“If there’s one thing I know, it’s never to mess with mother nature, mother in-laws and, mother freaking Ukrainians.” – Skinny Pete
Storm Chasing – it has become extremely popular in recent years, however it’s also very dangerous, not only to you, but others on the roads as well. Mother Nature is not to be taken lightly when she’s full of anger and fury. For this single reason, I choose not to chase on my own, but instead have formed friendships with a couple of experienced chasers whom I trust. I highly recommend you do the same if this is a style of photography you choose to pursue. This is the story of one such day when I got a call saying that one of my storm chasing friends was going, and he had an empty seat available if I wanted to join.
|Date||April 21, 2018|
|Location||Palo Pinto County, TX|
|Camera||Canon EOS 6D|
|Lens||Canon EF 16-35mm F/4L IS USM|
|Exposure Program||Aperture priority|
Over years I’ve learned to read the skies, understand what the weather is likely to do, but storm chasing takes those skill requirements and amplifies them a hundred times. While Hollywood makes it look like it’s all about instinct, there’s a whole lot of science that goes into knowing where to go, when to be there. And while I’ve scratched the surface on some of those skills, on this day last April, I was relying on my friend, we’ll call him J, to make the decisions on which direction to go. The setup looked good for storms to start building in the mid afternoon hours and continue until after sunset. With the latest information in hand, and a few gut instinct decisions in route while watching the radar we made our first setup of the day behind a church in Palo Pinto County, overlooking this large hay field which had recently been harvested.
The location was good for two reasons, first the largely unobstructed view of the approaching storm across the open field gave us plenty of viewing distance to get the entire shelf cloud and rain/hail core in the shot along with some foreground interest of the hail bales. But the church was also located at the intersection of two roads, giving J and myself multiple options for escape once it was time to get up and head out.
From the viewpoint where I took this photo, the storm was coming at us, and to the left – moving south west across the landscape. By this point in the day it was mid-afternoon, and the sun was also in the south western sky, lighting up the south edge of the storm, as well as providing some level of warm light cutting in under the storm clouds and onto the freshly cut fields. Knowing I was going to be shooting fairly wide to capture as much of the storm’s structure and fury as I could, contrasted by the field’s golden hues, I knew I needed something to anchor the composition. This particular hay bale was one of the closest to the fence line that J and I were setup behind, so I zeroed in on it as my foreground interest of choice. Setup fairly high on my tripod, with the 16-35F4L lens attached to the 6D, I framed up the composition, worked the zoom slowly until I had the balance of scale and elements that I wanted in the shot. ISO was kept around 200 most of the day, trading just a little extra noise for a boost in shutter speed to keep even the blowing grasses in reasonable sharp detail.
I worked this and one other basic composition with a pair of hay bales that were near by, until as the storm started to shift course just a little and a blast of cold air hit us, both J and I knew it was time to make a hasty retreat. It was a decent distance back to the truck in the parking lot of the church, and we just reached it as the first huge rain drops started to fall around us.
J and I would go on to chase this storm for the rest of the day and into the evening, covering significant ground with it. Having started out to the north west of the DFW area, by the time we called it a day and pointed the truck back towards home, we were well to the south.
The processing on this photo follows my normal workflow. Starting in Lightroom I do the initial RAW edit, adjusting contrast and white balance through the basic panel, setting the lens corrections and doing initial RAW sharpening before moving into Photoshop. The original SOOC was too cool in tone, and as with most RAW files lacked the contrast and punch desired in the final image.
Based on Mark Metternich’s excellent Lightroom RAW tutorials, I have a set of custom presets which I often use as a ‘starting point’ for my Lightroom RAW edits. Slight reduction in Exposure, then Shadow, Highlights, Whites and Blacks are optimized to stretch the dynamic range as much as possible without causing problems. Tone Curve gets a decent boost to the lights to counter the highlight recovery’s tendency to flatten the image a bit too much in the mid-tones. A boost to Vibrance and boost to the Camera Calibration saturation sliders help bring out colors, though often a bit too much overall saturation, so a decrease in overall saturation is often applied.
For this photo, the Photoshop edit was all about balancing the exposure, accentuating a few spots that had gotten lost in the darkness of the storm, all to help draw the eye through the image in the desired path. Multiple Burn/Dodge layers were used – most using the Soft Light blend mode for softer effects than Overlay mode – were stacked up to gently reduce or add brightness and color to several areas. I wanted to recover more color in the area on the far light horizon where the sun was nearly blowing out the bit of sky not yet consumed by the storm, but at the same time open up the shadows on the leading edge of the storm just a little for a more gentle transition of colors and tons from open sky to darkest storm cloud. A run through Nik (now DxO) Color Efex Pro 4 for some color and tonal contrast punch – which was then blended in via a layer mask into the regions that I wanted the effect to be strongest, mostly in the more detailed region of the storm’s shelf cloud formation. A High Pass layer was used to sharpen up the foreground, making the hay in the bale good and sharp in contrast to the sky’s softer shapes. This high pass layer was masked to the foreground only, and completely masked OUT of the sky. Clouds are not sharp. They may have plenty of contrast, but they are not sharp! Avoid heavy application of any sharpening to skies! The full stack of layers is shown below (the group labeled Burn/Dodge just has a couple more soft-light empty layers.)
I hope you liked this behind the shot and edit of one of my favorite storm photos from 2018. Below is a small collection of the other images I captured on that day’s chase across north Texas. I welcome you to explore more articles here on Fischer Photography.