I've always been fascinated by the weather. Growing up in New Jersey, my parents introduced me to skiing when I was five years old. As I grew up, I started paying special attention to the weatherman on the evening news in the hope that it would snow, which it never seemed to do. I began learning about all those squiggles and arrows on the weather maps, and how they all might converge in a way that would fill the sky over my house with snowflakes so I could go skiing. I never could have imagined at the time, but when I look back now, I realize that my obsession with skiing served as my introduction to meteorology, which led to my life as a photographer.
My decision to study meteorology in college led me to the University of Utah—the second best school in the nation for this field. Of course, the fact that Utah had some of the best skiing in the world had nothing to do with my decision. With the Wasatch Mountains at my doorstep, skiing, climbing and the great outdoors soon became a fundamental part of my being. My passion for skiing trumped my passion for meteorology enough that I changed majors in my second year to mechanical engineering due to a four-hour meteorology class that met every day and would have seriously eroded my ski time. Looking back now, if I had continued my meteorology studies, I wouldn't have become proficient enough at skiing to meet the great skiers who became my friends. These friends became the subjects of my ski photos when I bought my first camera and quit my engineering job two years out of college in 1982, in an attempt to find a way to make a living and pursue my passion for the great outdoors.
Meteorology, however, quickly returned as a dominant player in my life as I began photographing adventure sports around the world. More often than not, it seemed as if the weather systems swirling around the planet were conspiring to make my new profession as difficult as possible. I remember one particularly frustrating assignment where I traveled halfway around the world in an attempt to photograph a winter ascent of Mount Cook in New Zealand. I ended up spending two weeks trapped in a hut on the Grand Plateau Glacier, waiting for an endless series of storms to clear so we could climb the mountain. They never did, and I returned home with a bag full of unexposed film.
While the weather may have controlled my new life, my meteorology background provided me a foot up. Back then, there were no weather cams, no online satellite loops, no Internet, period. I had to wait for the evening news, which I never missed, to get a decent forecast. When working closer to home, I often relied on calling friends to have them look out their window at the location I was thinking about shooting, to tell me what the weather was doing so I could decide if I should grab my gear and go. The advent of the Internet changed everything. The ability to view current satellite and webcam images of any location on earth with the click of a mouse was unfathomable when I began my career.
The difference between a good photo and a great one often comes down to what's happening in the sky. Every outdoor photographer should have a basic understanding of how the weather systems on our planet work in order to take advantage of them. The most important concept to understand is that the sun drives the entire process; without the sun, we'd have no weather. The reason the sun creates weather is because its rays strike the equatorial regions of the earth at a high angle and heat this region much more than they do the region near the poles, where they strike the surface of the earth at a much lower angle. This simple fact causes the hot air over the equator to rise into the atmosphere above and serves as the prime driving mechanism behind three vast atmospheric circulation cells between the equator and the poles. Without this heat-driven circulation, the tropics would be far warmer, the poles would be far colder, and we wouldn't have any wind or storms.
Then there's the polar jet stream. Our planet came fully equipped with two of these east-to-west-flowing, high-altitude rivers of high-speed air that circle the globe in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, around 45 degrees north and south of the equator. Located at about six miles in altitude, and measuring about 200 miles wide and three miles deep, these rivers of air flow at an average speed of 100 mph and can make your flight from Seattle to New York much shorter than it would be otherwise. More importantly, they also steer the storms around the planet.
The Northern hemisphere polar jet serves as a boundary line between cold polar air to the north and warmer air to the south. It doesn't zoom around the planet in a straight line at 45 degrees latitude, however, but instead moves in a sine wave meander resembling a roller-coaster track with continent-sized loops and dips. Large, southerly dipping lobes allow cold polar air to move south into regions of warm air, causing a clash zone where the two air masses meet. We refer to this clash zone as a cold front—those dark clouds that move in from the west during winter with their burden of rain, snow and cold northwesterly winds. As this cold air plunges south from the pole to mix with warmer air, the difference in temperature and density between the two air masses causes the warm air to rise into cold air above, prompting water vapor within it to condense out as rain or snow.
These large, southerly dipping lobes in the jet stream form low-pressure systems (troughs), while the northerly rising lobes form high-pressure systems (ridges). High-pressure ridges are large domes of air that rotate in a clockwise direction in the Northern hemisphere (counterclockwise in the Southern), with descending air at their centers that produce sunny skies and light winds. Low-pressure systems rotate in the opposite direction with rising air at the centers. As the air rises, it cools, and the water vapor within it condenses to form precipitation. Hurricanes are the most dramatic example of this.
How do I sort through all the available weather data to take advantage of it when I'm hunting for images in the field? Enter the National Weather Service. A division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it's the most comprehensive database of weather information in the world. The vast majority of weather websites get their information from the NWS, so it makes sense to go directly to the source. Their site provides visible, infrared and water vapor time-lapse satellite loops, radar so you can track storms and webcams to see conditions on the ground. The visible satellite is simply a visible-light image of the earth, while the infrared shows the temperatures of the cloud tops and thus the coldest (tallest) clouds in the heart of a storm, and allows you to track storms at night. The water vapor loop is used to see large atmospheric circulation patterns as they develop into low-pressure systems, even before clouds get involved. You'll also find a "Forecast Discussion" page with a far-superior, in-depth analysis compared to those little graphic forecasts with the smiling sun peeking out from behind the clouds. Other developed countries have their own versions of the NWS that I use when traveling.
When I'm out in the field, I rely on my iPhone or iPad to access this information. If you're traveling to a location with no cell service, you can rent an Iridium GO! or another type of satellite receiver that creates a hotspot signal for your phone or tablet.
When it comes to grand landscape images, a blank, blue sky adds nothing to the composition, while a sky full of roiling, swirling clouds provides drama. If you have the option to spend several weeks or months on location, you can wait around for those fleeting moments with dramatic sky conditions. If your time is limited, and you need to stay closer to home for short trips, you can increase your odds by keeping an eye on those satellite loops to schedule your departure for precisely the right moment to capture ideal sky conditions.
When I plan a weeklong photo excursion within a half-day's drive, I'll get packed up and ready to go, and if there's nothing but boring, blue-sky high pressure at my destination, I'll wait and watch the weather, and time my departure to coincide with a passing cold front. If I were planning to capture a specific location at sunrise with my view to the west, I'd need a clear eastern horizon and, ideally, a western sky filled with dramatic clouds. The meteorological situation here would be an approaching cold front with dramatic black clouds in the western sky. If I were planning to capture an evening shot with my view to the east, the best timing would be right after a cold front sweeps through with clear western skies behind it and lingering clouds in the east as the storm moves out.
In addition to keeping an eye on region-wide weather disturbances like cold fronts, once on location you can also take advantage of local, more random conditions like afternoon cloud buildup over the higher terrain, which will produce more dramatic evening images than at dawn. A prime example of this would be thunderstorm photos at the Grand Canyon during the summer monsoon season. Internet access to a local radar loop allows you to track the heart of the storm so you can get into position.
While the weather may often feel like a well-orchestrated conspiracy, working to deprive you of that great image you've been planning for years, don't take it personally; the jet stream has more important things to do. Also keep in mind that while you may be getting screwed at your setup location, the photographer just over the horizon is getting the shot of a lifetime.
National Weather Service, www.weather.gov — 122 Forecast Offices across the country. Find the office nearest you for the most accurate forecast.
Windfinder, www.windfinder.com — Wind and ocean swell forecasts around the world.
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See more of James Kay's photography at www.jameskay.com.