We’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a number of extreme weather photographers lately, to find out all about their thrilling careers chasing storms. These skilled professionals spend their days capturing the likes of tornadoes and lightning with their high-quality photography skills, and hearing all about their adrenaline-fuelled adventures is enough to make anyone want to take up the storm photography niche.
Whether you’re a beginner photographer finding your feet, or a professional who has built up many years of quality work, a career in extreme weather photography could be something that takes your fancy. Discover more about the exhilarating niche from David Mayhew, a storm chaser and extreme weather photographer. David discusses his favourite memories from his career so far, as well as offering some weather photography tips for those starting out.
1. What interested you in extreme weather photography?
Photography is a heavily saturated field and I often see the same locations photographed over and over by different photographers. I wanted to break away from the norm and offer something unique. The skies offer a wide array of emotions, from the drama of severe weather through to the serenity of a sunset. Plus, I get to capture a one-off moment, never to repeat itself again in the exact same way. That not only makes the image unique, but means that no one can duplicate the exact same shot again.
2. Which weather scenes do you enjoy shooting the most?
Isolated storms with great structure. They are so intriguing to watch rotating and offer many great photo opportunities, diffusing light in many different ways and even being lit up by lightning during the day or after dark. If a tornado drops its tail too, that’s an added bonus!
3. What photography equipment do you take with you on every shoot?
I take 2 cameras, one currently being a Sony a7Rii, and lenses ranging from 11mm to 800mm. I also have various tripods, a monopod (which is much more versatile in daylight), a rain cover and a few bags and backpacks I like to use, too. I rarely use my lightning trigger, but have one. Also, an intervalometer to help with shooting lightning after dark.
4. How do you protect your photography kit from the elements?
Lens hoods, rain covers and various bags. The reason for carrying 2 cameras is so I can keep my main lenses on the cameras without having to change them, as dust and rain are not friends of the sensor!
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5. Tell us about your most memorable shoot
June 20th, 2011. I captured my most photogenic tornado that day and saw 7 tornadoes in total. The structure of the storm was incredible and not many other chasers were on that storm, and it’s great to be able to claim a storm as “your” storm!
6. Describe a time when a shoot didn’t work out as expected
Storm chasing is never without risk and always has to be approached with caution, such as having an escape route at all times. I had 3 windows on the one side of my car blown out by 100 mph winds on a storm in Nebraska. I was 4 miles south of the tornado and was hit by what is called “rear flank downdraft” winds, that descend from the backside of the storm. I had never experienced them with that strong of a wind speed but I’m now cautious of that too. That day I was actually trying to be cautious - I had decided to stick to paved roads and not take the dirt roads. If I had taken dirt roads, I would have had no issue!
7. What does a typical day in your niche look like?
There really is no such thing as a typical day as my year varies a lot. Storm chase season is only really a fairly short period in Spring. But on a chase day, my norm is to wake up and forecast for the day, choose a target area based on storms and good roads and head out - could be an 8 hour drive, could only be a couple of hours. Sit and watch, re-forecast and adjust to what is going on.
Often that means waiting around for hours, but I’d rather be early than miss it! As storms initiate, I choose which storm to follow whilst keeping an eye on other storms in case a better opportunity arises. Then I observe. I need to decide whether to go in close in hope of a tornado or if the wider storm structure makes for a better shot.
I watch the light as later hours offer up sunset colors. Knowing when to leave one storm for another as the environment changes is key, too. After dark, I have to be more cautious, but if there is good lightning I will stick with it into the late hours.
I also have to contemplate the next day’s chase - is it likely to be better than today’s storm and how far will I need to drive? That determines how late I can chase the current storm and where to find a hotel for the night.
8. What weather photography tips would you give to those looking to start out in this niche?
Go with a pro! Don’t just head out. Take a storm chase tour or go with an experienced chaser, learn what gear (including forecasting and radar tools) you might need before even attempting to go it alone. Also, don’t forget that you can’t be on every storm out there, you will watch the news on other storms you missed that day and will just have to accept that. Especially now that most folks have a smart phone, there is always someone who will capture that freak anomaly event.
9. What resources would you recommend for extreme weather photography?
There are many resources available and just one is not enough. However, the Storm Prediction Center has its daily forecasts showing the areas of highest risk for the day, but also look at forecast models to get your own understanding of what the atmosphere is up to. Don’t forget to seek out forecasting meteorology classes to get you going.
10. What equipment would you suggest for extreme weather photography?
A good reliable car is actually the most important. You will spend more time getting to and from storms than actually chasing, so the highest risk is actually more from driving than the storms. My key car considerations are reliability, visibility, fuel range and off roading (4WD with good wet weather tires).
Beyond the camera gear already discussed, a good laptop or tablet with live radar feed to show you where you are relative to storms and which way they are moving, as well as what road options are ahead.
Extreme weather photography is a unique niche to get into, but it’s bound to provide you with a whole range of epic shots that you’ll be proud of owning, not to mention some adrenaline-fuelled days, too!
Of course, your own safety and the safety of your kit is something that needs to be considered on every shoot, so make time to find and invest in a waterproof protective case, before heading out on your first trip as an extreme weather photographer.