Severe Weather Photography.

When most people think about severe weather photography, they usually envision scenes from the movie Twister and all sorts of high adventure.  Well I am here to try to settle you down a little before you ever consider doing anything outside in severe weather.  The truth is; Hollywood blows everything out of proportion and shooting severe weather does not need to be nearly as dangerous as what you have seen in the movies, or on the documentaries about tornado chasers. 

It is essential that you take advantage of every source of information available to learn about weather before you endeavor to capture cool storm photos.  Safety First may sound like quite the cliché, but it really is super important that you understand a lot about storm safety before you head out.  As far as your equipment goes, you must prepare for it to get wet and be ready to deal with that eventuality.  One of the methods for drying your gear is to remove the battery (or batteries) and stow the camera in a sealed plastic bag full of shredded newspaper or rice.  Either of these fillers will pull the moisture back out of your camera gear and help to preserve it after being out in wet weather.  It is best to not get the gear wet in the first place, and you should do everything possible to prevent that from happening.

Some of the gear you should have before you get into this type of photography is: 

  • Cable Release – wired or wireless will work fine.
  • Tripod – make sure it is very sturdy and plenty capable of holding your camera steady in the wind.  Also make sure you tie your camera strap down to the tripod while you’re making long exposures like lightning shots.
  • Lens hood – this helps to avoid lens flares and also helps to minimize the rain that gets on the front element of the lens.
  • Fully charged batteries – this type of shooting with suck the life out of your batteries quickly (because of the typically long exposures).
  • Plenty of memory cards/film – you are likely to take many shots to get just a few good ones.
  • Rain gear: for you and your camera.  Yes, there are weather coverings you can buy to protect your camera and you should get one.
  • NOAA Weather Radio – yes, you really should be paying attention to what the storm is doing.  If you have radar and web access on your phone, that will work too, but you must pay attention to it.
  • Water and food – you might be out there for a while and if the storm turns really bad it might be hard to make it home.
  • First Aid Kit – yes, you might hurt yourself while you’re out there in the storm or dark.
  • Flash light – something small that can fit in your pocket.  You’ll need it for working with your camera settings.
  • Fully charged cell phone – in case you need to call for help.
  • A GPS is a great idea so you will know exactly where you are, especially if you need to call for help.


Storms come in many different varieties and the camera settings you use can vary widely, so I am not going to go deeply into that in this column.  What you need to think about is the effects you can create by using a slow shutter speed, rather than increasing your ISO or opening your aperture.  In the photo that I have included there are a number of points that I am trying to make about shooting severe weather:


  • A great storm shot does not have to be about the damage, high winds or lightning, it can instead be about the storms passing or approaching and presenting itself with interesting cloud formations.
  • Studying the storm before you head out to shoot it can guide you to the best place to be shooting.  In this photo I was in a parking garage in Old Town (Wichita) and was waiting for the sunset because I had clues that the storm would pass before the sun had fully set.
  • Although the color was lacking in the sunset, the clouds offered a great scene with the rays of sun fanning out above them.  My choice to have the Wichita skyline in the background was not a mistake either.  One rule for me and sunset shots is that you must have something in the foreground to provide interest other than just a pretty colored sky.
  • Notice the cropping of the image to maintain the horizon and the skyline while adhering to the Rule of Thirds.  The sky being the intended main subject takes up about two-thirds of the shot while the bottom third maintains some interest with the parking lot lights and skyline help enhance the depth created by the rays of sun in the clouds.
  • This shot was a two-second long exposure at f/22 with an ISO set to 50.  That would translate to two-seconds @ f/16 if your lowest available ISO was 100.  You can tell it was a long exposure by the softness of the clouds.  I use this to make severe weather scenes more appealing to the average viewer.
  • Although this shot does not have any obvious waving trees in the scene, slow shutter speeds can demonstrate the severity of a storm by recording the movement of tree branches as big blurs across the photo.  (Just be sure you have a sturdy tripod and the camera is not moving too.)


You will usually find that having your white balance set to “Cloudy” or “Shade” will work best for storm shooting during the day.  Oh yeah, I am almost never in the rain when I shoot storms.  Instead I’m usually miles away from the actual storm and generally practicing the 30/30 rule of lightning safety (look it up on the National Weather Service website). 


~ by jrcowell on April 24, 2011.

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