Weather photography is a highly rewarding genre of photography. To capture a wall hanger of a storm, it takes skill, knowledge, luck and determination to get the job done. From being able to read the storm and dialing in your settings to watching the radar to position yourself in a location that will yield a great shot while keeping you safe, weather photography can sound daunting, but it is easier than some people think. In this article, I offer up thirteen tips to help you capture those images.
Just like any other photography genre, you have to be prepared. You need to know your camera and you need to be able to read the sky to produce some breath taking images that capture Mother Nature in all of her majestic glory. Here are some of my tips for making that weather image hunt a success, and at the end a bonus section where some of the top weather photographers in the country chime in with their tips.
PREPARATION IS THE KEY
Weather photography, while highly rewarding can be quite frustrating if you have not primed yourself for what you may encounter. The weather can change in an instant. The storm can change direction and storms can appear out of nowhere and grow into behemoths that will prevent you from getting home.
TRY TO KNOW THE AREA
For the most part, I stay in my local area when I chase storms, although I will venture a little further out from time to time. For the most part, when I have taken to the road to capture a storm, I have had little to no need for maps. This is fine if you know the area like the back of your hand, but in case you decide you want to take the last two weeks off in May and head out here to the High Plains and chase storms for a good time, you need to have some maps on hand.
Although the last several years have seen advancements in cellular coverage, do not rely on your cell phone to guide you. There are still areas of the country where one carrier may not have coverage. On top of that, you might find yourself in the middle of chaser convergence. There have been reports that several times this year alone, the large number of people in an area storm chasing caused cell service to be unavailable.
Get a satellite based GPS. There are several types of GPS units on the market. The most common are the automotive GPS units. Most seem to be user friendly and easily viewed. I prefer trail units myself, but these types of units are more for GPS junkies and those folks who hit the trail such as hikers and hunters.
Stock up on paper maps. Spending $20 to $30 on a road atlas can save you frustration in the long run.
STAY ON PAVEMENT
As the storm season kicked into full blown madness, there were several instances where chasers ventured off the pavement. Cars were left overnight and tow trucks got stuck right along with the chaser. A lot of times, I will not leave the pavement unless I can find a piece of solid ground to stop. I also spend most of my time skirting the storm and staying out of the rain. I prefer to stay out of the storm as much as possible and position myself where the storm track is either going away or I am running parallel to it. Some times I will be lucky if I even drive through any rain, and other times I will be driving through the rain after I am done shooting.
If you are familiar with the areas and the roads, will not be caught on the dirt when the rain comes and the road has not seen any rain yet, then you should be safe.
DO NOT GO CORE BUSTING
The hail core of the storm is a very dangerous place to be for anyone and it does not matter what you are driving, you are putting yourself in peril by going through it. The National Weather Service can estimate how big the hail might be, but no one knows until eyes are laid upon a chunk of ice that has fallen out of the sky. That estimation of pea size hail can easily turn into baseball size inside that core and at that size, it will destroy your windshield pretty quick.
Hail can also accumulate on the roadway pretty quick, turning the landscape into what appears to be a winter wonderland, making driving doubly dangerous. In the following image, the white specks you see on the ground is hail. Most of the hail that I saw was around 1″ and had caused all kinds of havoc in a town just a couple of miles from where I captured this image.
HAVE WARM CLOTHES ALONG FOR THE RIDE
The typical day here on the Plains during storm season will start off warm. The sun is out, there might be a few clouds in the sky, but it is definitely shorts and flip flop weather. As the afternoon wears on and those clouds start blowing up only to unleash a severe thunderstorm, the temps will drop. When I take off to shoot weather, I am in pants, socks, shoes and even though I might be wearing a short sleeve t-shirt, I have a hoodie or light jacket in the vehicle with me.
Not long ago, I wrote about some of my favorite IOS apps. You can read the article here. I covered my favorite weather apps that I use for photography. I definitely recommend having either Storm or MyRadar for weather photography, and if you want to really dive off into the genre, then Radarscope is a must.
WATCH FOR SNAKES
Although thunderstorms can occur just about anytime of year, storm season usually kicks off in spring time when the sun warms up the landscape. Spring time also signifies the return to the surface of another of Mother Nature's most notorious beasts, the snake. Snakes can be somewhat cranky after a winter of little to no food, so it is best to give them a wide berth.
