Canon EOS Rebel T6S
ISO 200
f/6.4 @ 1/4000th
Some post-processing (sat. adjustments)

  2015 June    Weather, Sky, & Outdoor    Photography


It's a humid afternoon in mid-summer.  The air is a bit hazy. 

Off in the distance, big puffy clouds start to pile up. 

Thunderheads make a good subject for nature photography.  

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In This Article

Why Chase Thunderheads

The Basic Idea

Let's Gear Up

Getting There


Why Chase Thunderheads

We're not chasing storms;  we're chasing clouds.   This is all about landscape photography. 

Sometimes you can get a good picture of a landscape with the clouds as a prominent feature.  Or, sometimes you just want a picture of the clouds. 

This project emphasizes the importance of what's in the sky portion of your photos.  Many times, the clouds are incidental;  today, we're going to set out to photograph a specific type.

The Basic Idea

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, the months of May through September are thunderstorm season.    There are thunderstorms outside this range, but those months are peak. 

And within those months, the high summer (July-Aug) can be the best time for chasing thunderheads.

What we're looking for is the typical "afternoon thunderstorm" kind of day.  These are localized storms for someone... but not for you, because you're not going to be standing under the clouds.  These isolated T-storms are what meteorologists call "air mass thunderstorms". 

These are the ones that often produce big, towering thunderclouds off in the distance.  It's as if they billow up out of thin air, because they pretty much do. 

It's best if the last rays of sun are illuminating the clouds.  The lower the sun is toward the horizon, the better the pictures will probably be.   This is something for afternoon, not so much for morning.  (If there are already big clouds piled up in the morning, chances are you're in for some heavy storms that day. )

These are big clouds.  To get the right vantage point, you might have to drive ten or twenty miles.  There's quite a bit of chance involved. 

The best approach is to put yourself to the west of the clouds sometime in the two hours before the sun goes down.  

What you don't want to do is drive right into a storm.  Air mass thunderstorms are not usually as fierce as the ones you get from a system.  However, you want to be making the best use of this photographic time, so don't waste it in the pouring rain when you don't have to.

Let's Gear Up

If you shoot film
, bring a film SLR and a zoom lens.  Pick something that can zoom to at least 85mm.  A 28-85 would be good.  My favorite for this is a Nikon 35-135mm slide zoom, which is not a technically-great lens, but it works very well for this task.  (pick one up for cheap here.) 

You don't need tack-sharp detail;  even a mediocre zoom lens will do.  See my article on cheap lenses.

Don't forget to bring film.  Color negative film works great for sky pictures, because it preserves highlight range much better than digital. Actually, though, slide film still has more dynamic range than digital.  Get some Fujichrome Provia or even better, Velvia.  Or, pick up some Elite Chrome 100, which you can often find through this link.  Try to get some that's been cold-stored.

Large format would be worth trying;  big thunderheads move slowly, but the downside is that they can change shape rather quickly.  Updrafts (or is it downdrafts?) can drastically alter a cloud that initially looks great.  By the time you get everything ready on your 4x5, the cloud might not even be worth photographing.  That's why a 35mm SLR is so great for this.

If you shoot digital, again you'll want a zoom lens that can do maybe 105mm or 135mm, tops.  No need for 200 or 300mm lenses here.  100mm is about as zoomed as you'll need to be with this kind of subject.

Canon EOS 6D
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro
ISO 320
f/5.7 @ 1/160th

 A bridge camera is great for chasing thunderheads, too.

Prime lenses work OK;  if I were using primes, I would probably bring a 50mm, a 70 or 85mm, and maybe a 100mm lens. 

You might be lucky enough to find some really big thunderheads that require wide-angle.  28mm, or 24mm, would be good to have along.  This, again, is why I like a zoom lens.  24-105mm is about perfect on a Canon full-frame, and it's also not bad on APS-C.

Don't forget to bring an extra memory card.  Choose one with large capacity, just in case you want to shoot video as well.  Then you won't have to go back and erase a bunch of stuff just to be able to take pictures!

Getting There

Maybe you'll drive the highways for a while, looking for a good photo.   Or maybe you won't even have to go outside your town.  It all depends on where the clouds are.  Cloud cover maps are very helpful, which I guess would be a useful reason to have a smartphone.

If you can get a picture where there are big clouds behind some landscape feature, or some buildings, then so much the better.

Kodak Elite Chrome 100
AF Nikkor 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5

It doesn't have to be an award-winning photo with epic bolts of lightning, dwarfing a city with its awesome power.   That would be cool, but there is something to be said for ordinary pictures of everyday weather.  Well, sort of everyday.

And you might not always get that perfect vantage point.  

Sometimes, the clouds will morph into some shape that's not as awesome.  Maybe they'll just flatten out.

But then again, maybe it will still look cool.

Kodak Elite Chrome 100

If all goes as planned, you'll get some cool landscape photos with nice clouds in the background.  And if not, your journey to unpredicted places could help you find new scenery for your landscape shots.  It's nice how that works out.  


Maybe you'll photograph something spectacular;  or maybe you'll just have fun being out there.  Either way, give it a try.    One benefit of this photo project is to start seeing the importance of sky in your compositions.  

Sometimes, the sky is what makes the picture. 

If you liked this article or found it informative, you can help me keep this site going by purchasing any of your gear through these links.  Your help is much appreciated.  Thanks for visiting my website!


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