Here’s a storm photography topic that we always debate internally and I’m about to make some of the other Titans mad about this one.
Ok everyone else will be fine with it. But, we’ve had some crazy debates both in the moment of shooting and while breaking a down afterwards about how far you need to be from a storm to get the shot.
This may seem somewhat intuitive but there’s variability both with lens type and storm conditions. So let’s talk about a few strategies.
In Storm Photography, How Close Is Too Close?
The question you have to ask yourself is what your goals are with storm photography and storm chasing. If your goals are taking great structure shots, being right up under an updraft never works.
For tornadoes I think there’s less wiggle room you need to give the storm. As always safety outs are your best friend and give yourself more room than you think to allow for storm motion.
The shot above was taken about 1.5 miles from the updraft with storm motion being relatively modest (20mph or so). I actually did a U-Turn and came 1/2 of a mile back to this wheat field because I loved it so much. This storm was a perfect contrast to the wheat in my mind and the rapid-fire lighting strikes would make for an easy combo shot.
Really, you want to give yourself enough room to take as much of the storm in that you can. But, don’t get too far away as to lose important details.
You Don’t Have To Be Close
The shot above was taken looking down ‘Main Street’ of Mobeetie, Texas.
I was somewhere between 3-4 miles to the east of the storm’s updraft at this time and I’m forever thankful I took a minute to stop, frame up this shot, and get it right.
With storm photography, the best shots are usually made when great split decisions decisions are reached.
The thing that you will find in the 2-4 mile range is that you have a lot more time to get things right and to do things like time lapsing. This is especially true later in the season when storm motions slow.
It seems there’s a 1-5 mile magic zone. Any closer and you lose flexibility and scale. Any further and you lose contrast and detail.
If you put too little room between you and the storm, it becomes a constant struggle of driving and then rushing shots. For me, I like starting with distance and closing in by late evening. Then as darkness falls I’ll create more distance both for safety and to create some prime-time lightning opportunities.
Work With The Storm You Have
The best tip to remember is to work with the storm you have with storm photography.
If the storm is slow moving, you can typically get a lot closer for longer and frame up shots with experimentation. A fast moving storm makes getting close that much more difficult when it comes to getting great shots.
To me, rushing out of the car to get a shot only to have to rush back in doesn’t work out as much.
I try to vary my approaches through the day, both getting close up shots of a storm and more mid-range views. This allows for better overall coverage in a day with a wide variety of shots.
The general rule of thumb I like to set for myself is, give myself enough distance that I can time-lapse a scene for at least 3 minutes. But, I’ll sacrifice this if it means staying close enough to keep details. There’s nothing worse than fuzzy, low contrast images of a super sculpted updraft tower.
See Also: Getting your aperture right