Stormchasing Photographers Capture Tornados

Photography: Mark Humpage

For most photographers, the weather represents a challenge. It’s one element that they can never control and it affects how they shoot, what they shoot, and how the pictures eventually turn out. For one group of photographers though, the weather is more than a factor that affects the light levels. It’s the subject of their photography – and even the foundation of their careers.

Mark Humpage, a UK-based photographer, has been shooting storms professionally since the mid-nineties, when he followed his first, mild storm in Britain. It was a far cry from the systems he would track and shoot later, but it did allow him to practice logistics, forecasting and planning without having tackle something truly dangerous on his first run. Since then, his pictures of tornadoes, hurricanes, giant storms and tidal bores have been featured in just about every photography magazine available, by television companies looking for images to accompany severe weather programs, and by most of the UK’s national newspapers. His photos have made him an ambassador for Olympus and, with television producer Allister Chapman, he’s one half of the Elemental Project, a 2008 plan to capture on film within twelve months all of the world’s most extreme elemental events, including tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, extreme  heat and cold, monsoons, and aurora. They only missed the volcano.

While the pictures Mark’s stormchasing produces are certainly enviable, the methods he uses to capture them aren’t. Storm season in the American Great Plains lasts from April to June so in the months before, Mark will be poring over severe weather forecasts from the UK and using weather models to predict their development. If a storm appears to be developing in the next week, he’ll book a flight to Denver, Dallas or Oklahoma City where he’ll use GPS, satellite radar, weather radio and various communication systems to close in on an attractive storm system.  A typical day will then begin at 7 am, when he studies the day’s weather forecasts to look for a defined target area. The rest of the day might then be spent traveling – sometimes for more than twelve hours a day – looking for a place where a storm is likely to hit and, no less importantly, a safe spot to shoot it.

“This is where meteorological knowledge is so important,” says Mark. “With intense lightning, hail the size of cricket balls and tornadoes feasible, positioning is critical, especially if the entire storm system is moving fast.”

Even then, he could find himself hanging out of a car window behind a tornado, as dust, mud and debris smash into the car in what Mark describes as “the wildest weather ride on Earth.”

Photography: Mark Humpage

The Tornado Was Within Touching Distance

While weather is always unpredictable, the dangers vary depending on the kind of storm Mark is shooting. For hurricanes such as Hurricane Ike, which Mark photographed in 2008, the only way to stay safe is to pick a secure location, such as a multi-story car park, in the hurricane’s path, settle in and wait for the winds to arrive. For tornadoes, which are smaller and form faster, the dangers are different. Mark describes how he once managed to capture a storm in Kansas in 2004 as it grew into a tornado, tore up homes, ripped apart roads, and passed “within touching distance” of him before it dissipated half an hour later. It was, he says, a life-changing experience.

But he also described an incident the year before when he and a group of stormchasers were caught off-guard. The sky went green and the tornado ended up chasing them. The group had to dive for cover in the basement of a gas station in a tiny Missouri town as tornado sirens howled.

“It reduced one of our party to tears with fright,” he recalled.

Even a “supercell,” a kind of giant thunderstorm,  can pose its own dangers. Mark described photographing one storm in 2004, shooting with a tripod from the side of the road, when a lightning bolt struck the ground just yards from him.

“It was like a bomb going off,” he said. “My ears were ringing for a week”

Staying Out of the Rain

While those sorts of risk seem to come with the territory, there are ways to reduce them. Placement is particularly important. For a storm moving from southwest to northeast, the most common direction for a weather system on the Great Plains, Mark always places himself on the south/southeast flank of the storm. That ensures that he’s out of the way of the rain and can follow the storm as it moves off. Traveling with an experienced company, such as Silver Lining Tours, can also help.

While safety is always the most important factor when shooting severe weather systems, it’s also important to know what to look for. Mark listed a range of different cloud types, from “anvils” the flat top of a cumulonimbus cloud which usually appears at the front and rear flank of storms, to mammatus, sack-like protrusion that hang from the clouds, especially anvils.

Clearly, without the kind of knowledge and dedication that Mark Humpage brings to stormchasing photography, it’s always going to be difficult to earn income from these images. But it’s notable that Mark’s role as ambassador for Olympus came after the camera company spotted his photos on his website and felt that he could be a useful symbol for the robustness of their equipment. He wrote a few articles describing his experiences and the relationship grew — allowing Mark to add to them. The unique quality of his pictures too has led to commissions and sales, turning a childhood love of extreme weather into a profession.

And it’s that transformation that’s probably the most important aspect of Mark Humpage’s photography business. He might not have taken up storm photography as a way of making a living but by living his passion, understanding it and mastering it, he’s been able to devote his professional life to shooting the weather — especially when it’s bad.

2 comments for this post.

  1. Howard Haby Said:

    A very intense subject. Must make for some amazing photography, provided your brave enough to place yourself in harms way. Nothing ventured, nothing gained though.

  2. Robert Edmonds Said:

    Storm Chase Guide provides lower priced storm chasing tours. In 2010 all of my customers observed multiple tornadoes, I would be thrilled to provide you the same experience.
    Storm Chasing Tours - Storm Chase Guide

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