Burnham Graphic Arts | Into the Storm

Into the Storm

December 16, 2013  •  2 Comments

Thoughts on chasing storms from a non-storm chaser.

Moving CloudApproaching storm over Mackinaw, IL f/3.5 @ 18 mm, 1/25, ISO 100 I'm not a storm chaser (as you may have guessed from the subtitle).  I like to be out photographing in storms, yes, because bad weather creates opportunities that most would usually miss inside where it's warm and dry.  Approaching weather is sometimes very dramatic.  But I don't sit on weather radar looking for something to happen.  In central Illinois, it usually just happens spontaneously.  I took the photo to the left after I spotted the front moving quickly from West to East as I was coming home from work on 10/4/13.  I didn't have my camera in the car at the time (this happens more often than not), so I rushed home, ran into the house, yelled where I was going and raced back out down the highway back toward where I came from.  This front was moving approximately 40-50 miles an hour and I could barely get out ahead of it after driving 7 miles.  I finally saw this, stopped in a field and took a string of photos as it moved over.  But my main goal was getting a time lapse, so I took off again toward the East and set up a mile ahead of the front.

Stormfront Timelapse I set up originally pointing toward the storm and after about a minute of shooting every 15 seconds with the intervolameter function, I decided a side shot would be better.  As far as exposure goes, I was at 11.5mm on my 10-17mm Tokina fisheye and at f3.8.  Camera was set to aperture priority so the clouds would be rendered a consistent shade of grey as the light continued to change.  Shutter speed ranged from 1/25 sec at the beginning to 1/2 second on the last shot.  The video on the right shows the progression.  So you ask "where is the pincushioning in the frame if you were at almost full wide angle?".  That's one of the things I love about Lightroom 5, it reads your RAW file and when you tell it what lens you used, it corrects the curvature.  It won't do that if you shoot in JPG mode, but you can still adjust the curvature, poorly.  I guess I could have aligned the horizon at exactly frame center, but I didn't want that much ground in the shot.

JF2_1771Ill-conceived in-car shotMake sure your flash is off if you decide to take a blind photo from inside your car

I regret not shooting what was happening behind me to the North, which was a bit more dramatic, but there were a lot of telephone wires and grain silos right in the way, so I stayed focused on the South.  There was no time to move clear to get a timelapse pointing North.  I did manage to snap a one-handed shot through the car window (-->), but the flash went off and I ended up with a photo of myself superimposed on the cloud, with my curved, camera hand looking, coincidentally, like I was holding the cloud.  I could have also shot a video, but the compressed nature of the timelapse is much more effective.  It was moving so fast, that had I changed the interval to 5 seconds, it would probably have been just right and given me more shots to work with in the movie.  In this case, I chose the fade to next effect, which is a good way to transition each frame and make it run smoother.

Rainbow The backside of a storm can treat you to opportunities that are just as good if you are willing to wait.  As I was on my way home after the shoot above, I was treated to a full rainbow as the sun set behind me.  But it wasn't done yet.  The clouds to the West were shaping up to get some dramatic uplighting from the setting sun. I only had 5-10 minutes to get into position somewhere.  I needed to find something close by and interesting to put in front of the sunset.  Otherwise, it turns into just another sunset.  No scale, no interest.  I have hundreds of plain sunrises and sunsets.  Been there, done that.  I fell back on some grain silos that had produced some interesting storm shots in the past.  But this time, I was on the opposite side of them.



Sunset over SilosISO 200 1/80sec @ f5.3 105mm


You would think that was it, right?  Wrong!  After it got dark, there was quite a bit of lightning off to the East, so I drove to a spot near my house with an unobscured panoramic view and stood with my camera on a tipod in the rain, under an umbrella, taking 8 second exposures of the sky.  I was hoping to catch some of the lightning on a frame and with it, some illumination of the landscape.  I was out for 45 minutes, took 250 exposures and was only able to get a couple decent shots.  This one was the most interesting.


LightningISO 200 Exposure: 8 sec @ f5.6 26mm


Stormy days usually transpire without much happening, but this day was unique in that there were interesting events one after the other and I didn't have to go very far for any of it.  I especially like watching an Anvil Top form, where it starts with a billowing mass of Cumulonimbus clouds into a towering cloud mass that reaches a thermal boundary and just stops expanding, flattening out into what looks like an anvil.  A more scientific explanation can be found here:  http://www.thenakedscientists.com/forum/index.php?topic=16267.0

Cumulonimbus TowerCumulonimbus Tower



I followed this tower from its inception, again looking for something interesting to put in front of it.  I finally found what I was looking for (and that's not easy to find something other than a farm out in the middle of a vast area of farmland).  But, I'll admit, the old silo was the perfect item to show scale for the could and also mirror it's shape.  Farm wins again.  






It eventually morphed into what you see in the next shot, which is full "Anvil Top".  




Anvil TopAnvil Top

Impressive enough that it didn't need anything in front of it in my opinion.  Truth is, I couldn't find anything and stopped short where I was so I wouldn't lose it.  Soon after this, the whole thing expanded, lost its shape and moved East.  

If you are a storm chaser, you have ample opportunity to find situations like this.  And you need to stick around a while to see how it all turns out.  If you are not a storm chaser, you have to wait for the opportunity to come to you.  You might be disappointed most of the time, but you might also be pleasantly surprised. But don't risk your safety chasing something that might turn dangerous.  My next article will be about the Washington, IL Tornado and how I didn't follow that advice and why I was there.   (I did a tribute video of the images with original music here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yL7k0Lh14g)


A visual song(non-registered)
Grazie mille for sharing this James! Never actually seen a full rainbow and the photos are truly verses of a beautiful song about not missing the moment, snapshots of God or something like that... The only thing we can be sure of with weather and life, Change ... not always so dramatic as this but we have to be present or miss the moment.
I love the mustache on the developing anvil-top! Nice pics overall - good job. Come out here in early spring to catch some incredible lenticular clouds. If you hang around Shasta Mt long enough, you'd swear we were being visited by alien spaceships...
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