Chris Kridler has been chasing and photographing storms for over 12 years. What draws her to extreme weather photography, and what tips does she have for those who'd like to give it a try? She generously shares her tips here.
A supercell spins in north-central Kansas on May 8, 2001. Photo ©Chris Kridler, SkyDiary.com
MR: How did you become interested in extreme weather photography?
CK: I was always into photography, and I was intrigued by weather, but my interests didn't come together until I first chased storms. I realized in 1997 that there were actually storm-chasing tours, so I booked two weeks with Cloud 9 Tours and was hooked. I've returned to the Plains every spring to chase storms, and I also shoot storms and lightning in Florida. I love the experience of chasing for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is the visual appeal of the structured storms of the Plains.
MR: What is your favorite kind of weather to photograph?
CK: A highly-structured supercell in the beautiful light of a fading day is my favorite weather subject. Lightning is a bonus. These "perfect storms" are rare, but when you can capture a massive storm in a photograph that looks like a layer cake or UFO, you can almost sense its rotation and power. A unique setting can make all the difference, too; one of my favorite photos is a lightning strike over the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy.
Lightning sparks over Childress, Texas, on May 12, 2009. Photo ©Chris Kridler, SkyDiary.com
MR: How do you determine where to go to find storms?
CK: First, it's important to be where the storms happen. In the spring, that's Tornado Alley. Then, of course, you need to start your day within driving distance of the target, so you are always doing long-range and short-range forecasts. On a chase day, I look at a variety of data sources online and try to pick the best spot for initiation of rotating storms. As the day continues, a combination of live radar and satellite updates, thanks to cellular data, and strategic planning can help a chaser get into position. That said, there are a thousand ways to miss the ideal moment on the ideal storm, so luck is involved, too.
When I'm chasing storms in Florida, I don't usually drive long distances, especially since long-lived supercells are rare here. I wait to see how the day develops and hope for lightning storms at night.
MR: There seems to be a high percentage of storms that fizzle out. Do you have a photographic “plan B” when a potential storm doesn't materialize?
CK: Let's just say storm chasers have a lot of sunset photos in their portfolios! But yes, I can get a lot of photos even out of even a wimpy storm if the light is nice, especially when I find a great foreground. And when the weather isn't cooperating, I look for other interesting subjects. In Tornado Alley, those can range from wildflowers to dilapidated shacks. I love the small towns and their wonderful old buildings, too.
On May 12, 2005, a tornado churns near South Plains, Texas. Photo ©Chris Kridler, SkyDiary.com
MR: How do you stay safe during lightning storms and tornadoes?
CK: While you are never a hundred percent safe when chasing storms, if you have an idea of how supercells behave, have a good view of the storm, and are getting radar data to boot, you can stay relatively safe from tornadoes. Large hail is also a danger, and I've had a couple of cars remodeled thanks to hail. Sometimes it's a matter of choosing between getting close and getting the great shot and staying farther away—though those shots can be nice, too. I am not one of those folks who thinks it's a great idea to drive into a tornado. As for lightning, if you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck. I sometimes shoot lightning from within my car by placing the camera on a Manfrotto window clamp with a ball head. The metal car can act to disperse the charge if it's struck, though the open window still increases my risk. That said, I feel safer than I would outside with a tripod, though I do that, too, if the lightning isn't too intense.
MR: What kind of camera equipment you use? How do you protect it from rain, hail, etc.?
CK: I used to shoot slides, but have almost completely transitioned to digital now. I have Nikon digital SLRs, the newest of which is a Nikon D7000, which shoots beautiful video as well as stills. I also use Sony video cameras. My favorite lens for chasing is the 10-24mm Nikkor. The wide angle is gorgeous for landscapes and supercells. For lightning, a tripod is essential, or the window clamp, as I previously mentioned. All of my Manfrotto tripods, the window clamp and the dash-cam mount have interchangeable quick-release plates, because events happen fast while chasing. I use a digital remote for long exposures.
The best and most obvious way to protect your gear is simply to keep it out of the rain. I've tried covers, plastic bags and umbrellas, but I get the best photos when I am not actually in the precipitation. Sometimes you can't help getting spritzed, but a drop on the lens is never good. Keep a towel and a lens-cleaning cloth handy. Too much moisture can shut down a digital camera. Some chasers keep portable hair dryers in their cars to dry out their gear when it comes to that. Even taking the camera from air conditioning into heat and humidity can cause it to fog up or quit until it dries out again.
Car roof cams have become trendy among chasers for video. I have friends who have built ingenious domes and other covers to keep their gear dry.
Chris Kridler chases storms in a Honda Element. Photo by William T. Hark, HarkPhoto.com
MR: What advice would you give someone who is considering doing extreme weather photography?
CK: Learn about strategy by partnering with other chasers or taking a tour. Other chasers appreciate enthusiasts, so if you build your reputation on an online chaser site, it may be easier to find a mentor. Most chasers won't take you along just because you asked. And, of course, learn about weather and storms. While you can stumble into a great photo, if you have an understanding of how, where and why storms form, you are more likely to find the kind of storm you want to shoot. You begin to understand little things - for instance, if the sun drops below the storm's anvil from your perspective, you'll get a better view of the base and the possible tornado. If the setting sun is low enough in the sky, from the west side of the storm, you might see a fantastic rainbow. And if you are on the correct (often the southeast or east) side of the storm, you can see the wall cloud and tornado and might avoid getting trashed by hail.
MR: What web sites or workshops do you recommend for people interested in becoming storm chaser photographers?
CK: Stormtrack.org is the granddaddy of storm chaser sites, with a large forum. Check out its FAQ. Facebook has also become a huge gathering place for chasers, but there's a large noise factor there. Many chasers have their own sites, and some have detailed forecasts in their chase reports. Just reading these can teach you a lot. If you can afford it, take a storm chasing tour - there are many now, with some of the best being Tempest Tours, Cloud 9 Tours, and Silver Lining Tours. Almost every chaser I know is also a photographer of some sort, whether they are shooting stills or video, and I always learn a lot just from talking with them.
Chris Kridler is a Florida-based award-winning photographer, writer and videographer whose storm-chasing accounts can be found at SkyDiary.com and whose blog and other photographic work are featured at ChrisKridler.com. Chris’ photographs have appeared in several magazines and books, including the covers of The Journal of Meteorology, the book Winderful, and the new edition of Wallace and Hobbs’ Atmospheric Science textbook. She was recently featured in Popular Photography.