Extreme weather photography has to be one of the most exciting and exhilarating photography niches to get into. Whether you’re shooting a powerful storm or chasing the path of a tornado, every day is bound to be a unique and eventful adventure.
We’ve been speaking to Scott McPartland, a severe weather photographer with plenty of experience under his belt. Having been fascinated with severe weather for over 30 years, he’s been up close and personal to the likes of Hurricane Katrina during his weather photography career.
If you’re interested in the extreme weather photography niche, read all about Scott’s experiences and his words of wisdom, along with his favourite equipment to take on shoots and how to keep yourself and your kit safe.
1. What made you choose the extreme weather photography niche?
The funny thing is, when I was young, I was absolutely terrified of thunderstorms! But then August 30th ,1985 happened and it all changed that one afternoon for me. On that day, when I was just shy of my 13th birthday, we had a line of severe thunderstorms blast through Queens, NY where I live to this day. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I literally went from being terrified of storms, to fascinated by them in a matter of minutes.
Photography itself was something I always have loved, even as a small child. My Uncle Walter has been a photographer for over 60 years now, and growing up around him, I caught the photography bug early. So it just made sense to me, even as a young teenager. I essentially married my two passions, photography and extreme weather.
For me though, I was always more interested in the video side of it, not so much the still photo side. While still photography gets my full respect, and I certainly delve into that side of things when the subject is right, video I felt captured the essence of severe weather better overall.
2. What’s your favourite kind of weather scene to shoot?
Without a doubt, my favorite kind of weather scenes to shoot are tornadoes and supercell thunderstorms in the Midwest USA - better known as “Tornado Alley”. Living here in New York City, these types of weather phenomena are not common at all, so when I do get the chance to shoot them, it’s always incredible. With that said though, all types of weather phenomena fascinate me, and I also love shooting blizzards and snowstorms here in the northeast US, lightning storms, and of course, landfalling hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and US East Coast in the late summer and fall.
3. What kit do you take with you during your extreme weather shoots?
The gear I take with me consists of my Libec 2 stage Aluminum Tripod, as well as a Bogen mini-pod, and the following camera/video gear:
That little panasonic camera is fantastic for shooting lightning video. The newer camcorders all use CMOS sensors which are terrible with lightning due to the “rolling shutter” effect. Lightning happens so fast, you need a camera with a sensor that captures the entire image at once, which CCD based videos cameras do.
I'm loving the iM2100 Storm case with the dividers from Peli. That would be perfect for my Sony A7S II DSLR and lenses! A definite must buy for me in the coming weeks.
4. How do you protect your gear from the harsh weather conditions?
It’s certainly challenging! Whether it’s a blizzard, hurricane, or just heavy rain and hail, without adequate protection, my gear would be toast in a matter of seconds. For my cameras themselves, I use a Kata rain case for my Sony PXW-Z100 4K Camcorder, and for my Sony A7S II, I use a Storm Jacket Camera Cover. My GoPros are waterproof by design, so I’m good to go there! Even while documenting Hurricane Irma in Florida in September 2017, my gear stayed completely dry. That was definitely the ultimate test right there.
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5. Describe your most memorable shoot and why it stays with you
When I think back on my most memorable shoots, there are two that come to mind. The first was a tornado I filmed near Attica, Kansas on May 12th, 2004, and the second was Hurricane Katrina making landfall in Gulfport, Mississippi in August 2005.
The Attica, Kansas day stays with me, not only because it was one of the first tornadoes up until that point in my career that I had ever been able to document the entire life cycle of, but also because I captured video of it hitting a house, and lifting part of it into the air. To this day, I have never witnessed anything like that again. Thankfully the occupants of the home had taken shelter in their concrete reinforced basement when the tornado struck, and they were unharmed!
Hurricane Katrina, a little over one year later stays with me for several reasons. Still to this day it was hands down the most intense hurricane landfall I have ever documented. I rode that storm out on the 3rd level of a 4 story parking garage only ½ mile from the Gulf of Mexico in Gulfport, MS. The garage itself was open on 3 of the 4 sides, but we did have a solid cinder block wall to our south that protected us from the winds and the flying debris. At the peak of Katrina, all you heard was the roar of the wind and glass breaking. It was all around you. Then came the storm surge that surrounded our parking garage, which thankfully didn’t get too deep at our location. When it was all over with, I was completely exhausted. Hands down my most intense shoot ever - so far, anyway.
6. Have you ever had any mishaps during one of your shoots? What happened and what did you learn from it?
One thing I used to be prone to was what we call “double punching”. I thought I was recording, when I was still in standby mode. Many times when documenting weather related events, things will ramp up very quickly, and sometimes in the heat of the moment, you rush to hit the record button, but accidentally hit it twice. So you think you’re rolling, only to find out later you were in standby mode, and missed the entire shot.
To say that’s frustrating is putting it very mildly. It took a few times for me to learn to always be on guard. So now what I do, is anytime I start recording, I verify immediately that the red “REC” lamp is illuminated in my viewfinder. Now it’s automatic, I do it each and every time, but in the early days of my career, I had to learn the hard way a few times.
