This is a photoblog focused on travel photography. However, as humans in general and myself in particular, we tend to focus on the exotic and the far away at the expense of the spectacular in our own backyard. I've been extremely fortunate to be able to travel all over the world taking photographs, but lately I've been realizing the incredible photographic opportunities I have in my own backyard. (Literally, in this case!)
This is despite living in a state--Kansas--not exactly renowned for its natural beauty. In fact, its landscape is a frequent punchline for visitors, many who have an incomplete perspective having passed through the most boring part of the state on I-70. All that to say, the headline photograph of this post was the most dramatic evidence of this truth that has been slowly sinking in over the past few years. This tornado photograph, taken from the end of my lane, has been my most-viewed, most-viral photograph of any of my photographs, by far. (It even got a mention on national TV on CBS Evening News.)
The story of the above tornado photo is incredibly simple. I was eating supper, I got a text from my mom with a cell phone photo of a tornado, so I grabbed my camera bag that's always sitting full and ready by the door, ran outside, jumped in my car expecting to need to drive many miles to find the tornado (I misunderstood from my mom's text that it was on the other side of town), got to the end of the lane where the windbreak trees stopped shielding my view, and was stunned to see the tornado a few fields over. Unfortunately I only got the tail end of it (no pun intended) as it roped out and soon disappeared. Earlier it had been a sturdy wedge/column.
This was a tornado birthed from a low-precipitation supercell thunderstorm, which is a relative rarity. Usually the rain from the thunderstorm and surrounding clouds do a lot to obscure the tornado. But in this case, neither rain nor surrounding clouds obscured this beauty that dropped down out of the mostly blue sky. Fortunately no one was hurt and the damage was minor. It mostly spent time plowing the fields.
There is much that could be taught about storm chasing, storm chasing photography, or about photographing in one's own local area, but I'm going to stick with giving you two quick primers.
Local Lightning Photography Primer
The first is focused on the above lightning photograph. In it, I will give you some lightning photography tips, some general photography tips, and some tips for photographing your own local area.
There are millions of lightning photos out there. Lightning is, by itself, spectacular. But in order to elevate your lightning shot above the millions, there must be some other foreground or background element that makes the photo stand out. (This is true of all photographs. Many people have one spectacular subject in their photograph, but when you're able to juxtapose 2 or even 3, 4 or 5 spectacular complementary photo elements, it elevates your photograph incredibly.) I normally don't include other folks' photography on my blog, but I'm making an exception for a terrific example of this concept, this gorgeous lightning photo by one of my favorite storm chasing photographers, Mike Olbinksi:
Notice how the following elements combine to make the above one of the best lightning photos out there:
- The extraordinary lightning strikes themselves
- The incredible mountain, lit beautifully by the lightning
- The leading line of the road right into the main subjects of the photograph
- The extra interest added by the tail-lights and lights of the town
It's important to have foregrounds/backgrounds pre-scouted before a storm rolls through. I have a mental checklist of all attractive backgrounds/foregrounds within a 15 minute drive, along with all North, East, South, West directions that are possible with that particular location for easy road access, depending on the location/orientation of the storm or sunset/sunrise (the latter not only shifts north/south throughout the year, but often the best bits are the reflections of light off of cloud banks, not necessarily in line with the sun).
There is an old saying in photography regarding photographic settings: "f/8 and be there!" This was basically true in this case, with a few more 8s thrown in for good measure; my settings were: f/8, 8 second exposure, ISO 800. (I used this fantastic, inexpensive, incredibly sharp lens, the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, that is available for all main camera mounts. It's wide-angle and fast to boot, the perfect combo for astrophotography and lightning of all brightnesses.) Those settings are a good starting point for lightning photography at night.
But you WILL have to adjust for the average intensity/brightness of the lightning that is happening near your location. Because of lightning's unpredictable behavior, you will get pictures that are too dark or blown-out and overexposed. (It helps a TON to have the two extra stops of dynamic range offered by Sony gear while shooting RAW, in order to correct such things in post-processing.) The key is to get a balance of settings that includes a long exposure in order to increase your chances of catching the lightning when it strikes.
Once you have your framing selected and your settings correct, I set my camera to continuous shooting and use something like this or this (linked to Sony versions, but similar available for all camera systems) to lock the shutter button into continuous shooting.
It should go without saying that a tripod is nearly non-negotiable, though in an extreme pinch, you can set your camera on some stable surface, propped up with various items to get things at the proper angle.
Finally, you're going to have to use manual focus. Please see this post for instructions on how to focus in the dark.
That's just a quick primer. For a more in-depth, comprehensive tutorial, Mike has a great post on the subject.
Storm Chasing Primer
The second introductory tutorial in this post is on storm chasing. Because it's such a huge topic (and because I'm no expert myself), I'm going to just provide a list of links to resources and tools that go more in-depth:
- Six Tips for Amateur Storm Chasers
- Storm Highway's New Chaser Tips and FAQs
- StormTrack.org - the essential forum for storm chasers, filled with useful info
- TheWeatherPrediction.com and MetEd.UCAR.edu - weather/meteorology training materials
- RadarScope (iOS, Android) is my favorite app to watch the radar; the lightning strike feature is particularly nice. However, it does cost $10. There are free apps, but many have delays and are not real time.
Thanks to my friend Taylor Wright of ExtremeInflowMedia.com for adding a few of his favorites to the above list.