographing the structural makeup of impressive cloud formations. I’m familiar with all roads in the region and know the location of good foreground
elements in case of a need for landscape/cloud components. If the need arises, I have a quick escape route when fleeing from menacing storms.

Storm Chasers Storm Chasers
Storm Chasers Storm Chasers
Photographer Wyman Meinzer is a master of dramatic storm photography. Capturing these skyscapes doesn’t have to be an improbable proposition—although make sure safety always comes first. The most interesting colors and cloud structures often are more prevalent in the final throes of a storm. While Meinzer is partial to shooting the stormy winter skies over West Texas, no matter where you choose to photograph, the drill is the same. Know your equipment, be in place with your camera ready, stay patient, be familiar with the area in which you're photographing and watch the National Weather Service for potential storm activity.

Often, these ingredients are most prevalent in the hours or minutes before the onset of savage weather or actually in the minutes after the passing of the storm, especially if the phenomenon occurs in the last hour or so before sunset. In the latter case, clouds begin to dissipate, resulting in surreal light displays as the light beams through water droplets suspended in the atmosphere. Clouds form and seem to be interlocked in a colossal struggle to maintain their initial power level, reforming and then breaking apart to create amazing photo opportunities. At this point, it’s important to be in place with the camera ready, as such displays are fleeting in their maximum intensity. One must be vigilant in order to capture the apex of color and structure often seen in the dying moments of a storm.

Lightning is ephemeral and difficult for most of us to capture. This is even more difficult when working with storms in daylight. Lightning bolts are instantaneous flashes and then gone, and we’re left with images of nothing. Also, there’s a competition between lightning and ambient sunlight, creating a contrast issue that’s often difficult to overcome.

Nocturnal lightning storms are much easier to photograph simply by opening the shutter for long exposures on that portion of the storm that's producing the highest frequency of lightning bolts. I’ve found that shutter speeds of less than 15 seconds are optimum and apertures of ƒ/8 to ƒ/11 work well.

Of concern to digital camera users when shooting at night is the "noise" issue in the darker areas of an image. When using my Canon EOS 5D, I haven't had any significant problem with noise as long as I keep the shutter speed to less than 20 seconds and I activate the noise-reduction mode.

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