The sky is fascinating. Just above our heads is a dynamic river of everchanging complexity, and somehow nature can take this chaos and create beautiful clouds and weather phenomena—some peaceful and calm, others terrifyingly destructive.
For the last 22 years, I’ve traveled hundreds of thousands of miles throughout the central United States in search of some of the most violent storms on Earth. This region, known as Tornado Alley, comes to life each spring as warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico interacts with cold dry air from Canada to produce “supercell” thunderstorms and tornadoes. Documenting these storms, I find it incredible to witness firsthand just how powerful nature can be. As you can imagine, this type of photography is full of endless challenges, from both a photographic standpoint and, more importantly, from one of safety.
People often ask why I document storms, considering that one wrong decision can easily lead to peril. That’s why I began this article with simply, “The sky is fascinating.” I can easily remember being that kid in elementary school who chose to lay on the picnic table staring up at the clouds rather than go on the playground during recess. I was mesmerized by the different types of clouds, how they moved across the sky, their colors and textures, and how some resembled dinosaurs, turtles and rabbits.
I got my first camera at the age of 15, a Yashica MG-1, but I didn’t have a car, so I removed all the window screens from the second floor of my family’s home in Texas and photographed storms as they came through our town. When I eventually got a car, I headed out to the open fields nearby to start composing with better foregrounds than rooftops and water towers. It was then I started to intensely study as much as I possibly could about the weather, which included connecting with veteran storm chasers to learn the ropes of documenting extreme weather.
Fast-forward 22 years and multiple atmospheric science classes later, thousands upon thousands of miles on the road and lots of failures—but just as many successes—and here I am, still heading out each year documenting Tornado Alley. It’s addicting and intriguing, both mentally and physically exhausting, but it’s my favorite subject to photograph.
Each storm is so different than the last, and that’s one of the biggest parts of the excitement because you never know what you’re going to see. Some storms are monstrous supercells, towering up to 60,000 feet, dropping softball-sized hail and mile-wide tornadoes. Others are small popcorn showers that give you a few sparks of lightning, and that’s your show. Each storm is unique and presents a variety of visuals to focus on, some more extreme than others, but all deserving to be in front of the lens. The thrill is real to get to document a subject that is only there for a few hours before literally vanishing into thin air.
Challenges Of The Chase
What’s a day of storm chasing like? Wake up in the middle of nowhere after getting a mediocre night’s sleep at a random hotel. Check the morning weather data while drinking lukewarm who-knows-how-old coffee and chowing down on breakfast. Choosing a target area based off the best analysis of data that you can make, keeping your fingers crossed you’re not driving in the wrong direction. And then filling up the gas tank and driving hundreds of miles to another middle-of-nowhere location in hopes that your forecasting skills are on point and nature decides to show up to the party.
Even then, you’re still not done. You begin to bake to a crisp in the hot sun while pondering over which little cumulus cloud is going to go boom and grow into a 60,000-foot-tall supercell thunderstorm. Some days, you slam dunk the forecast and get a wonderful storm to initiate in your target area; other days, one element can be missing from the atmosphere, and you spend your whole day driving hundreds of miles for some horrible gas station food. It happens—more times than not, to be honest. But that’s part of the game, part of the allure, I would say, to risk it all to see nature put on one of the best shows of power you could ever imagine.
Say you do luck out and get a storm to go up. Your heart is pumping, the adrenaline is flowing and things just got 10 times harder. Now that a storm has formed, every decision you make is a careful negotiation between you and the storm. Depending on what I want to photograph with that storm, I have to figure out the best angle for light, where the most visually appealing structure is, how the road network will allow me to approach to capture that image—and most importantly, I must keep myself safe.
Another question I get a lot: “Mike, aren’t you afraid of tornadoes?” I’ve been documenting storms for more than two decades, and I still get scared a bit with each one. The reason isn’t because I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but because I have a solid respect for what I’m documenting. I’ve seen firsthand the power of this dynamic atmospheric river of energy that flows above us. I understand that no matter how much I’ve studied, prepared and anticipated for a chase, nature can do exactly the opposite of what science says is supposed to happen, and I need to be prepared for that, too. Every move I make out in the field is a reactionary and calculated move to create an image while remaining safe.
