I’ve been photographing extreme weather for 25 years. After publishing tips on how to photograph lightning here back in March, I was asked to share any tips I have in capturing an award-winning tornado image. So, here I go…

Note to reader: Storm chasing and extreme weather photography, as discussed in this article, can be very dangerous. Any person should approach these activities with caution and appropriate supervision and training.

Tip 1: Study Your Subject and Risks

Adopting a ‘safety first’ policy is critical when storm chasing. To start, I recommend reading The Basics of Tornadoes on the Storm Prediction Center website.

In my experience, storm chasing risks fall somewhere between climbing Mount Everest and shopping at Wal-Mart on Black Friday. Veteran storm chaser Chuck Doswell has an excellent article titled “Storm Chasing with Safety, Courtesy and Responsibility.”

Members of Tempest Tours Storm Chasing Expeditions photograph a tornado in eastern Colorado on May 7, 2014. Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4.0 ED VR, 1/200 sec, f/22, ISO 1600, handheld.

I also recommend you hook up with a storm chaser with at least three years’ experience to head out into the field. If you don’t know any storm chasers to ride along with, consider taking a trip with a professional storm-chasing tour company. You’ll improve your chances of seeing a tornado and viewing it safely.

Tip 2: Know Your Gear Inside and Out

According to the Storm Prediction Center, the average tornado lasts less than 10 minutes. Therefore, extreme weather photographers typically have to shoot fast. To be fast and accurate you must have thorough knowledge of your gear.

A turbulent sky erupts over southern Minnesota during three days of severe weather, including 10 tornadoes, May 15-17, 2017. Nikon D5, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, 1/640 sec, f/6.3, ISO 200, handheld.

Buy the best-sealed, weatherproof, dependable camera you can afford. I’ve been shooting with Nikon equipment my entire career. Over the years, I’ve snapped frames of weather with everything from a Nikon N50 to the Nikon D5. You may get one chance at one shot of a tornado, so it’s imperative you trust your camera.

I practice with my camera before heading out to intercept a storm. If you practice, you can get to the point where you can honestly shoot with your eyes closed or in complete darkness. That’s knowing your camera.

Tip 3: Previsualize

Ansel Adams strongly believed in previsualization, a concept where the photographer can see the final print in his or her mind before actually capturing the image. Once I learned the science behind tornadoes, I began previsualizing what I wanted to see out in the field.

A large, high contrast tornado churns across rural farmland near Mt. Hope, Kansas on May 6, 2015. The tornado was rated an EF3 by the National Weather Service. Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, 1/320 sec, f/8, ISO 400, handheld.

I typically only target tornadoes that remain in rural and wide-open fields and pose, little, if any, threat to local residents.

My goal is to try to capture the most breathtaking and optically stunning moments of the storm’s evolution. I search for a tornado that yields rich, striking colors, strong contrast, graphically interesting shapes, and well-balanced light. I can’t change the direction of a storm, but I can change how I approach it.

Tornadoes come in a variety of colors and tones. Left: A large tornado swirls across western Kansas on May 23, 2008. Nikon D3, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, 1/50 sec, f/8, ISO 1000, handheld. Right: A tornado moves over rural land near Kingfisher, Oklahoma on May 19, 2010. Nikon D300S, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, 1/250 sec, f/10, ISO 200, handheld.
Tornadoes come in all shapes and sizes. Left: A thin, rope-shaped twister in eastern Colorado on May 7, 2014. Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G VR, 1/160 sec, f/20, ISO 450, handheld. Right: A large, wedge-shaped tornado in western Kansas on May 23, 2008. Nikon D3, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, 1/20 sec, f/8, ISO 1000, handheld.
Just how photogenic a tornado becomes depends a lot on strength and direction of sunlight and whether or not rain is present. Left: A low contrast tornado at sunset with rain. Right: A high contrast tornado at sunset without rain.

Do I want to shoot the tornado moving over a field or over a dirt road? Do I want to shoot the image with the sun in front, beside or behind the tornado? Is the tornado high-contrast and easy to see or is it low-contrast or wrapped in rain and difficult to see? What shape will it take? How big will it get? Is there any sense of motion? Will there be color in the frame or will it be monochromatic? These are questions I ask myself as I approach a developing tornado.

I photographed this low top supercell thunderstorm and tornado near Bird City, Kansas on June 29, 2000. I was about two miles away. The left image was shot with a Nikon AF Zoom-NIKKOR 35-70mm f/2.8D which allowed me to capture the tornado and the entire structure of the storm. The right image was shot with a Nikon AF Zoom-NIKKOR 80-200mm f/2.8D zoomed all the way in giving me a much closer look at the tornado. Using a telephoto lens while keeping your distance is one of the safest methods for shooting a tornado.

