By Jay Hathaway for Vanguard USA
All photos courtesy of Jamie MacDonald
Undoubtedly, Mother Nature is an intimidating force. I once commented to someone that I never felt so small as when I saw a mighty storm creeping ashore off the Gulf of Mexico, like an otherworldly juggernaut as big as the sky itself. Despite the often-scary nature of storms, they also provide opportunities for dramatic, engaging photos and videos. Naturally, this means there will be a whole group of people dedicated to chasing down these storms and capturing glimpses of mighty natural forces to share with the rest of us.
And this is no small cult of tornado-chasing fanatics. To the novice, storm chasing's popularity may be surprising. There are even storm chasing tours and vacation packages available all over the web. Hey, for some, a beach and a cocktail is a good time; for others, it's a trip to Tornado Alley. Popular storm chasing destinations in the US include the above-mentioned Tornado Alley -- the large area of states between the Rocky Mountains to the west and Appalachians to the east, including Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, and more. Oh, and of course, Kansas. Other storm chaser stops include some coastal areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico (Tampa, Florida is a good spot to see a mighty storm -- but if you hear the word "hurricane," you should head the other way).
Personally, my knowledge of storm chasing is limited to a few internet searches and the 1996 film "Twister." So, I decided to ask some questions to Vanguard ambassador, pro photographer, podcast host, Ford Bronco lover, and storm chaser Jamie MacDonald (IG: @macdonald_photo). Here is our e-conversation:
Jay Hathaway: Why chase storms? What's the appeal?
Jamie MacDonald: I could say, like mountains, "because they are there." But for me, it is about witnessing the raw uncontrollable power that is contained in this almost living thing that sweeps across the landscape. The appeal is in BOTH the experience and the finished photos that I get to share with people who may never have the chance to see the weather in its raw, at times, scary states.
JH: How does one monitor and be ready for storms?
JM: There are so many amazing resources available but I begin with the NOAA SPC (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center) website. It will give you a rough idea of when and where severe weather will be forming. For my storm chase trips into the Plains States, this is key. Once you have the day and rough location, it is then time to start monitoring your weather apps such as RadarScope and RadarOmega. These will help you see where the storm actually is, where it's headed, and how severe it is, including things like lightning, hail, and tornados.
JH: How do you know where to go to get the right shot?
JM: For me, it is all about the surrounding features of the land and finding SOMETHING to add to the scene to make it more than just a wide-open field and a storm. For instance, barns, silos, dirt roads, and fence lines all add interest, scale, and most of all help set the scene and tell the story. Or in a pinch? I've set my camera's timer and snagged a selfie or put my truck into the shot. Again, for me it is all about adding things to the scene people can relate to and identify, so it helps them "be there" in your shot.
JH: What are your typical camera settings for stormy weather?
JM: My go-to for most storms during the day is aperture priority, f/5.6 to f/6 auto ISO on my Sony gear. I like to shoot pretty wide since storms have such amazing cloud structure, so ultra-wide at 14mm is choice. But once it starts getting dark, I am 100% after lightning. The settings I use then are manual mode, manual focus my lens to infinity, set my aperture again to maybe f/5.6, and my ISO above base enough to help expose my foreground some -- so around ISO400 or so. With those settings in the "dark," you will end up with longer exposures, 15-30 seconds. The good thing with long exposures is there is more chance for multiple lightning strikes in a single frame!
JH: Ever been "too close" to a nasty storm or any close calls?
JM: YES! A couple times. Once was during a storm that was rolling in across Lake Michigan and I was on a pier in Grand Haven with some friends shooting. As the storm got closer, we misjudged how long before it would reach us. Once we realized we were out of time, we were hit with 60mph winds that nearly blew us into the water! And that was just the wind; did I mention the lightning, too?
The other time was a chase in Kansas that had lasted for a few hours at sunset into the night. As my friend and I were following the storm to get set up for more lightning opportunities, we ended up on a dirt/clay road that had turned into mush. Our car was barely able to move in the slippery clay. Then, it started to hail, and very intense lightning. As I was trying to get us off this road, my friend pointed out that the storm we were on the back edge of had gone tornado warned! Tornados tend to form on the southwest corner of storms in the U.S. Any guesses where we were? Yep...right there. We made it out fine, but for about 10 minutes, we were losing our minds because you can't really see a tornado in the dark.
And finally, this year I was chasing in Nebraska when I punched through a storm cell and ended up in the hail core. This is where the hail is raining down and it can get intense. This storm ended up dropping golf ball-sized hail onto my new truck! All I could do was sit parked against some large bales of hay and pray I didn't lose a window! I made it out with all my windows, and about 30 dents. But the photos from that chase were magic!
Jay Hathaway is the Marketing Director for Vanguard USA. He lives in SE Michigan and loves all things Midwest, except the winters. You can reach him at email@example.com