Take tornadoes, for example. These usually occur in a specific region of the storm, so if I’m wanting to avoid tornadoes that day, I have a good idea how. What really worries me is the other hazards like lightning, flash flooding, giant hail and, increasingly in recent years, other storm chasers out on the road driving recklessly. Storm photography receiving more attention via social media and becoming more sensationalized has brought hundreds of new enthusiasts to each storm, resulting in clogged roads, traffic jams and a few people driving as if they’re above the law. In fact, a few years back, a young and passionate chaser from Arizona was killed in an auto accident while out documenting a storm. Another vehicle with two chasers blew through multiple stop signs at speeds approaching 90 mph and t-boned the other individual. All three died on impact. So these days, I’m not only keeping a keen eye on the storm and elements within it but also keeping an even closer eye on those driving near me around the storm.
Thunderstorms, Squall Lines & Supercells
One of the most fascinating aspects of documenting storms is that no two are alike. Thunderstorms come in a variety of shapes, sizes and intensities, so to somewhat quote the great Forrest Gump, “Chasing is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” That mystery of having absolutely no clue about what nature may throw your way on a chase day is one of the most addicting elements of documenting the skies above us.
Let’s dive into the science a bit before we highlight the visuals that may be created. There are three kinds of storms that I’m documenting while out in Tornado Alley: the basic thunderstorm, squall lines and supercells. Each of these provides fantastic opportunities to create compelling and storytelling imagery that displays the beauty and power of the atmosphere.
Thunderstorms. When I talk about a basic thunderstorm, I’m referring to storms that are most likely not “severe”—defined as having 1-inch or larger hail and/or 58 mph winds or stronger. Although they can briefly reach these thresholds, most of the time they’re what I like to call “kind thunderstorms.” They provide opportunities to photograph rain shafts, mediocre cloud structures, rainbows and lightning. They tend to last less than an hour and are the safest storms to document in comparison to squall lines and supercells. Typically, these storms aren’t the ones for which I drive hundreds of miles, but if I happen to be around one, I’ll pull out the camera and tripod because nature can surprise you.
Squall Lines. Imagine looking horizon-to-horizon and seeing a wall of incredible energy moving toward you at nearly 50 mph. This is what it’s like standing in front of what’s known as a “squall line,” a quick-moving line of thunderstorms that are usually severe in intensity, bringing with them large hail, possibly embedded tornadoes and intense straight-line winds that can easily reach 100 mph. These lines of storms often provide fantastic visuals on both the leading edge and on the backside as well. Typically, what I’ll document with these storms are shelf clouds, cloud-to-ground lightning on the leading edge and “anvil crawler” lightning on the backside, as well as a phenomenon known as a “whale’s mouth,” which occurs as the shelf cloud passes overhead.
Supercells. Supercells are the mother of all thunderstorms. These are extremely dangerous types of thunderstorms and truly require you always being on your toes and ready to move at a moment’s notice. Although supercells pose the most risk to document, the reward can be worth the risk as they tend to present the most visually dazzling displays of nature, from striated thunderstorm updrafts that resemble barber poles and UFOs to electric barrages of cloud-to-ground lightning and, of course, violent tornadoes dancing across the landscape. Although I truly appreciate every storm I get to document, supercells are a special opportunity to create imagery that conveys just how small and helpless we are versus the power of nature.
The Visual Approach
By now, I hope you have a general understanding of how difficult it can be to make just one stellar image while out documenting storms. So many elements need to come together in the atmosphere to provide a moment worth capturing, and then just as many elements need to come together logistically to allow for a safe positioning with good light, a decent amount of time to set up and shoot, and hopefully with a bit of foreground or landscape to tie into the frame.
When I’m “on” a storm, I tend to focus on structure and lightning as my subject matter. If tornadoes are part of the storm I’m on, I’ll incorporate them into my shooting, but they aren’t necessarily my prime focus. (Of course, I’m always paying attention to where they may be.) Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that each storm has a unique story to tell. Their vast scale, the colors, the textures, the shape, the way they interact with this world we live in—those are the visuals that I love to capture in a frame.
