I took this photo on October 14th, 2013 southeast of Seiling, OK. Storms were moving to the east and started to line out, so I stopped and tried to compose a few shots. A came across this old windmill with the clouds behind it and set up for the shot. It turned out beautifully, and it really popped in black and white.
Looking back at this day there are several memories that I have that will always stay with me. Probably one of the most frightening I've experienced as a storm chaser, and one of the tougher days in seeing the damage it caused. It started out pretty frantically. Early in the afternoon storms started to develop and it wasn't long before the tornado touched down southeast of Hinton and made its way northeast. I had positioned myself to the west of El Reno, at Exit 115 to be exact knowing it was heading in my general direction. As it moved closer you could hear the rushing sound as if a giant waterfall were miles away. It was tough to make out the tornado itself, by this time it had morphed into a gigantic wedge and wrapped in rain. These are the most dangerous of tornadoes because you don't know it's there until it's already on top of you. Watching to the southwest, I was able to capture a few shots although I was without a tripod, and there was very little light to work with (causing blurriness of the photos). Hearing the roar get closer and not fully trusting it would stay on path, I decided to drop back from Exit 115 and move back three miles to the first business loop exit west of El Reno. I was pretty confident that even though I fell back I would still have plenty of visual, whatever was available anyways.
I watched the storm move to the northeast as I fell back into El Reno and eventually worked my way up Highway 81. Just north of town the tornado had already moved through, stripping bark off trees and knocking down power lines. By this time I had also lost my data connection, so I had really no way of knowing exactly where it was other than watching the rainy mess and hoping that nothing was inside the rain curtain I was about to enter.
I drove under a leaning power line and headed north on 81 trying to stay up with it. As I worked my way north I was enveloped in rain and strong inflow winds, literally pulling me sideways. This was one of my scariest moments, mostly for not having my bearings and not knowing where I was in relation to the mile wide beast that had just gone through. I did a full stop on the highway and thought about turning around and heading back south, but wasn't sure what was coming up so I decided to keep heading north. I eventually found an underpass and stopped for a few moments to decompress and gather myself.
This is the pixelated video from my live stream that day that recorded my scariest moment in chasing.
Afterwards, I made my way east, well behind the EF5 tornado that was still marching to the northeast towards Guthrie. I saw houses torn apart, the smell of propane filled the air and debris littered the yards and had collected along the fences. Everyone in this area had survived, but further to the east the storm had claimed lives.
The road east had already been closed off by emergency personnel, so I worked my way back to the south hoping to catch the storms moving though Norman and eastward near Shawnee. I was a few minutes late though, and narrowly missing catching a strong rope tornado that obliterated a semi truck as it sat on the side of the interstate. I managed to catch a cool few photos before calling it a day. A day I will never forget.
I spent the better part of the day during Sunday's outbreak in the Midwest sitting in my chair watching information roll in almost in real time. Between Twitter, Facebook, my radar and the Weather Channel I was well informed with everything going on, watching storms move at super speed developing hooks, and wincing as the storms approached communities in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
Among everything that happened that day I was amazed at the amount of information coming in and how far we've come in storm coverage and chasing in just a few years. Pictures were rolling in almost instantly as snapshots uploaded to social media took off like wildfire, meanwhile video was rolling in quickly afterwards from bystanders who had the unfortunate luck of being in the storms way. Shortly afterwards, damage photos from the storms blistering path came in giving us an initial idea that these storms meant business and we should all be paying attention.
As the day wore on the reports kept coming in. Washington, IL was hammered by a tornado initially rated and EF-4. Soldier Field in Chicago was evacuated and the game suspended for almost two hours. Storms near Paducah, KY were producing tornadoes. Such a wide region affected it took effort just to keep up with all of it.
But, the most important defense we had was the information.
SPC had this event pegged a few days out. Chasers notified their legions of followers on social media that this was going to be serious. Watches were issued just enough beforehand, and once the storms started firing and moving at warp speed tornado warnings were soon to follow. For folks downstream in Eastern Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky there was plenty of coverage to allow for preparations and plans to be made. Sadly, even with all of the information out there, at least seven people died and dozens of others were injured. These storms were brutal and so fast moving once they came upon an area there was little time to react.
There has been a ton of progress made the last few years in improving warning times. Social media has enabled not only the government but scores of other sources help get the word out, helping the public to prepare for upcoming weather events. There is still room for improvement, but as bad as things may get all of the information out there helps keep things from being a lot worse.
