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Out in the Storm 
by Jim McGee

You've finally traveled to that spot you always wanted to visit. When the alarm clock goes off you jump out of bed and look out the window and - it's raining, cold, windy, and generally nasty. You turn on the Weather Channel and they're saying there's a storm warning posted. Heavy weather is forecasted for the rest of the day.

Upon hearing this you should: 

  1. Complain loudly about the weather and crawl back under the covers. 
  2. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and stare out the window waiting for the weather to clear. 
  3. Forget about photography and watch reruns of Gilligan's Island on the hotel TV. 
  4. Grumble a little about getting wet and then head out for a chance at some great photos.

The correct answer folks is D. The grumbling is optional.

There's Drama in Heavy Weather 
We've all seen that iconic series of photos by Jean Guichard ( of huge wave breaking around a light house; one of which features a keeper standing calmly in the doorway as a 25 or 30 foot wave breaks all around him. Lightning, huge thunderheads, and wild light reflected in the clouds can all be found out there on "bad" days. But you won't find them in your hotel room.

If you're in a large city the flat light of overcast and stormy skies can be a blessing. It's great for street shooting. Without harsh sunlight you can capture detail in peoples faces. The reduced contrast is also great for bringing out detail in buildings and rain can saturate the colors in those buildings bringing out details you'd have been unable to capture otherwise.

Puddles of rainwater create surreal reflections of the city and it's lights and sharp images of people or buildings against those surreal reflections can make for great shots. But if you spot a cool looking reflection don't settle for just shooting the reflection alone. Be patient. Wait for the right person, car, or thing to enter your frame to add interest. Look for brightly dressed individuals to stand out against the gray light who will pop out of the image.

Snow can dramatically change the look of the city, softening hard edges, and drawing you in. This is especially true around the holidays when you can combine fresh snow and Holiday decorations to create iconic holiday images. With snow however your window of opportunity is short. Fresh snow gives a cityscape a clean fresh look. But in short order the effects of people, cars, and trucks will change that fresh landscape into a gritty dirty mess.

Sunrise through a hurricane. Nikon N70, 
Sigma 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 and polarizer 
on Kodak Royal Gold 400.

Storms Make for Dramatic Skies 
When you look at satellite images of hurricanes from space you can see "arms" that the storm spins off. I sat on a dock and watched fascinated one morning as these squall lines passed over our island. The sea was a violent froth around the dock but the air was calm and thick. You could watch these huge high thunderheads bearing down. Then suddenly the wind would kick up and they'd hit. Huge wind driven drops of rain would hammer down. A few minutes later it had all passed. An eerie calm would return and your could watch the backside of that same squall line march back out to sea. The sunrise pictured here was shot as the rays of the rising sun reflected and bounced through the retreating hurricane.

Snowstorms, thunderheads, hurricanes, and tornados can all make for dramatic skies. This is particularly true if you're in a location where you can shoot those skies against a dramatic landscape.

Nighttime offers another interesting possibility - shooting lightning. The idea is to hold your shutter open for long exposures at the peak of the storm hoping that lightning will strike while the shutter is open. There is a real element of luck here. You may expose a whole roll of film and not capture anything interesting or you may take one frame and get the shot of your life. The trick is to expose a lot of film while the storm is passing. The more shots you have the better your chances of getting something really good on film (or in memory for you digital guys).

All afternoon I cursed the thunderheads passing over the island 
depriving me of bright tropical images. Then at sunset they 
started breaking up - and magic happened. Minolta 
Dimage 7, daylight balance, ISO 400 handheld

Be Patient, Watch for Clearing Light 
Light changes quickly during storms. Sudden breaks in the clouds can stream light downward illuminating objects on the ground with what appears to be a heavenly glow. Sometimes you're lucky and you can actually watch this light moving across a landscape. That gives you time to plan your composition. Other times it happens suddenly and you barely have time to get your eye to the viewfinder before it's gone.

This kind of changing light is especially common in mountain storms where clouds can change altitude as well as position.

The passing of a storm can also affect the quality of light. A storm can seemingly wash away haze and mist leaving behind clear sharp air that allows greater sharpness and depth of field in your landscapes.

Bracket Some photographers have a real aversion to bracketing. It's almost as if you're insulting them by asserting they can't get the proper exposure. They can have their ego. After all isn't the "best" photographer the one who brings back the image?

