“If you get out here, you do so at your own risk,” says Alister Chapman into the walkie talkie. “There is a huge lightning risk; personally I wouldn’t recommend it.”
He swings open the car door, retrieves a pile of camera equipment from the boot and sets off to film another few minutes of one of the biggest storms anywhere in the world at that moment.
I like Alister. I’ve worked with him three times; each in extremely challenging environments – the Arctic, the deserts of the south-western United States and here, criss-crossing the great plains in two large SUVs, weighted down with film and camera equipment, storm-chasing kit and people, making a film (and in my case shooting the stills to go with it) to promote Philips’ new range of OLED TVs.
It’s my first time storm chasing – I’ve been rained on before, but this is the first time I’ve packaged myself into a car and gone deliberately in search of the biggest, most energetic, most dangerous weather events the world has to offer. It’s not Alister’s first time, and it’s not Stuart Robinson’s first time, either. Stuart is a professional weather watcher, although full-time maniac would be just as accurate a description. He appeared in a superb documentary a few years ago which I wholly recommend you watch here. Stuart’s job for the two-week duration of the shoot: get us on the most beautiful side of the biggest storms America has to offer, while simultaneously planning an escape route so we don’t all get killed.
The team is a small one: Alister will film the proceedings on his Sony Venice while Stuart focusses on the whole don’t-get-anyone-killed thing. Leigh Emmerson of POV Productions is in charge of the whole thing: directing, making sure the crew film the storyboard and, just for good measure, shooting this fucking fantastic documentary about the whole thing. Finally, pulling out the company credit card when required and providing no small number of heart-stopping moments when he was behind the wheel was Liam Maguire of production company ninelazynine. Producer extraordinaire, head of team morale and co-creator of top in-car spotting game “Cow or non-cow”, I liked Liam before this shoot; by the time we flew home we had spent so much time together in the car that I found myself wistfully talking about him to my wife for weeks afterwards. To her presumed delight.
From left to right, certified nutcase Stuart, certified timelapse genius Leigh, certified producerman Liam.
We flew into Denver, CO on a drab Sunday afternoon, with plans to pick up a (client-requested) Range Rover to give the film a bit of European appeal. One protracted negotiation with the rental company later and we instead came away with a pair of humungous Chevy Tahoes. These proved to be the perfect car for the crew: capacious enough for us plus our stuff, comfortable enough for six hours’ non-stop driving, and with enough sockets and chargers to keep phones, camera batteries and so on ticking over.
Storm chasing is very, very tactical. It’s not enough to follow the weather forecast to where it says it’s going to rain: all that will happen is you’ll get wet. Instead, the emphasis is on following weather fronts to places where you’ll get dramatic amounts of convection and the right windspeed to start developing a storm with some real energy. But just because there’s somewhere promising nearby today, there’s always the chance that the smarter money is on putting in some serious mileage today in the hope of being somewhere that might produce a few days’ worth of storms tomorrow afternoon.
Such planning details were, thankfully, beyond my pay grade. That’s the beauty of a properly-funded and well-planned shoot: everyone can just get on with their jobs rather than fretting about logistics.
The reality of storm chasing is that you spend more time chasing than anything else. America is BIG; we averaged over 400 miles a day in the cars. At some point there would be a cry of ‘get ready’ and we would decamp from the cars under gathering skies. This is the fun bit: storms are big and move quickly – 35 miles per hour over the ground isn’t uncommon. That meant that no sooner had you found a good-looking frame than everything would suddenly change. There was no small amount of vaulting over fences and haring over fields and hills on foot to find the perfect composition. Then, just as you’d bagged it, ‘let’s go!’ would be heard, and everything had to go back in the car. A delay at this point might not only mean missing the next potential location but, given the speed and energy with which storms move, could put the rest of the crew at risk. Even packing the cars was tactical: getting kit back in meant not heaving everything back to the detriment of someone else’s, and layering things in a way that the next time you arrived at a storm – which could be at a moment’s notice – you and everyone else can reach everything needed without smashing anything or skewering anyone in the head with a tripod.
Speaking of which, I got to use some exceedingly tasty kit on this job. Partly that was because the exceedingly tasty kit was necessary to do the job properly; partly it was because, having worked with Leigh and Alister before, I knew both would be bringing the proverbial kitchen sink and my work was going to be judged, at least by the client, in extremely close proximity to theirs. So no messing around.
I shot a lot on my Canon 24-105mm f/4, a veritable workhorse that had just received a new focus mechanism after I blew it up in Arizona. I will never get over just how tasty this lens is once you start to stop it down. Sharp, contrasty, gorgeous. Built like a tank (its ability to inhale grit notwithstanding) and more or less the first entry on any ‘kit to bring’ list I draw up.
I also took the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 ART, a lens I’d used for Milky Way shots in Arizona with a decent amount of success. The thinking behind this lens was twofold: firstly storms are big and therefore wide lenses are useful, as well as the fact that shooting lightning – something I’d been specifically asked to – demands fast, bright glass. I also knew that a major part of my job was going to be behind the scenes photography of the unit at work, and shooting inside a moving car presents the simultaneous challenges of shooting in a dark, cramped environment, and therefore a wide, bright lens was called for. As on previous shoots, it proved absolutely bloody brilliant. Sharp as you like wide open, flexible, quick to focus; a perfect low-light environmental lens.
I also took a Hahnel Captur to help with lightning photography. I don’t like cliché but ‘worth its weight in gold’ is possibly literally true here. Get it tuned in right, point it towards the lightning and voila – on my way to the shoot (while I watched Twister on the plane) I fretted that I might find successful lightning shots a bit few and far between. With the Captur set up correctly I ended up with a phenomenally high strike (sorry) rate, which the result that I was able to be really careful about my compositions because I was totally confident that my kit would bag the shots I wanted. It also allowed me to create these silly composites where it looks like there’s loads of lightning hitting the ground at once.
My brief was simple enough. “Get frames of the storms as they happen or don’t come home,” was simultaneously pithy and terrifying, and in the end I struck a pretty good balance between workaday BTS shots that were to be used promoting the shoot and its production company, and hero shots that would make Philips’ Ambilight TVs look their best when used as screenfills. I’d love to take a bit more credit for these images as I think they’re pretty stellar, but in reality storm chasing – in this case at the very least – is a team effort. When you’re driving 9,000 miles in a fortnight and trying to keep everyone on top of their game, in front of good looking storms and, most crucially (I guess) alive, any amount of success needs to be credited between everyone on board. It’s fair to say that the success I enjoyed on this shoot is as much about the ability of the wider team to get us all in the right position without killing us as it is my own photographic nous. Top work, chaps. Where next?
The best frame
Probably this one. Arguably, I have more spectacular lightning stills than this one, but measured by degree of difficulty this was probably the hardest. The only light in this scene – the ONLY light – is coming from the bolt of lightning running horizontally over Alister’s head, and the lightning behind me that you can see reflected in the car’s rear windshield. The meant everything had to be settled ahead of time – focus in the dark, meter in the dark, get the lightning trigger set up in the dark. For an absolute fraction of a second the scene was brilliantly illuminated and then, just as fast, it was pitch black again. I love it when a plan comes together.