July 12th, 2010. A large storm moving south out of Woodward, OK makes its way down Highway 183. I'm set up, ready to capture glorious images that I will tell my children's children about. The day I captured the most fantastic storm ever. I got out my Kodak C183 point and shoot camera and began to fire away. The storm moved so slowly, I captured tons of images. This would be an epic day! Then I get home and upload my photos and I get this....
Now, I know what you are thinking. Those are pretty cool right? Well, when I got home and uploaded them, they didn't resemble anything like what I had saw. They captured none of the massive structure, none of the epicness of this day. I was extremely disappointed in what I just captured compared to the way it looked up close and personal.
This day really started my quest to capture what I was feeling and seeing. Now, not everyone has the same goals when it comes to photos. Some like to capture images with their phones and quickly share, some like to take photos to document and keep as a memory. I like to photograph the storms to move people, to make them feel something. But, it's not as easy as grabbing your DSLR camera, driving to the nearest storm and shooting away. It takes planning, coordination, and often quick reflexes, among other things.
We'll take a quick look at planning to photograph at a high level for this blog post and save the specifics for another day. "Well, what in the world is there to plan for? You drive to a storm, turn the camera on and start shooting right?"
Unfortunately that's not quite how it works, unless you're ready to upload photos when you get home and want to be disappointed with your haul. Before one sets out the door, countless hours have to be spent learning your camera. Some questions you should ask yourself before you get ready to chase: What ISO should I shoot in? What aperture will allow for the best sharpness overall? What will my lighting be like, and how will I adjust if needed (And you will need to know this unless you love blurry photos)? Do I have the right equipment to get a great shot?
These basic questions are the foundation for capturing good images of any type. But, for storms they are a must. Some things to consider when answering questions: Storms provide very little light much of the time. Rain falls more often than not. Cloud movement can be relatively quick. Winds can be super strong. Storms don't follow a road, so angles can be tough. The list goes on and on.
But with a little preparation and study, all of the situations you encounter can be dealt with. So, in these cold winter months take some time and read up on how to use your camera outside of auto mode. Find out what it takes to keep your camera still and avoid the shake. Read up on the lenses you may need. There are lots of resources out there ready to be used, and I'll provide some here as well as time goes on.
Bottom line is a little preparation goes a long ways to producing a great photo, especially with storms. Putting in the time now can yield great results in the future.
About once a year during storm season, somewhere between North Dakota and Texas there is one day, one storm that just makes your jaw drop and hit the floor. Maybe it's the power, maybe it's the incredible structure, or a bit of both. May 29th, 2012 was such a day.
My day had started off as any other. Get up, go to work, answer phone calls, respond to emails. SPC had a slight risk assigned for the afternoon, and with it being late in the storm season on the southern plains I hadn't planned on getting out and getting set up as I normally do. As the day wore on it reached 3pm...nothing. Another hour passed, still nothing. Finally 5pm showed up and I left work. The cap had held and I had a chance to move north from OKC, so I quickly moved to the Northwest Expressway and headed north on Highway 81. Around 6pm a storm had started developing further to the north, just west of Enid, OK. By this time I had made it to the north of Kingfisher, and as always I was wondering if I was going to miss the show by not being in position early enough. I watched the storm on radar grow, but at the same time a small cell had started developing near Hennessey. With a decision to make, I chose to stay south of the main storm and hope for the best. It was the one of the better decisions I've made in chasing.
The cell just to the west of Hennessey developed quickly. It started to take on the "stacked pancake" look (shown above) and began rotating. I followed the cell almost straight to the south along Highway 81. It slowly moved toward Kingfisher, OK and developed a massive wall cloud, almost guaranteeing a tornado on the ground at any moment. With an audience of chasers, locals, and media helicopters it put on such a show, rotating and twisting it's way to the south and now moving more to the east. It went to the northeast of the small town of Okarche and towards the OKC metro area. I quickly dropped to the east on Northwest Expressway and moved to the south towards Yukon. It was then the structure of the storm reached it peak. A gorgeous, monster of a storm with structure that was visible from top to bottom, with a perfectly round core at the bottom dropping baseball sized hail encapsulated in a blueish green hue, back lit in a way as if it were announcing its arrival to everyone. The storm went on to produce a small tornado near the Northwest Expressway, the same place I had traveled through earlier in the day and on the way back. On this day though, the storm itself was the star. The photo named "Supercell" was born, and a moment caught in time that will be tough to match anytime soon.
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