In the kinds of light we're talking about there is an amazing range of light levels. Far more than you can capture on film or digitally. If the light is changing quickly and there's a really great opportunity at hand I'll bracket my exposures to make sure I capture that light. Often times it's one of those over or under exposed images that brings out a detail that makes the image.

Be Prepared 
If you're going to venture out into the storm you need to be prepared. That means waterproof clothing, gloves, and a hat. You need to be dressed warmly. If you're wet you'll be cold and miserable and composition will be the last thing on your mind.

Proper footwear is especially important in bad weather. You want your feet to stay dry and warm and you want to make sure you'll have good traction. It's hard to get good pictures when you're falling on your butt!

Being prepared also means protecting your gear. Pro-level cameras are built to deal with the elements but even they don't take kindly to water inside film backs or in mirror boxes. Digital cameras are even less forgiving about water getting in, around, or on, the image sensor. Your best bet for really wet conditions is an underwater housing that will keep your camera dry and safe. A low tech option is to cut a hole in the bottom of an over-sized freezer bag, slip your lens through the hole, and secure it with a rubber band. You stick your hands in through the top of the bag or even work the controls through the bag - keeping your camera dry.

You'll need to make sure that your camera bag is waterproof as well. If it's not cover it with a trash bag or with an all-weather cover (available from several manufacturers).

Be Safe 
There is an element of danger being out in a storm and you need to use some common sense. When I was watching squall lines come ashore the winds were strong but never reached the point where I felt unsafe. If it starts to get spooky seek shelter. The same holds true if lightning is getting close, and while storm chasing looked pretty cool in the movie "Twister" I wouldn't be in a hurry to get up close and personal with a tornado.

Heavy snows can mean that it's a lot harder to hike back out of a location than it was hiking in. They can also change the look of the land, obscuring landmarks, and making trails difficult to follow. If you're in the mountains storms can come up quickly and white out conditions can be especially dangerous.

This footbridge is normally five feet above a gently running stream. Flash floods can happen quickly and command respect. 
Nikon F100, 28-105mm f3.5-4.5 on Velvia 
in the El Yunque Rainforest

Thunderstorms can mean flash floods. Shooting up at a landscape from a dry wash might seem like a good idea, but a storm that's miles away can produce a torrent of water rushing down a wash or small streambed. If storms are all around you avoid these low areas.

Being safe also means learning about the area you're shooting. Out west places like Zion Narrows and Antelope Canyon are famous for their beauty. But thunderstorms far away from you, well beyond your ability to see them, mean sudden flash floods in the canyons. Every year hikers die in these beautiful locations when checking the weather or checking with the park service would have alerted them to the danger.

In snow country it's also important to watch the weather and to let someone know where you're going. Better yet don't hike in alone and if you're hiking into the backcountry check with local authorities about avalanche warnings - and take them seriously…

In fifteen minutes conditions went from fat raindrops to the four inches of heavy wet snow that you see here. 

Castle Dome rises almost 2,800 feet above the valley floor. We watched as clouds boiled over the mountain and descended into the valley obscuring all but the lower ridge seen here. 

Nikon D100, 20mm f2.8, 1/160@ f22, white balance cloudy, Bogen tripod.

Driving can also be dicey in storm conditions. Falling tree braches, low visibility and ice-covered roads are all potential hazards you may need to deal with. It may seem like common sense but if you're in an unfamiliar rental car take a few minutes before you head out to locate wipers, headlights, heat, and defrosters. 

If you're driving to a location to shoot have a good map and take a few minutes to get familiar with your route before you leave the parking lot. If you drive into a particularly nasty stretch you don't want to be blind and searching for the wipers as you drive past your turn.

Get Lucky 
Sometimes when you go out in the storm all you get is wet. But then again many a photographer has looked at an image that combined amazing skies, light, and landscape and wondered how the shooter had accomplished this wonder.

It's simple, while everyone else was back in the hotel they were out there. When you're out there enough you get lucky.

One moment overcast twilight, then suddenly a ray of light breaks through 
and illuminates the scene. Then just as quickly it's gone. Luck definitely 
plays a part but you can't get lucky if you're not out there. 

Photos by Gary Stanley Nikon F100, Tokina 28-105mm lens, 
on Velvia. Hukuba tripod.


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