My choice of seats on the eastern rim of a 1,000-foot chasm was questionable, but the sandstone boulder was a welcome relief from the long hike I had just made along the rimrock in search of cactus flowers in bloom. It was in the spring season, and wildflowers were blossoming in full color over the northern Texas Panhandle, and I needed images for a Texas Highways article on Panhandle flowering plants. The day had been long, and I was taking a much-needed respite before the 200-mile drive home.
After packing my gear securely in heavy-duty Pelican cases, I quickly scanned the sky for the telltale sign of building thunderstorms. Since I was in the process of shooting images for a book project on the Texas sky, I wanted to take every available opportunity to secure images for the upcoming work and beef up the files for future reference.
Far to the east and along the line of I-40 and old Route 66, a column of clouds seemed to be expanding suspiciously skyward. Despite a westerly wind, usually not associated with the buildup of storms, the surge of cumulonimbus activity was unmistakable. Stoked with adrenaline from the possibility of encountering a storm, I pointed my vehicle on a collision course with one of the most spectacular spring storms I had ever seen.
For more than 28 years, I’ve been a student of weather dynamics and its potential for creating interesting photos. Focusing more on cloud design, structure and color than the maximum intensity of the storm, my travels take me to the peripheral edges of dangerous squall lines or cumulonimbus thunderstorms to record the vibrant if not surreal forms of these clouds. Of course, I’ve sometimes found myself inadvertently in the line of fire of some of these monsters with limited avenues to safety.
Photographing nature’s angry sky doesn’t always have to be a risky touch-and-go process. In fact, over the past decades I’ve found that the finest colors and cloud structure are often more evident in the dying throes of these churning monsters. An additional plus is that when composing images at a safe distance from storms and the associated severe wind shear and hail, dramatic photos are more easily created by including landscape or other secondary elements of interest that add dimension to an otherwise ordinary sky.
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.
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.
Of utmost importance in shooting any storm, and especially those producing electricity, is a healthy respect for the lethal potential of lightning. Don’t push the envelope! Stay off elevated spots and, if possible, stay in the car while shooting. I often mount my camera on a tripod with one leg in the seat and two on the dash for stability. Standing alone with tripod extended in the midst of a storm may seem macho, but I can guarantee that this act of machismo won’t be mentioned in your obituary!
Some of my most productive shoots are in winter when, in the grips of a good storm system, the landscape is blanketed in a sheet of ice or snow. While not the most comfortable conditions in which to shoot—subfreezing temps and howling winds often add to the challenge of maintaining an upright tripod—early-morning or late-evening settings can offer fantastic light displays. As a general rule, shooting winter settings doesn’t offer the same dynamic skyscapes as do spring and summer due to the lack of colliding warm and cold air systems, but there are still opportunities. Even in situations when great cloud structures don't have a chance to form, there's great photography to be had. I’ll go out to find a brilliantly clear morning sky over a winter wonderland and, in these cases, I lean more to a landscape approach with the sky added for depth and dimension.
A point to remember with winter photography is the problem of high-reflectance values when exposing the image. Like taking an exposure off a pure white cloud, it’s easy to underexpose an image despite today's camera meters. A rule of thumb that I use when time is of the essence is to meter half in the blue sky and half on the landscape. This generally produces consistent and accurate results. Of course, the time-honored back-of-hand "gray card." A approach is also effective.
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM and Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II U
One of my most memorable winter shoots occurred in the Davis Mountains of west Texas when a Pacific cold front dumped a four-inch white blanket on Sawtooth Mountain. After traveling over the Davis Mountains backbone for 30 miles on an untracked highway before dawn, I set up my camera and tripod in the freezing conditions and waited. As the sun spilled over Mount Livermore, a pristine magenta ligh streaked over the peaks of Sawtooth. With exposure values within acceptable parameters, I focused my Canon 24-70mm lens and recorded a brilliant performance of nature. The 700-mile one-day trip was worth the effort!
Correct lens selection is essential. A rule of thumb for me is the wider the better. If I’m working a storm with extensive clouds that displays color throughout, my favorite lenses are the Canon 14mm ƒ/2.8L or 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L. On those occasions when I find that only one portion of the sky offers the intensity of color and structure I need, a medium telephoto such as the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L is my choice. Depending on the contrast issues in a cloud formation, I generally prefer to expose images at ISO 50 for maximum color saturation. If highlights offer insurmountable problems, I resort to a higher ISO to overcome washout in highlight areas.
As a last bit of advice, I suggest a vigilant watch on the National Weather Service. The predictions of squall lines and impending storms are generally accurate and timely. If I’m planning a major sky photo shoot, I select a window of several days when atmospheric chemistry promises unstable conditions aloft, increasing my chances of encountering outstanding cloud formations.
To see more of Wyman Meinzer's photography, visit www.wymanmeinzer.com.