Tuesday, July 24, 2012
How to capture the power and beauty of dramatic weather
Monsoon storms can be extremely photogenic, especially when photographed with the desert cacti and landscapes. In central and northern Arizona, as well as southern Utah, the large expanses of red rock sandstone and canyons can make for very beautiful storm and landscape photography. Often, as a storm develops in this region, the red rock color is reflected into the cloud bases, turning them pink and red. Lightning strikes regularly have a red hue to them.
Probably the most fascinating weather phenomenon to photograph is lightning. Lightning occurs in all thunderstorms; however, the ability to photograph it successfully can be difficult. Supercell storms traditionally produce the most frequent lightning, while monsoon storms arguably produce the most photogenic lightning. A cloud-to-ground lightning strike occurs most often in the downdraft region of the storm, in other words, the portion where rain and hail occur. It's also one of the most dangerous and unpredictable events of a storm, since lightning can strike 10 miles or more away from the actual storm itself. Thus, extreme caution should always be taken when approaching a storm. We'll discuss how to capture day and night lightning strikes when we talk about composition.
The most violent severe-weather event to photograph is the tornado. Tornadoes produce some of the strongest winds in weather. Wind speeds can often exceed 200 miles per hour in strong tornadoes. However, they're also a thing of beauty. Depending on the lighting conditions and accessory clouds with a storm, it's possible to capture amazing tornado images. When approaching a tornado, always give yourself a way to escape, and never put yourself directly in the path of a tornado. Most tornadoes move from a southwest to northeast direction, thus putting yourself to the southeast or south of a tornado keeps you from being in harm's way, and also is the most advantageous location to get stunning images. Respect these violent beasts of nature at all times, and never get caught off-guard.
Different subjects in severe-weather photography require different techniques to get the best images. We'll take a closer look at each type of weather event.
The Storm. Putting yourself into the best position to photograph a storm requires knowing your objective. If you want to photograph the storm where you get the sunlit cloud tower as your main subject, it's best to put yourself between the sun and the storm. Since most storms form in the afternoon, it works best to put the storm to your east and the sun to your west to get dramatic lighting. Because this would make the cumulonimbus cloud bright white, thus having a dark-colored ground, a graduated neutral-density filter works best. The cloud would be dulled a bit and the ground would be brighter, giving it a more real appearance. Also, a polarizing filter can help contrast the sky and make the storm stand out.
If a highly contrasted image of the structure of the storm is your goal, putting yourself to the east of the storm and shooting west toward it gives the best results. In this situation, be careful to get proper balance of light, as portions of the storm could be too dark or too light due to the storm blocking out light. Adjusting your white balance is often needed, since this setup would yield images with a cool bluish color. Again, a graduated ND filter can be useful here. Regardless of the filter you use, always have a UV filter on every lens you use, as blowing dirt, sand and pea gravel in a storm's outflow can destroy your lens/filter in an instant. Finally, the old thought of cutting your image into thirds doesn't apply to severe-weather photography as much, since the goal is usually to shoot the sky and not so much the ground. Your objective can be to focus on the sky with the storm as your subject, or you can get unusual images by focusing on some feature of the landscape, with the storm towering above it.
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