7. How would you describe a “typical” day in your life as an extreme weather photographer?
That can vary depending on what it is exactly I am shooting on that particular day. During the few weeks a year I’m out chasing in Tornado Alley, my day usually starts quite early with an initial forecast of where the best chances of severe weather and tornadoes look to be that day. From there, it’s usually a several hour drive to the initial “target” area, where we set up and fine tune our forecast. Then it’s really the waiting game. Will storms form as expected? Will they produce tornadoes? Are we in the right area?
Forecasting extreme weather events, and especially trying to forecast tornadoes in advance is quite challenging, and you don’t always get it right. As a matter of fact, many times you get it wrong. But it’s that challenge that I love. When you get the forecast right, it’s a feeling of accomplishment, and when you get it wrong, well, you’ve driven in some cases over 500 miles for nothing more than a sunburn.
One thing that is constant, no matter what extreme weather event I am covering, is that it’s always a last minute thing. It’s difficult, if not impossible to plan these shoots more than just a few hours, to maybe a day or two in advance in many cases, depending on the weather event. So when it looks like there is an event on the horizon, whether it be a blizzard, a hurricane landfall, or a severe weather outbreak, you have to be ready to go at a moments notice. I like to call it “hurry up, and wait”.
8. What starter tips would you give to someone looking to take on extreme weather photography?
The first thing I would recommend is to learn as much as you can about the subject, before even considering it. Extreme weather photography isn’t like other forms of photography. You can easily find yourself in a life threatening situation if you don’t have a good understanding of how extreme weather works. There is always a risk involved when doing this, even for those who are very experienced, but you can minimize those risks by having a good understanding of what it is that you’re dealing with. Being able to tell if you are in a bad spot, purely based on the wind direction, or if the storm is not moving in the direction that you thought it was, and now maybe you’re directly in the path. Without having a good understanding of the weather, you may easily miss some of the signs that your location is no longer a safe one.
9. Are there any resources you’d recommend to beginners to help them on their way?
Absolutely! One of the resources that really helped me gain a better understanding of severe weather, was the Storm Chasing Handbook written by Tim Vasquez. It delves into everything from the conditions needed for severe weather outbreaks, to chasing strategy, safety and even travel information.
Another great resource for all things weather related, is Jeff Haby’s Weather Prediction website. Jeff is an incredible forecaster, and his website has really helped me in the past. It literally has everything from the basics of weather forecasting, to more in depth information about forecast model analysis and interpretation.
I would also recommend for anyone who is interested in storm chasing, to first consider taking one of the storm chasing tours that are run out of the Midwest USA during the height of tornado season in May and June. They are a great, and more importantly, safer way to get your feet wet and learn all about chasing supercell thunderstorms, and tornadoes, all while riding with professionals who have been doing it for many years. I know of many storm photographers who started out on those tours first, before striking out on their own.
Be choosy though with the company you go with! There are many fly by night outfits out there these days, that are not necessarily run by experienced people. I would recommend doing your research and choosing a tour company that has been around for at least 20 years, has a great safety record, and is run by experienced chasers and/or meteorologists.
10. What kit would you recommend for a photographer working on extreme weather shoots?
Getting a good reliable video camera is definitely a must, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the latest and greatest 4K camcorder. A solid HD camera will do just fine, and the great thing is, there are many out there that are very reasonably priced now a days. If you’re looking for a tape based camcorder, I would hands down recommend the Sony HDR-FX1, which isn’t manufactured anymore, but you can find many of them on Ebay, and Amazon. Not only is it a solid HDV camcorder, it is CCD based, which means you’re covered for lightning video as well. No issues with rolling shutter like with CMOS sensor based cameras! The FX1 shoots in 1440 X 1080 resolution.
If a tape based camcorder isn’t your thing, the Sony HXR-NX70U is fantastic. My chase partner Dave Lewison owns this camera, and aside from shooting incredible video, it’s also very water resistant, so you can be out in the elements, and no rain cover is needed. Just don’t completely submerge it! The NX70U uses standard SD cards, and produces full HD video (1920 X 1080). But, like most newer camcorders, it uses a CMOS sensor, so not so great with lightning video. When shooting the weather, you need a camcorder that can be locked to infinity. I’ve seen many weather related videos where the camera was clearly on auto focus, and the camera is constantly searching for a lock, and the video is essentially ruined.
You’ll also need a reliable, and solid tripod. I love the Libec brand, and they have many to choose from. I still have my first Libec and use it as a backup. It’s almost 20 years old now, and still going strong.
For still photography, I absolutely love the Sony A7S II, which also doubles as my 2nd video camera as well! When paired with a fast lens, it’s unbeatable in low light situations, but, it’s very pricey. I also have with me my older, but still awesome, Nikon D80. It’s an older 10.2MP camera, but I love it! If you’re looking for something middle ground, the Nikon D700 12.1MP camera is fantastic! My chase partner Dave still shoots with it, and it produces amazing photographs. Remember though, when it comes to cameras, while the camera body itself is certainly important, it’s really all about the glass you put on it. A cheap lens is a cheap lens, so try not to skimp there! Your photographs will thank you for it!
Finally, you’ll need some rain covers for your gear. Nothing will ruin your cameras faster than driving rain! I love the Kata brand of covers for my main video camera, and for my still cameras, the Storm Jacket Camera Covers are great! Easy to put on, and keeps your gear dry!
Don’t forget to invest in a durable camera case from Peli, to keep all of this equipment safe during your time shooting some severe weather photography.