Storm Watch

How to capture the power and beauty of dramatic weather

Dramatic weather yields dramatic photographs. Roger and Caryn Hill are dedicated, expert storm chasers and photographers. Every year they strike out across the United States to photograph the wild weather systems that emerge in the summer. Above: Supercell tracked from Rapid City, South Dakota to Valentine, Nebraska, 2009.

Darkening skies, a flash of lightning and a distant clap of thunder. Most people are naturally curious about thunderstorms. For me and my wife, Caryn Hill, it goes beyond that. As a rapidly rotating maelstrom approaches, we don’t run for cover. Instead, we set up our cameras on tripods and capture the beauty and danger of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
For us, it’s a way of life, as we spend as much as 150 days a year on the road in pursuit of the most violent weather we can find. We operate storm-chasing and photography tours for those with a strong heart to capture one of the most intense weather events on the planet.

Lightning strikes in Arizona, 2011.

Severe thunderstorms occur over virtually the entire U.S.; the most violent and photogenic storms, however, occur during the spring and summer each year, and in the Great Plains region from the Canadian border to Texas. Here, the combination of moisture, instability, lift and wind shear produce amazing storms, lightning and tornadoes. During early spring, the southern plains areas of Texas, Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico provide the best storms. During late spring, the central plains of Kansas, Nebraska and eastern Colorado usually have the most photogenic storms. In summer months, the northern plains and high plains abound with severe storms. Traveling northward with the jet stream as seasons change would give the severe-weather photographer the most opportunities to witness nature’s fury.

In the plains, visibility is generally very good, while the open prairies and grasslands help set the stage for unforgettable severe-weather photography. Some amazing images can be captured using the landscape’s features, combined with the structure of a storm or tornado. Imagine a scenic windmill and pond with a lightning bolt in the background, reflecting in the water, or the rugged South Dakota badlands with a backlit tornado roaring across the prairies. Position yourself with the sun behind your back, and you have the ghostly-white tornado with dramatic contrast. There are a tremendous variety of foregrounds to use to get that perfect image. The opportunities are endless!

Monsoon clouds, Arizona, 2011.

Various Types Of Weather
For most severe-weather photographers, there are several different events that warrant photographing. These include supercell thunderstorms, monsoon thunderstorms, lightning and tornadoes.

The supercell thunderstorm is the most violent thunderstorm in the world. These storms are different in that they rotate and can last up to 12 hours or more! The average garden-variety thunderstorm has a life cycle of less than an hour, while these long-lived monsters can rage all afternoon and well into the night. We captured one such storm that developed near the Black Hills of South Dakota at noon, and the next morning at 2 a.m., it was still raging as it moved across northern Nebraska. Supercells are responsible for the majority of tornadoes and large hail, and produce incredible amounts of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. Sometimes, the rotating cumulus tower in the storm resembles a barber-shop pole, spiraling to 60,000 feet, or it can appear like a spaceship with lightning strafing throughout the cloud tower. The most photogenic view of a supercell is if you’re east or southeast of the storm and the sun is being blocked out by the cloud tower.

Supercells also produce most tornadoes each year. A prized image of a tornado is one of the most sought-after photographs in severe weather.

Catching a daytime lightning strike like this one requires fabulous luck or some kind of lightning-activated shutter trigger. The Hills rely on the Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products, LLC.

Another photogenic type of storm is the monsoon storm. These thunderstorms occur in the desert Southwest during mid- to late summer. They occur as air is lifted over higher terrain or the ground is heated to the point where a thermal rises and develops into a storm.

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.

The Hills typically shoot with Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies and Canon lenses. A solid tripod like this Really Right Stuff model is a necessity.

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.

Tornado near Campo, Colorado, 2010.

Lightning. When positioning around a thunderstorm, it’s best to keep yourself a safe distance from the electrified portion of the storm, but yet not too far away to catch the beauty of a lightning strike. We find that about three to six miles away gives you the best opportunities to capture the lightning bolt and the structure of the storm. Contrast is key here, as well. A lightning bolt against a light-colored sky won’t be as dramatic as a lightning strike against a dark sky. If you’re shooting in daylight, using an ND filter to allow your shutter to stay open longer gives you the best chance to catch a lightning strike. You have to be very quick on the release to catch that bolt that only lasts a few tenths of a second.

One tool we use to catch a daytime lightning strike is the Lightning Trigger ( It uses a photocell to detect an electrical discharge in the storm and trips your release as a lightning strike occurs, and as long as the strike has at least one return stroke, there’s a significant chance you’ll capture the bolt! We have both used the Lightning Trigger for years and highly recommend it for any severe-weather photographer. The more difficult part is to set your camera’s aperture and shutter speed so that it allows at least a 1⁄8 sec. exposure to catch all the strokes from the lightning bolt. Nighttime lightning is much easier to capture. Simply put your camera on a tripod, set your camera to its Bulb setting, and then depending how far away the lightning is occurring, you can set your aperture anywhere from ƒ/4 to ƒ/9. The closer the strike, the smaller the aperture should be, otherwise you run the risk of blowing out your photo. You also can adjust your ISO to make it more sensitive to those distant strikes that would otherwise be very faint in your image. Using a remote-control release, hold the shutter open until a strike or two occurs, but not longer than about 60 seconds. With practice and a bit of trial and error, you’ll soon capture incredible lightning images.

Tornadoes. One of the most difficult and dangerous events in severe weather to photograph is the tornado. Staying a few miles away from a tornado allows you more time and a wider variety of subjects within the storm and tornado to photograph. Regardless of your objective, always give a tornado the respect it deserves. Since a tornado usually forms at the front of the storm’s updraft region, various positions can yield dramatic images. If you’re east of the storm, with the sun to the west of the storm, a tornado appears dark and very threatening. However, the risk here is blowing out the light portions of your photograph. Many severe-weather photographers try to position themselves to the south of a tornado, with the sun to the west, which gives the tornado a ghostly white or gray appearance. Often, though, you don’t have the luxury of positioning around a tornado, since it’s on the move and road networks don’t allow that perfect shot. Take what you can get when a tornado is on the ground, but some position planning during storm intensification can help in the end.

Severe Weather In B&W
We’re pretty sure Ansel Adams would have something to say about shooting severe weather in black-and-white, as the dramatic effect achieved when shooting in black-and-white may have had him out chasing these magnificent acts of nature! Black-and-white photography has a tendency to bring out certain depths and details that color can sometimes miss out on.

However, not all acts of severe weather warrant black-and-white images. Here’s where making sure any available sun is used to its advantage, giving your image greater contrast within the storm structure itself. Adding in a dramatic landscape for a greater depth of field also allows for a bit more perspective to the massive size of these storms. Caryn prefers to include old abandoned farmsteads into her preferred way of shooting, black-and-white photography, as it adds a bit of mystery to her images. The dramatic effect achieved when shooting lightning in black-and-white and against dark storm structure also can add some “pop” to lightning bolts.

Roger and Caryn Hill operate, and where they take guests on amazing tours throughout the year.