Because things can go from zero to 60 in a blink of an eye out in the field, I come prepared with three cameras (most recently a Nikon Z 9, Nikon Z 7II and Nikon Z 6II) with 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses, one attached to each body. These focal lengths allow me to capture a variety of frames from extremely wide angles that show how large a storm is and its structure, to extremely tight frames where a tornado may be tossing debris into the air. Often there isn’t enough time to swap lenses, so I find it more efficient to have three bodies with three different zoom ranges ready to go at all times.
Storm photography is like real-life chess; you’re always trying to plan your next move ahead of your current one. There is no “pause” button with these storms, so unless I’m going for a very specific shot on the backside of a storm, I’m always trying to stay ahead of it while predicting where it’s going to move next. I tend to position myself a bit farther away from the storm and let it come to me, especially if I’m shooting a time-lapse. Having this distance allows me to capture more of the structure, observe if any tornadoes are forming and not be as pressured by the chaos that can ensue by being right under the storm. Now, if I do see a particular region of the storm becoming extremely interesting, I might move closer to photograph it if the storm speed and motion allow me to do so safely.
Another reason I like being a bit farther away is to give myself the opportunity to find possible foregrounds to complement the scene. I’ll admit it, I’m a foreground snob, and that has, indeed, cost me missing some great visuals on storms, but when I do find a good foreground, I feel it makes the photograph just that much more special. What exactly am I looking for? Well, if you’ve ever been through the Plains, you know firsthand there’s not much out there. So I’m looking for anything that can provide a sense of scale, color contrast, emotion or additional interest. I love abandoned farms for scale and storytelling, or perhaps golden wheat fields to contrast against the dark and eerie skies.
I’m also looking for opportunities to create panoramic images. I feel panoramas truly give you an opportunity to feel what it was like to be in that moment. A single wide-angle shot is great, but there’s just so much more going on in the sky that panoramas can convey.
Tornadoes provide some truly impressive visuals. These violently rotating columns of air can take on multiple shapes, colors and intensities in their often-short lifetime as they dance across the landscape. For me, they’re an essential part of telling the story of a storm’s life, but as I mentioned earlier, they are not my focus. So, if a storm doesn’t produce a tornado, I’m not devastated. Yes, they’re incredibly amazing to see and photograph, but they can come with a whirlwind of emotion as well. Seeing a tornado skirt across the vast and empty prairies of the Plains is awe-inspiring, but the moment that tornado begins causing damage and threatening lives, that emotional high quickly evaporates, and you’re then filled with sadness, fear and a bit of anger at what you’re seeing.
When a tornado is out in the open, it’s time to create a beautiful frame. When that tornado enters a town or hits a home, it’s then a journalistic endeavor. Instead of working on creating a “fine art” image, I’m working on visuals that will show the devastation of the tornado. I hope that these images raise awareness for those who aren’t there and can help provide resources for those who were in the path.
The Small Details
Not every storm is a grab bag full of epic visuals. Many can be quite disorganized, have bad visibility or occur in an area of terrain that isn’t accessible by roads. It’s moments like these where you can either tuck your tail and call it a day or challenge yourself by focusing on the small details hidden within the sky. Some of my favorite smaller details include mammatus clouds, crepuscular rays and rainbows. (Pro tip: For rainbows, make sure to utilize a circular polarizing filter to help increase the saturation of the colors.) I’ve had more days than I can count where focusing in on some of the smaller details has allowed me to walk away with a stellar frame from a storm that didn’t have much else to offer.
Through all the challenges, the exhaustion, the endless miles on the road and, of course, horrible gas station food, when a towering thunderstorm is erupting through the sky, putting on one of the best shows in nature, all of the effort is worth it. Why? Well, I said it at the beginning, and I’ll say it at the end—simply put, the sky is fascinating.
See more of Mike Mezeul II’s work at mikemezphotography.com. ■