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"Give me five minutes of great light over three hours of ordinary light," is just one of the many quotes I love to share when I teach. After all, "It's not the number of pictures you take home, it's the quality of the ones you keep." And, "It's all about the light." These three standard quotes of mine lead up to the premise of this article—the impact of storm light. Storm light is dramatic, short-lived, and tough to shoot, but it provides unique images. If you chase it, you're guaranteed to spend a lot of futile sessions in the field, but when it happens, they quickly melt away the bad memories.
FILTER IT: Two filters I consider indispensable in storm light situations are the graduated neutral density and polarizer. The grad filter helps tone down contrast to more closely match the exposure range between a dark sky and spot lit foreground or vice versa. When dramatic light conditions prevail, it's hard to say where the good light will appear. If the sky is bright but the foreground is in deep shadow, the grad will reduce the exposure in the sky. If the foreground receives the most light, put the dark part of the filter at the bottom of the holder. If you buy only one, get the two-stop soft edge. The second filter that is always in my bag is the polarizer. If there is glare on a subject, the polarizer helps reduce it and provides greater color saturation. It can also intensify a rainbow.
CHECK LOCAL WEATHER: When it comes time to check the weather, I emphasize the word local in that most forecasts show the weather of a large expanse of land and may not reveal what's happening where you stand. All kidding aside, the best way to forecast the weather is to look out the window. I was at Bryce Canyon National Park and the forecast was terrible. This puzzled me when I saw a shadow appear while I was in my motel room. I quickly grabbed my camera wound up with a very satisfying sunset shoot—local weather. The Internet is a great source of information, as you can get cloud patterns zoomed into very local areas. If you're in a situation where the forecast is not good, monitor the local radar and look for breaks. If you see them, grab your gear and head to your destination. A sudden buildup of strong winds often puts you on the edge of a storm. These times produce great photographic potential.
SAFETY: I realize this is a no-brainer, but should you be one to chase storms, be aware that your tripod is a lightning rod. Storm light is often associated with low light and necessitates the use of a tripod. Stay well ahead of the storm and use common sense before you break it out. Use a long lens to bring the storm close to you rather than go to it. Shoot from the interior of your car to give yourself some protection. Use a bean bag or pillow across the door or window to stabilize your camera. If strong winds develop, be aware of falling and/or blowing debris. If you're ahead of the storm with your tripod set up, be aware that winds could topple your rig, costing you a lot.
GET THE MOST: Here's a laundry list of items to help you get better storm shots: a) Use a telephoto zoom to isolate the most dramatic lighting conditions that unfold; b) Bracket your exposures to prevent shadow detail from blocking up or from losing the highlights. Post-processing in Photoshop can help, but nailing the exposure allows you to get the most out of the file—also think HDR; c) Post-process for drama and punch-up the contrast to give the image impact; d) Keep the tripod low to the ground so wind doesn't topple it or make the image soft because of camera movement; e) Finally, make sure you have all your filters and accessories ready in an instant because storm light doesn't last long.