December 2, local photographer David Mayhew gave us a whirlwind introduction to the practice and art of photographing severe weather.  David started his professional life as a design engineer but an introduction to photography and meteorology at the College of DuPage (near Chicago) led to his current life as a fine-art photographer of weather phenomena.  In his career as a storm chaser, he has witnessed the two widest tornadoes on record at El Reno, Oklahoma, and Hallam, Nebraska.  He has been selected as a judge for the Weather Channel’s annual photography contest.   To view the meeting and presentation CLICK HERE.

For the presentation, he interspersed suggestions (no rules, only guidelines) or techniques for photographic composition, photo subjects, appropriate equipment, and approaches to finding interesting storms and other weather phenomena with many of his wonderful images. 
His first suggestion was to make images both closeup (to show details of the storm structure) and wide-angle (to show the structure of the surrounding atmosphere).  Many of his images are enhanced by having an interesting subject in the foreground.  A relatively long exposure uses blur to emphasize the movement in the clouds.  Not all weather photos have to show severe storms: interesting cloud structures with an interesting foreground can be quite effective. 
Interesting weather phenomena can be found both locally and by traveling to interesting areas. The location of interesting storms involves an interaction between weather patterns and geographic or topographic features.   Three weather features, a cold front (with cold air on one side), a warm front (with warm, moist air on one side), and a “dry line” (the western boundary of the warm, moist air) intersect at a low pressure center or “triple point” which can be the center of interesting storm phenomena.  The level of interest generated can vary through the year so that April is better in the American southeast whereas later in the summer is better around the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.  In northeastern Colorado, interesting weather phenomena are commonly funneled between the Cheyenne Ridge to our north and the Palmer Divide to our south with the vast majority of tornadoes located east of the foothills.  Extreme weather phenomena are enhanced by updrafts and those are enhanced by urban heating as well as heating over freshly burned wildfire areas. 
His strategy is to remain mobile, starting from the best road intersection in the target area identified by his analysis of weather and topography.  He uses weather-related websites (he mentioned the HRRR model) to help in predicting areas where interesting weather phenomena might develop.  He scouts potentially interesting areas in advance, marking on Google Maps locations with good foreground possibilities.  Given the mobility required, and the unpredictability of timing of interesting weather phenomena, he cautions that it is necessary to gas up when you can and to be prepared to sleep in the car. 
As for equipment, he recommends both tripods and monopods, the monopods (especially with a squeeze-trigger handle) providing greater flexibility.  More money in lenses than in cameras is money well spent.  For a car, he emphasizes reliability, visibility from the car, fuel range, off-road capability, and a hatch back to provide protection from weather while shooting.  Although shooting hand-held is possible, he recommends shutter speeds no slower than 1/focal length (e.g., 1/50 sec with a 50 mm lens).  He recommends using several lenses, with at least two attached to two different camera backs to reduce the need to change lenses in dusty or rainy conditions.  Although high-magnification lenses can bring you “closer” to a particular feature, humidity in the air can reduce contrast so your images will typically be better from closer to the feature.  When possible, go for wide angle lenses, capturing more of the sky, making cloud motion less apparent, working better in low light, and giving better depth of field even with a wide aperture.  In deciding on a camera, he suggests that you aim for RAW format (not jpeg), high-quality glass and zoom features in the lenses, a good dynamic range in the sensor, low “noise” at high ISO (a measure of “film” speed), quick focus capability, automatic bracketing (three images shot immediately at slightly different lens settings), a satisfactory balance of megapixels vs. file size (note that more megapixels does not necessarily mean better images), weather and dust sealed, a digital level (so that the horizon is always horizontal), image stabilization (reducing the effect of hand shake when shooting hand held), and availability of histogram display (to give objective information about how good the exposure is).  Other things being equal, smaller is better.  Although GPS data about the location is very useful, he finds that taking one photo with his smart phone at any location gives him that information. 
He currently uses a Sony a7RII mirrorless camera.  In addition to checking all the boxes above, it has a flexible screen, allowing holding the camera either near the ground or well above his head.  The main disadvantage vs. Canon is that the menu is more complicated. 
Change lenses very carefully: camera off, out of the wind, camera face down. 
Shooting: bracket; leave the tripod mount on the camera; review your results from prior year.
Milky Way: tripod; ISO 6400; f 2.8 for 30 secs.; wide-angle lens. 
Checking exposure: don’t trust the screen, use the histogram and aim for well-balanced. 
Lightening: is in the storm; use a tripod and long exposure. 
Fair weather: polarizing filter for blue skies; neutral density filter to control exposure.
Rule (or guideline) of thirds: center of interest 1/3 of the way into the image. 
Leading lines: straight or curved leading the eye into the photo. 
Light: be prepared to capture changing light conditions (don’t over trust your light meter). 
Foreground: look for something interesting in the foreground. 
Editing: Light Room is better for editing, Photoshop for constructing. 

Know your equipment; wider is better; there are no rules; learn from others.

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