In part two of our 2-part blog series on weather photography, we hear from award-winning extreme weather photographer, Jim Reed, on how he takes images in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Jim is recognised as one of the world’s most pioneering and accomplished extreme weather photographers. He has documented America’s changing climate and record-setting storms for 23 consecutive years, including tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms, floods, and 19 hurricanes, including Katrina.
In 2009, Jim was invited to The White House to discuss weather photography, storm chasing, and climate change with Pete Souza, chief White House photographer for President Barack Obama. He currently lives In Wichita, Kansas, USA, an area prone to hurricanes and tornadoes throughout the year.
I shot this image as Hurricane Ike, a strong category two tropical cyclone, was approaching Galveston, Texas, USA. Wind over the Gulf of Mexico was pushing water up and over Galveston’s 17-foot sea wall, creating very tall waves. I wanted to capture both the size and motion.
Using a NIKKOR 14-24mm set at 17mm, I positioned myself a few yards from the edge of the sea wall and waited. As the next explosive wave hit, I snapped away. I used a Nikon SB-800 to help get the street sign to pop. I wasn’t knocked over, but I did get drenched. My gear wasn’t covered and did great.
Our storm chase was actually over for the day, but on our drive back to Wichita a new storm began producing C.C. (cloud-to-cloud) bolts. Since I was a passenger, I wedged a tripod between my legs and began shooting out the windshield. I was just experimenting. It was night and the highway wasn’t especially picturesque so I tilted the DSLR to try and add some interest.
Just then the sky lit up with the bolts literally over the highway and I had my shot. Effort + preparation + having fun = very lucky!
May 8, 2008 felt like a special day from the minute I awakened. My photo assistant and I started the day early and so did this storm. It was early afternoon. Within an hour of arriving at my target area, we got to witness full tornado genesis, from the very first towering cumulus clouds to the development of this spectacular slow-moving land spout tornado.
At one point, the tornado changed direction and moved straight toward us, forcing me to speedily backup. But when I stopped my vehicle, the tornado surprisingly stopped: less than 200 feet in front of us directly over the road. It just stood there, spinning, almost like it was watching us. As luck would have it, I was on assignment for Nikon and testing an early release model of the Nikon D700. I jumped out of our research vehicle, grabbed the DSLR and started shooting. I stepped back to include the vehicle in the frame to give it scale. It was one of the most memorable days of my 23-year career.
Tornadoes part 2
After leaving my studio later than expected, my storm chase partner and I had no choice but to intercept the last storm of the day. It quickly became severe at sunset but didn’t produce a tornado until after dark. My goal was to capture a lightning-lit twister. With every flash of lightning we could see the tornado otherwise it was completely dark.
Using the lightning as a guide we drove down a rural dirt road to get closer. I grabbed my Nikon D3S and set up the tripod. Just as checked focus, my partner yelled, “There’s another one to the right!” I took several shots, trying my best to time each click of the shutter with the bolts of lightning. Not only were we treated to a night-time, lightning-lit tornado, but two twisters in the same frame. This is my favourite shot from the series. Lightning overexposed the frame in the field, but I was able to save it in post. The low noise of the D3S set at ISO 4000 was invaluable. Ironically, I never felt a drop of rain.
As I approach a storm I begin asking numerous questions. Do I want to use a wide-angle lens? Telephoto? Tripod? No tripod? Horizontal or vertical? Do I want to be in front of the storm? Under the storm? Where’s the most compelling light? How can I capture the personality of the storm? On April 7, I chose to drive through the storm and stop on its flank. I’m shooting east. The setting sun did a wonderful job of highlighting the towering cumulonimbus clouds.
The woman in the photo is Jenna Blum, the New York Times bestselling author of The Storm chasers and Those Who Save Us. She also happens to be an accomplished storm chaser and my fiancée. We were both thrilled to see western Kansas get some rain. They’ve been in a severe drought for years. Sometimes staying a few miles back from a storm actually yields the best photo-op.
Lightning part 2
This picture was captured at the end of a long day of shooting. It had been a good day, but not great. As the sun dropped below the horizon, beautiful colours began appearing over the stark landscape. A small, but intense storm developed and began producing C.G. (cloud-to-ground) lightning. I jumped out of the vehicle and set up my tripod near an old wooden fence.
Leaning over it I focused across the barren field and hoped for a bolt or two. Two my delight, that’s exactly what nature provided. The contrast and combination of blue, magenta and green yielded the shot of the day. It’s important to be patient. The best shot may come in the final hour of a long day. Never give up!
One of my favourite weather subjects to photograph is snow. Every winter storm provides its own challenges and exciting photo-ops. To get this shot, I had to leave my house around 3:30 AM. With heavy snow falling, I drove around the city of Wichita for several hours searching for photo-ops. It was dark, but beautiful. Even tranquil. The city was vacant of people. The lights of the city and my headlights were the only sources illuminating the falling snow.
On one hand you had the untouched purity of the snowflakes. But the only way I could witness this beauty in nature was thanks to man-made lightning. It was surreal. Around 6:30 AM, I spotted a man walking to work in the storm. I quickly parked my vehicle, rolled down the window, focused on the man and clicked-off several frames. The city was crippled by weather, but here was one very determined human being attempting to keep his life on schedule. According to the National Weather Service it was the second greatest snowstorm in Wichita history. February 2013 produced the most snow the city has seen in any month since records have been kept.
Follow Jim Reed on Twitter to keep up-to-date on his storm-chasing shenanigans.