We are back with Kansas native and photographer, Jeff McPheeters, who shares some insights on how he prepares for catching the storm. Learn how he prepares for photographing different weather patterns, what he looks for to create a great composition, tips and tricks to great storm photography, and more! Did you miss part 1, Into the Storm with Jeff McPheeters? Read it before you read part 2 and then continue onto part 3, Perfecting the Storm with Jeff McPheeters.
What’s your favorite gear for weather photography?
Some are naturally curious about my choice in gear and I’ll just admit that when I approached 60 (I’m now 61) I was looking for lighter weight and less bulky gear that could still take the punishment I tend to give it in terms of extremes in temperature and moisture and dust. So when Olympus debuted the OM-D system in 2012, I tried it and am hooked. I deem it the best overall system for this geeky, aging, wanderer’s needs and style of photography.
My favorite Olympus lens is the 12-40/2.8, but the 7-14/2.8 is useful in many close storm encounters as is the 8mm/1.8 fisheye when a super cell gets close and covers the horizon. For distant details, I love the 40-150/2.8. For making and stitching panoramic scenes of storms, I like to use a portrait orientation with a focal length between 25mm and 50mm on my 2x crop sensor. For you ‘full frame’ dudes that’s 50mm to 100mm, though. On a full frame sensor, 35-40mm works pretty well. You have a little more room to work with on those bigger sensors.
Please try not to make the mistake of thinking it’s all about the gear. While gear is good, the smart phone cameras of today, the point & shoot cameras of today, far exceed the capabilities in many respects of the fancy rig from 15-20 years ago. That never stopped the making of compelling photos in those times. So consider that the camera you have with you is the best tool in your hands at that moment, so learn to use it to its best advantages. I sold and licensed some pretty cool storm photos this year made from my iPhone 4S and 6+. To learn more about iPhoneography, read this great post here!
What elements do you look for in your composition?
There is a common element in almost everything I’ve done in photography. I try and photograph a decisive moment. My favorite photographs, whether my own or others’, almost always have a sense of moment to them; timing. I guess I want to remember the experience at it’s most memorable moment. I suppose I would want to convey that to others as well. I’m not sure if my love for landscape photography stems from that particular challenge or from the peaceful and quiet solitude it often grants.
What type of weather do you find the most difficult to photograph?
Well, that’s easy: lightning because it’s unpredictable and tornados because they’re rare. There are many more skilled storm photographers out there. I’m just one that loves to photograph them when they happen, but weather related themes is probably a secondary interest. I’d love to photograph a hurricane, but they are so seldom in Kansas. I’m a fairly cautious person, so some of the challenge for me is trying to figure out where to go for best opportunity without undue risk. Plus I try and avoid the situations with large caravans of storm chasers converging on a scene. I prefer a more solitary mode of work when I’m doing this. Being alone with my Creator, observing and photographing what strikes me is part of what I find satisfying in my encounters with nature.
This panorama was a lucky shot this spring during the Western Regionals of the NCAA Track & Field event during one of the many time outs due to lightning. I was panning for the panorama when one of the frames got the strike.
How are you able to capture the perfect weather moment?
There is no perfect moment. There are just moments. A photograph is a collection of momentary events recorded by photons hitting against something. What makes a moment meaningful is how we compose the elements and expose them to interpretation. It’s how we tell the story of what happened: first to ourselves in looking back, reflecting on the event and using that to inform our decisions in the development process of an image; and then perhaps to others in some shared experience.
Tell a Story
My way of looking at nature is that if it’s meaningful to me, if it’s speaking to me, if it’s moving to me, then that’s what I want to record and do it as respectfully as I can. What I mean is I’m thinking of the subject as if it were a person whom I was interacting with. When I make portraits of people, I’m trying my best to bring something deep and meaningful of that person into the rectangular frame of a flat image. The lighting and exposure settings are designed to maximize the story or feeling I’m getting from that person or what I understand is true them. Same goes for the landscape, Milky Way, or the robin sitting in a tree. We want to remember a meaningful connection and we want to allow others to experience it as well in a way that treats the subject as more than just a pretty picture.
So how do we do that with storms and weather? There are techniques and gear that helps us do things like trigger the shutter release for lightning or expose a scene for a long period of time, etc., I enjoy time-lapsing storm events. If you have a smartphone, you can make them rather easily. Within the many frames of a time-lapse, you may find a particularly dramatic event in a particular frame. Many of my most dramatic photos came from just such a time-lapse from my various cameras. I mention time-lapsing because it’s probably the easiest and least expensive thing most of us could do with the gear we already own. The specifics of the process are determined by current technology and our budget. But whether or not it can be done is really only limited by our patience, practice, and persistence.
The two above were photographed from inside my car. I deemed it too risky to be outside in a place where I’d be exposed as the tallest object. So I braced the tripod(s) inside the car with the windows down and took some frames using what Olympus calls “Live Composite Mode” which is a neat trick to save me some work later. I can set the manual exposure settings to what I want, usually with a 1 to 4 second shutter speed for lightning strikes, and then open the shutter and it will collect exposure after exposure only blending in brighter pixels (a.k.a. lightning, in this case but could be traffic lights, fireworks bursts, etc.) until I close the shutter. I can watch the image develop as each exposure is added by watching the live view on the LCD screen.
Read part 1, Into the Storm with Jeff McPheeters, to learn about Jeff and his artistic style.
Read part 3, Perfecting the Storm with Jeff McPheeters, to learn about how Jeff post-processes his weather images.
About Jeff McPheeters
I enjoy every aspect of photography. And I enjoy many kinds of subject matter. My formal education includes a B.S.E. from the University of Kansas, and I have been self employed since 1989. Photography has been both an avid hobby and a useful skill to have in my business career. My development as a freelance photographer has been a gradual process over the past ten years or so.
Currently residing in rural Douglas county, Kansas, I have been able to devote much of my time to capturing the landscape with all it’s mercurial moods and changing ‘faces’. I often will rise early to capture the earliest morning light as the sun slowly rises, creating the shifting shades and shadows across the land. Living close to Clinton Lake, I enjoy seeing the interaction between the water and sky, the reflection of color and light. I am someone who loves the outdoors, hiking, skiing and enjoying God’s beautiful creation. Without the support of my best friend and wife, Priscilla, and our three grown sons, I’d not have the time to pursue photography full time. As a lifelong learner, I love to share what I’m learning. Whether sharing a simple tip or delving into the intricacies of photography, I hope others I might influence others to come away encouraged and enthused about photography. Please feel free to follow Jeff on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Also feel free to view more of his images on his website or Vimeo.
One of my mottos is: ‘the only photographer you should compare yourself to is the one you used to be.’
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