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photographing storms and lightning


storms are extremely DANGEROUS!
  • storm chasing has become a popular past time amongst thrill seekers but it is an inherently dangerous activity:
    • strong winds, even if not tornado strength, can cause:
      • trees to be blown down and cut off road access or, worse cause a major vehicle accident
      • loose material can cause direct injury or be blown into paths of cars causing vehicle accidents
      • dust which can cause issues with camera gear or get into your eyes and become problematic
    • flash flooding
    • land slips especially around cliff areas which can block road access or cause an accident, or, if you happen to be standing at the base of a cliff on a beach, a fatal impact
    • wet roads and poor visibility which increase the likelihood of high speed vehicle accidents
    • large hail stones can cause substantial damage to cars and to people
    • in hot summer days, lightning can trigger extremely dangerous bushfires
    • obviously, tornadoes, cyclones, hurricanes are a different safety level again

general tips on photographing storms

  • storm photography is DIFFERENT to storm chasing
    • you can't be the driver or the navigator and still be on the lookout for photo opportunities
    • until you are very experienced, don't go alone - you can't drive, navigate, and forecast storm movements at the same - normal driving in storm conditions is dangerous enough!
    • don't risk lives driving dangerously just to get to a storm
    • tornados are actually quite rare - only 1.2% of supercell storms sporn tornadoes so that means a LOT of high speed driving is needed or just luck - either are dangerous propositions
  • you MUST understand storms and how they behave:
    • you should be able to predict its path, where the hail, wind and rain will be
    • you will NOT be able to predict where lightning will strike but you can reduce your risks by understanding it
  • location, location, location:
    • be on the photogenic side of the storm cell
      • in Australia, storms rotate clockwise, opposite to northern hemisphere so you are better on the north side
      • avoid being in the path of the storm as:
        • you will be impacted by it
        • you are not going to be able to see the anvils, but just the rain and hail
        • remember that storms often look good before and after it has passed rather than when you are in it
    • select a view which will give a photogenic composition
      • for a storm cell, you may be best a few kilometers away - allows better view of whole storm and keeps you safer and drier
      • need a wide open, unobstructed field of view - but these often come with lightning risk!!
      • nice to find a foreground subject if possible to add interest
    • be protected and safe
  • lighting
    • storms look best with great lighting from a setting sun or at least a low sun
  • you may get wet - choose weathersealed camera gear and always have it with you
    • take wet weather clothing with you, better if trousers or shorts can dry quickly (not denim!), and pockets for lens caps, etc are very handy
    • take spare dry clothes, cash, snacks, insect repellent, torch, water, etc in case you do get stranded - don't leave your car headlights on and flatten the battery!!!
    • Olympus OM-D cameras are excellent for this - you could pour a bottle of water on them as long as you are using a weathersealed lens, all the camera seals are closed and the hotshoe has protection, and their compact, light size means you will more likely to have them with you
    • a pro full frame camera such as a Nikon D800E does offer some advantage in image quality - dynamic range, higher resolution, improved noise at higher ISO (although this is not such an issue as we usually shoot at ISO 200-400 anyway) - but this does come at a substantial cost in money, higher replacement cost if it is damaged, weight, size, less effective image stabiliser, perhaps less effective weathersealing, need for smaller apertures such as f/8-22 to give sufficient depth of field (DOF), no Live Composite mode, no automatic focus stacking if you wish to do ultra wide angle macro storm shots, no WiFi remote smartphone capture
    • there are no real net advantages of a cropped sensor dSLR over Micro Four Thirds for shooting storms
    • some people still prefer the look of 100ISO slide film such as Fuji Sensia 100 or Provia 100 but you will need to take into account film reciprocity failure in calculating long exposures 1)
    • lens selection - the zoom trilogy of weathersealed pro level lenses:
    • bring a circular polariser filter for use when there are some blue skies
    • consider using a soft graduated ND filter to help control the extreme contrasts of sky and foreground
    • if you have a camera that is not so weathersealed, place it in a large zip top plastic bag with a hole cut out for the lens
  • ensure there is not a single drop of rain on your front lens element
    • this will destroy the aesthetics of your shots
    • water can come from all directions driven by the wind and bouncing off the ground
    • avoid nearby bright lights which will highlight any drops
    • ensure your lens has a sizable lens hood in the rain as rain drops on your lens will destroy your images - great for a telephoto lens such as the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 pro lens which is great for this work, but wide angle lenses such as 14-28mm focal length in full frame terms (eg. Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO lens), which are likely to be needed to capture the whole cell, cannot have a large lens hood so you need to ensure it faces the ground most of the time to avoid water on the front lens optic
    • take a lens cloth
    • consider a large golf umbrella the ability to re-position it to prevent wind-driven rain hitting the lens optics makes it valuable
  • bring a sturdy tripod and something to weigh it down
    • capturing lightning is best done with a tripod and long exposures - BRING a STURDY TRIPOD if you want lightning shots
    • be aware that even carbon fibre does conduct electricity well
    • strong winds will create issues with this, set it up protected from wind as much as possible, weight it down and avoid having it set up high - don't use the centre column elevated.
    • you may wish to have image stabiliser ON even on the tripod if the wind is still causing some camera shake
    • Olympus OM-D cameras will allow hand held shots down to 0.5sec or more if held steady and using a wide angle lens, but it may be safer for you to have the camera mounted on a tripod unattended while you control it in Live View with your smartphone from the relative safety of your car, especially from lightning (bring extra batteries!)
    • an alternative is a car window mount but the car will move in the wind or if you move!
  • camera settings
    • aperture to give sufficient depth of field (DOF) such as f/4 on Micro Four Thirds system or f/8 on full frame cameras
    • for moving storms, you may need a reasonably fast shutter speed - faster than 1/100th sec
    • choose lowest ISO possible eg 200-400 to allow that aperture and shutter speed - you may need to increase ISO after sunset
    • for lightning shots:
      • you need to set aperture and ISO to expose for the lightning strike itself, and shutter speed to expose for the ambient scene, but you need to ensure a long enough shutter speed to give some probability of a strike occurring
      • set RAW mode, manual focus, white balance, manual exposure (for lightning at night, ISO 200 at f/4 will be about right but more exposure is needed for distant lightning), aperture as above but may need to close it down to allow longer exposures, ISO 200 (or lower if you can't get long enough shutter speeds)
      • generally take a LOT of shots (consider burst mode or intervalometer mode or a cable release or remote release) at a shutter speed to suit your location - eg. 5-10 secs (longer blurs the moving clouds too much), and then hope you capture some nice strikes on some of them - they can be merged later if your camera position does not change
      • in day time, to achieve longer exposures, you will need a ND filter either 3x or 10x Big Stopper
      • if you have an Olympus OM-D camera, consider using Live Composite mode which is a unique mode which sequentially builds up the image by only adding in new brighter components - such as lightning
  • look for photogenic opportunities
    • transient beams of sun light
    • storm cell features - wall clouds, inbound shelf clouds, mammatus clouds, anvils, shafts of rain, lightning, the passed storm cell lit by late afternoon light and perhaps a rainbow if the sun is behind you
  • be mindful at all times
    • while your attention may be on what is in front of you, other storm cells may generate tornadoes, etc behind you!
    • constantly risk manage your location and access
    • when the storm is overhead, seek cover and wait til it has passed for more photo opportunities
    • check your manual focus is still accurate
    • check for water drops on the lens optics
photo/storms.txt · Last modified: 2017/11/25 09:05 by gary1

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