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Chase The Storms
Late summer provides us with awesome photo opportunities. Booming thunderstorms give us wild light and incredible skies, while strong winds twist tree limbs and towering fair-weather cumulus clouds offer dramatic subject matter. Stormy conditions change rapidly, though, and the right gear can help you deal with them.
Garmin Oregon 550t
Non-photo items include rain gear and insect repellent to keep you dry and comfortable in field conditions. A weather radio provides the latest storm updates and helps you find storms and avoid flash floods. Water (or a favorite hydrating beverage) and snacks for the trail are necessities. Bring your cell phone and let someone know where you’ll be if you’re trekking alone. And it’s always a good idea to have a portable hiker’s first-aid kit stuffed into your camera bag.
A GPS unit can help you keep track of where you are, how to get back from there when you’re done shooting (assuming you had to travel off-road, either in your vehicle or on foot) and even geotag your images with location data. A standard handheld GPS is best for navigation; there are a number of geotagging systems available for that purpose.
Summer storms mean brief, but heavy rains. It’s best to shoot from a protected area, but it doesn’t hurt to provide weather protection for your camera. All-out underwater housings aren’t needed, but relatively inexpensive items like the ewa-marine Rain Cape, OP/TECH Rain Sleeve and Kata GDC Elements Cover provide good rain protection.
It can be difficult to see the image on a DSLR LCD monitor during Live-View operation outdoors. An external unit such as the Marshall seven-inch Portable Field Monitor provides a larger, easier-to-see image, handy for composing and manually focusing in Live-View mode.
You also can use the Hoodman HoodLoupe, which fits over the LCD monitor, cutting out the ambient glare and providing a magnifying eyepiece for easier manual focusing. Or take a cue from large-format photographers and drape a dark cloth over the camera body and yourself to help you see the monitor image better.
Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger
While it would be nice to have a device that caused lightning to fire on cue, a lightning trigger actually doesn’t affect the lightning. But it does something almost as good: It fires your camera when lightning occurs. At night, you can open the camera shutter and just wait for a strike (although that’s kind of hit-or-miss), but during the day, there’s too much light to keep the shutter open for minutes at a time (not to mention the draw on the camera battery). With the Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products, you don’t have to keep the shutter open; the camera automatically fires when lightning occurs, day or night. (The Lightning Trigger also can fire your camera when it detects a burst from an electronic flash unit, or even fireworks.)
If you’re working from your car, you can keep your gear there. If you’re hiking to a location, you’ll want a convenient photo backpack with a rain cover to protect your gear. A bag or case is a good way to keep your gear organized in your car, too.
If your photo backpack isn’t waterproof, you can keep it in a “dry bag.” Dry bags, popular with kayakers and rafters to keep their gear safe, are sealable waterproof sacks sold at outdoors- and sporting-goods stores.
A metal tripod makes a perfect lightning rod, so isn’t the best choice for a summer-storm camera support outdoors. A bean-bag support contains minimal metal (either none at all or just a camera-mounting screw) and lets you put the camera almost anywhere—including spots a tripod won’t fit. Of course, the camera itself contains metal parts, so it’s always wise to stay a safe distance from the storm (see the “Lightning Strikes!” sidebar).
Artificial Light For Nearby Subjects
A flash unit like the Nissin Di866 can provide pleasant fill light for nearby subjects in your summer-storm shots. All DSLR manufacturers and several other companies make shoe-mount flash units. If you’re doing videos with an HD DSLR, you might find the Litepanels MicroPro Hybrid or Flashpoint FPVL112 handy; the MicroPro Hybrid serves as a flash unit for still photos and can provide continuous light output for videos.
The key to using flash for outdoor photos is subtlety: You just want the flash to lighten shadows and maybe add a catchlight to an animal’s eye. You don’t want the photo to look flash-lit. Most newer DSLRs allow you to adjust the flash-to-ambient light ratio; experiment with different settings, starting with -1 for the flash compensation.
