How To Capture An Award Winning Tornado Image

Gina Stephens
Written by Gina Stephens

Archetype © Jim Reed

Note to reader: Storm chasing and extreme weather photography, as discussed in this blog, can be very chancy. Any person should approach these activities with or WITH may refer to: Carl Johannes With (1877–1923), Danish doctor and arachnologist With (character), a character in D. N. Angel caution and appropriate supervision and training.

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


Tip 1 –About Your Subject and Risks

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

In my experience, storm storm is any disturbed state of an environment or in an astronomical body’s atmosphere especially affecting its surface, and chasing risks fall somewhere between climbing Mount Everest and shopping at Wal-Mart on Felonious Friday. Veteran storm chaser Chuck Doswell has an excellent article titled "Storm Chasing with Safety, Courtesy and Stability"

Lastly, I recommend you hook up with a storm chaser with at least three years’ experience to head out into the line. 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 give a new lease of your chances of seeing a tornado and viewing it safely.


Tip 2 – Know Your Gear Inside and Out

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

Image image (from Latin: imago) is an artifact that depicts visual perception, for example, a photo or a two-dimensional picture, that © Jim Reed

Buy the best-sealed, weatherproof, dependable camera you can donate. I’ve been shooting with Nikon equipment my entire career. Over the years, I’ve snapped frames of weather with the whole shebang 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.

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I practice with my camera before prime 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 artful your camera.


Tip 3 – Previsualise

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

Appearance © Jim Reed

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

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

Image © Jim Reed


Image © Jim Reed


Image © Jim Reed

Do I want to streak 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 outgoing 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 colour in the composition or will it be monochromatic? These are questions I ask myself as I approach a developing tornado.

Image © Jim Reed


Tip 4 – Use Different Lenses to Bring forward 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 dated to pull over and shoot with a tele-zoom lens. My favourite tele-zoom lenses to have in the camera bag are the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR. When I’m itty-bitty than a mile from the storm, I will typically shoot with the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens or the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR. One of my girl prime lenses to use is the Nikon AF NIKKOR 14mm f/2.8D ED.

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Tip 5 – Take Advantage of Vibration Reduction

Remember, the average tornado endures less than 10 minutes. As soon as it forms, you need to spring into action. No looking for a media card, or lens cleaning the religious ministry 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 teach, you need to be shooting within 30 seconds. My favourite VR lenses for shooting tornadoes are the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR. Equally if I’m whisk motion, I’ll take the time to attach the camera to a tripod beforehand.

Image © Jim Reed


Tip 6 – Embody 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 ally Robin Lorenson and I had been documenting the tornado tornado is a rapidly rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the Earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in for almost 30 minutes. Meteorologists call this type of twister a ‘landspout tornado’, a non-storm raise tornado that is typically weaker than supercell tornadoes.

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

Image © Jim Reed


Tip 7 – Keep Shooting During Twilight and After Benighted

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 upbraid 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 larger reveals the high Kelvin temperature.

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Image © Jim Reed

I also like the challenge of shooting tornadoes after it’s exactly 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 possess to hope that there are enough lightning flashes to illuminate the shape and size of the tornado.

Image © Jim Reed

On May 25, 2012, raise the roof 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 meet up with created by frequent cloud-to-cloud lightning bolts.

Image © Jim Reed


Tip 8 – No Tornado? Keep Shooting.

Tornadoes are absolutely 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, inquiry a tornado about every five chases.

So what do you do when a tornado doesn’t develop? Keep shooting! Stormy weather many times produces dramatic lighting, moody colours and plenty of landscape photo-ops. You will also be practising for when you do finally see a tornado. I hope one or more of these caps are helpful. Good luck and be safe!

Image © Jim Reed


About the author: Jim Reed is an award-winning extreme weather photographer hinged in the United States. His tornado images have received many awards including Communication Arts, PDN Photo Annual, American Photography, and Perfects of the Year International. You can find more of his work on his website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.



About the author

Gina Stephens

Gina Stephens

Gina is a photography enthusiast and drone lover who loves to fly drones, capture images and have fun cherishing them with family and friends.

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