Tip 4: Use Different Lenses to Produce Different Perspectives

If you’re approaching your target storm and it produces a tornado while you’re still a couple of miles away, it’s time to pull over and shoot with a tele-zoom lens. My favorite tele-zoom lenses to have in the camera bag are the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II and the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR. When I’m less than a mile from the storm, I will typically shoot with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens or the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR. One of my favorite prime lenses to use is the Nikon 14mm f/2.8D ED.

Tip 5: Take Advantage of Vibration Reduction

Remember, the average tornado lasts less than 10 minutes. As soon as it forms, you need to spring into action. No looking for a media card, or lens cleaning cloth or tripod! I’ve witnessed storm chasers take so long in setting up a tripod that they miss the tornado. Use a lens with Vibration Reduction. When your feet hit the ground, you need to be shooting within 30 seconds. My favorite VR lenses for shooting tornadoes are the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II. Equally if I’m shooting motion, I’ll take the time to attach the camera to a tripod beforehand.

Left: Storm chaser Reed Timmer photographs a tornado in western South Dakota on June 6, 2007. Nikon D2X, Nikon AF DX Fisheye-NIKKOR 10.5mm f/2.8G ED, 1/125 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200, handheld. Right: After documenting Reed photographing the twister, I turned to my left, aimed out the window, and captured this image that I titled, “Blue Tornado.” Nikon D2X, Nikon AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED, 1/160 sec, f/10, ISO 200, handheld.
Professional storm chasers monitor a tornado in western Kansas on May 8, 2008. I included the vehicle in the frame to give us a sense of the size and close proximity of the tornado. Nikon D700, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, 1/320 sec, f/22, ISO 200, handheld.

Tip 6: Include a Smaller Object to Give the Tornado a Sense of Scale

On May 8, 2008, I photographed one of the most photogenic tornadoes of my career in western Kansas. Photo assistant Robin Lorenson and I had been documenting the tornado for almost 30 minutes. Meteorologists call this type of twister a ‘landspout tornado’, a non-storm scale tornado that is typically weaker than supercell tornadoes.

At first, I only photographed the tornado and landscape. Then, to provide a sense of scale, I walked 10 feet behind our storm chase vehicle and fired off a few more frames. Having my vehicle in the image gives us the sense of the sheer size and close proximity of the tornado.

A tornado develops during astronomical twilight near Trinidad, Colorado on May 28, 2001. Nikon N90s, Nikon AF Zoom-NIKKOR 35-70mm f/2.8D, negative color film, handheld, data unrecorded.

Tip 7: Keep Shooting During Twilight and After Dark

Astronomical twilight is one of my favorite times of the day to work. It occurs when the sun is six degrees below the horizon. All the red and yellow light waves are gone. The higher color temperature of the light produces a rich blue. Even though the faint ambient light of evening does not look blue to our eyes, an exposure of a few seconds or longer reveals the high Kelvin temperature.

A bright burst of lightning illuminates two after-dark tornadoes near La Crosse, Kansas on May 25, 2012. Without the lightning, the after dark twisters could not be seen. Nikon D3S, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR, 0.8 secs, f/2.8, ISO 4000, on tripod.

I also like the challenge of shooting tornadoes after it’s completely dark, but only if the storm is over a rural, wide-open landscape. When a twister occurs after dark, it’s nearly impossible to see. I have to hope that there are enough lightning flashes to illuminate the shape and size of the tornado.

On May 25, 2012, storm chasing partner Jenna Blum and I witnessed multiple tornadoes near La Crosse, Kansas. It was a spectacular phenomenon to see. But we could only see and photograph the tornadoes because of the light created by frequent cloud-to-cloud lightning bolts.

A landspout tornado spins across a western Kansas farm field on May 8, 2008. Nikon D3, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, 1/400 sec, f/22, ISO 400, handheld.
A stormy sky at sunset in southern Minnesota on May 17, 2017, wrapped up a three-day period of severe weather, including 10 tornadoes. Nikon D5, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, 1/125 sec, f/11, ISO 250, handheld.

Tip 8: No Tornado? Keep Shooting.

Tornadoes are actually quite rare. I’ve heard some folks say that to see a tornado you need to go on at least seven chases. I’ve been much luckier, seeing a tornado about every four chases.

So what do you do when a tornado doesn’t develop? Keep shooting! Stormy weather frequently produces dramatic lighting, moody colors and plenty of landscape photo-ops. You will also be practicing for when you do finally see a tornado.

I hope one or more of these tips are helpful. Good luck and be safe!

About the author: Jim Reed is a National Geographic photographer based in the United States who specializes in extreme weather. His tornado images have received many awards including Communication Arts, PDN Photo Annual, American Photography, and Pictures of the Year International. You can find more of his work on his website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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