Tamrac MicroSync Digital
A remote control allows you to fire your camera without touching it. This helps you get sharper images because you won’t jiggle the camera as you trip the shutter. And it makes it safer to do lightning shots, since it allows you to move away from the camera. A wireless remote (radio or infrared) is better than a cable remote because it lets you operate the camera from farther away—even from the protection of your car.
Kinetronics Digital Camera Cleaning Kit
The late-summer outdoor environment is tough on camera gear, what with wind, dust, water and the like. So you should have some gear on hand to clean your camera, lenses and other items as soon as possible after you’re done shooting. Handy cleaning kits are available from a number of sources, containing the tools needed to keep your camera and lenses in top shape.
To minimize dust on your camera’s image sensor assembly, it’s best to change lenses in a protected area, such as a tent or your car (or the motel before heading out to the field). A zoom lens can help minimize lens changes in the field. And DSLRs with built-in sensor cleaning features are a big help, too. If your sensor does need cleaning, clean it in a safe area—never try to clean the sensor in windy outdoor conditions.
That old standby, the polarizing filter, really can add snap to storm photos. By blocking polarized light waves, it can darken the blue sky so white clouds stand out dramatically. If you’re shooting in black-and-white, you can use a polarizer or a red filter to darken blue skies, but in color, the polarizer is the only option.
Polarizers come in two varieties: circular and linear. If you use an SLR with through-the-lens metering and auto-focusing, you’ll want the circular type because the linear type will interfere with metering and AF operation.
Two other filters that can be especially useful for late-summer shooting are the graduated neutral-density filter and the clear lens-protection filter. The grad ND can cut down sky brightness so you can hold detail in both a dark foreground and bright clouds. The clear protection filter can shield the front element of your lens from blowing rain and dust. Be sure to keep both faces of each filter clean and dust-free.
Summer weather provides a wealth of photo ops, but at the top of most shooters’ lists is lightning. While lightning is spectacular, it’s also dangerous. Here are some tips to help you photograph it safely.
1 We all learned as kids to determine how far we are from a thunderstorm by counting the seconds between the flash and the boom (divide the number of seconds by five, and the result is your distance from the storm, in miles). The problem with this is that lightning can actually strike up to 10 miles from where it’s raining, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS advises that if you can hear thunder, you’re within striking distance and should seek shelter immediately.
2 Of course, to photograph lightning, you have to be within viewing range of it. It’s possible to stay far enough from a thunderstorm to be safe, yet be close enough to get great photos. The key is to use a telephoto zoom lens. The popular 18-200mm and 28-300mm “superzooms” are ideal for this, allowing you to compose wide through tele images without having to change lenses or camera position.
3 Before setting up, watch the storm from a safe distance and see which way it’s moving. If it’s moving toward you, you’ll soon be in danger, so move to a safer location not in its path. Ideally, you want the storm to be moving across the frame; this will keep you safer and put the lightning at a relatively constant distance for more consistent compositions.
4 Since you’ll be shooting at a safe distance from the storm, you should set focus manually at infinity. (because “infinity” changes with focal length, focus manually at the focal length you’ll be using for the shot). Set a DSLR to ISO 100 (or use ISO 100 film, if using a film camera), and the aperture to ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8 (that should be around the lens’ “sweet spot” between wide-aperture, aberration-induced softness and small-aperture diffraction blurring). If you’re shooting during the day, set an appropriate shutter speed for that aperture, and use a lightning trigger to fire the camera when lightning strikes. If you’re shooting at night, use the lightning trigger, or open the shutter on B (using a remote control or locking cable release) and keep it open until a lightning burst has occurred. (At night, be sure to have a flashlight so you don’t trip over things in the dark and can see the camera controls.)
5 With a DSLR, you can check the results on the LCD monitor and make any needed corrections for the next shot. With film, shoot some images at ƒ/5.6, some at ƒ/8 and some at ƒ/11, then pick the images you like best after the film is processed.