Thunderstorms though tend to get the snakes really wound up and they will be on the move. Several years ago, during a local photography trek I almost stepped on a rattler hiding in the bushes. It is best to stay away from deep grass, weeds when you are out shooting the weather. More than likely, you are going to be concentrating on the supercell in front of you and not the ground and rattlers have been known to not to announce their presence.
For tips on shooting lightning, head over to Rusty Parkhurst's excellent article on the subject.
GET A RAIN COVER
I'll be honest. I have a rain cover that I never have used. When I am out shooting, I am not a big fan of placing my camera in the rain, bag or not; but I have one.
MICROFIBER TOWELS and LENS CLOTHES
Nick Page spoke about this recently and I cannot emphasis enough, toss a couple in your camera bag. You will need them. You will also need a lens cloth or three. I seem to have the inability to keep mine around. I don't know if it's the insane working conditions I expect them to endure and they have left me for better employment, but even the one that I have plays hide and go seek from me at times. They are a cheap investment.
I am a fan of my wired remote more than I am of my wireless remote, but having a remote for your camera goes a long ways when it comes to weather photographer.
During the day time, this might not be such an issue, but once you need to start hitting some long exposures to get your shot, you will want a sturdy tripod. I would even suggest having a weight bag available because some of these storms have no issue trying to knock over your setup.
BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR SETTINGS
When I first started shooting weather, I treated it like landscape photography by keeping the ISO at 100. I had no confidence in my ability to process the noise, I would not budge until I lost some good storms images because my shutter speed was too slow.
The speed of the storm can vary anywhere from being at a standstill, to a barrelling through the countryside at warp speed beast of Mother Nature. During the daytime, I will shoot in aperture priority and I will keep an eye on my shutter speed to make sure it fits for the speed of the storm. If it does not fit, then I will crank the ISO so the shutter speed will increase.
Once the light starts going away, then it is time to move over to manual or bulb mode.
All in all, it does not really matter which mode you shoot for weather, as long as you have the proper settings for your scene, you will be just fine. Just be ready to change on the fly.
Your choice in glass really is nothing more than personal preference and what fits the scene. My most favorite storm image to date, a large panorama that I shot last summer was done at 70mm. In reality, that focal length is more necessity than personal preference as that is what the scene required. My last successful weather photography outing, I shot a pano at 70mm, but then later I shot a pano at 14mm. The first scene was a composition where my subject was off in the distance and the clouds were even further away, while later that day, I had to shoot a storm at 14mm because it was so large and I was so close.
You do need to keep in mind that if the storm is popping lightning, you will want to back off. While those incredible wide angle supercell shots look absolutely awesome, you have to think safety first.
TIPS FROM THE PROS
For this article, I posed a question to several professional photographers who create a lot of stunning weather photography and they are storm chasers themselves. The question was “What is your top weather photography tip?”
If you click the name of the photographer, it will take you to their portfolio of work. I highly suggest if you love weather photography, you follow them.
Dale Kaminski is a Nebraska based storm chaser and photographer.
Dale stresses safety when shooting weather.
If you have an interest in weather photography, then you definitely need to follow Dale's Facebook page.
Wesley Luginbyhl is an Amarillo, Texas based storm chaser and has been knocking it out of the park this spring with his weather photography. You can check out Wesley's work on his Facebook page. Wesley's tip for weather photography is:
Sadly my top tip would be to always check your ISO. As someone who also does star trail photography, it is easy to leave your ISO well above 1000. Then when I storm chase comes up, you may not realize it is still set high and you cant tell on the viewer on the camera. Ruined many great photos that way. My other tip would be to always think about how to frame a shot. Anyone can snap a pic but a photographer will find a way to make it great. It can be as simple as a tree. I also always keep an eye out for windmills personally. Old houses, barns, or abandoned old cars can add a lot to any shot.
My top tip for weather photography is to shoot manual mode and aim to make timelapses.
Weather photography is highly rewarding, but takes some preparation and knowledge. You can quickly find yourself at the business end of a storm and at the mercy of Mother Nature. No image is worth putting yourself in a position that can tear up your vehicle, your gear or require a rescue.