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Photographing the elements

Photographing the elements - Mark Humpage is a stormchaser and elemental photographer. Here's his advice on capturing the weather.

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 Photo of Mark Humpage.
Mark Humpage describes himself as a modern day adventurer, elemental photographer, seasoned Stormchaser and writer, from Leicestershire. He also happens to be an ambassador for Olympus, has exhibited at the Tate Modern and worked with major clients such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
 
I've been published right around the world and I've written many articles for newspapers and magazines about nature and the elements,” explained Mark.
 
He was first introduced to the natural world while his father was driving his racing green Triumph Spitfire along some motorway when he noticed the darkest and blackest of clouds hanging above the road ahead of them.
 
The precipitation was so intense I thought the car was going to explode. The experience was like nothing I had ever witnessed before and I was naturally terrified. As we drove through the storm and daylight returned I turned my head in fascination. The storm cloud slowly got smaller and smaller as we put miles between it. That terror transformed into excitement. My father was more concerned that his prize possession never leaked but for me it was an introduction.”
 
His love for severe weather didn't mix with photography until the mid nineties where he yearned for more knowledge and had a desire to be more involved. This is where Mark found stormchasing and became an active pursuer of everything extreme in nature. From driving 24/7 in the dusty plains of Tornado Alley to bouncing along a muddy river torrent on a tiny inflatable craft as a huge tidal wave, or bore, destroys everything in its path, Mark has covered it all and as with every subject matter, knowledge is the key to achieving the best images: “Timing, forecasting, positioning and reaction are the key ingredients to forging a relationship with nature. Just remember safety first. Nature is unpredictable, can and does kill.”
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
 
Preparation is key and Mark generally looks ahead to the spring months in order to travel to somewhere like the plains in the USA, which explode into life between April and June each year. It's logistically very accessible and has excellent data access (lots of free wireless hotspots). He also monitors severe weather forecasts daily from the UK using weather models from mid to late April onwards. If a good pattern looks like it will develop then Mark will then book a flight to his chosen city.
 
Once there I have a plethora of technical equipment such as GPS, satellite radar, internet data card, weather radio, comms system etc. which allow me to find a storm system. A typical day on the plains would involve getting up early at about 7am, immersing myself in forecasts to determine a defined target area and then travelling in pursuit. The travelling can and does take up most of the time on trips like this. It is not uncommon to be on the road for in excess of 12 hours a day.
 
With intense lighting, hail the size of cricket balls and tornadoes, positioning is critical. Knowing how to fine tune your position so you're on the safe side of the storm is critical and if you add a camera into the mix it's not just your body that takes a battering.
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
 
I insist on quality, performance and a robust weather proof and dust proof system. An absolute must in this type of weather. Extreme temperatures (hot and cold), humidity, constant ambient dust and water are standard working conditions for me. In addition, I am more often than not shooting in a hurried and mobile environment. I only get time for a tripod occasionally. The Olympus E system is a shield to all of these. I know this from experience. The Olympus gear has worked for me underwater (physically), in dust storms, in temps below -36C and above 100 deg F and while moving. What more can I ask from a camera?”
 
Here in the UK we don't get that many tornados or suffer from searing heats that turn us into a desert but we do get the occasional thunder storm which is a perfect place to start if you fancy yourself as a novice storm chaser.
 
Access to radar via internet/laptop is desirable. I normally take my laptop in order to access this data via the internet. Although it can also be done more crudely via a mobile phone. One can then track precipitation/storm movement. I would not recommend anyone chase storms of any magnitude without this equipment, for safety reasons.
 
For a storm moving from the south-west to north-east (most common) I position myself on the south/south east flank of a storm. This will ensure I remain out of any precipitation enjoy and capture the heart of the storm and also be in a good position to follow and move with the storm, assuming the road network allows. Personally I try to view and capture a storm up close and from a distance. This gives different angles and equally interesting compositions. Things to look for which make photogenic subjects, even with storms in the UK:-
 
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
Anvils - The flat, spreading top of a Cb (cumulonimbus cloud), often shaped like an anvil. Normally seen at the front and rear flank of storms.
Mammatus - Rounded, sack-like protrusions hanging from the underside of a cloud (usually a thunderstorm anvil).
 
A combination of the above, especially with low sun level is amazingly spectacular.”
 
Mark believes the best time to capture weather at its best is during the period of change such as Spring and Autumn as this is when stable air and skies transform into unstable environments.
 
In all honesty nature rarely produces a bad subject and subsequent poor image. Naturally capturing ‘twister-esque’ type images from the Plains of USA are great ‘wow’ factor subjects as are lightning images. Both are equally challenging to capture not just with the camera but from a planning aspect. The equally stunning flat backdrop of the Plains makes for great visual images. Tornado Alley is an extraordinary place during storm season, the eighth natural wonder of the western world. It is an area of the United States in which 1000 tornadoes occur each year and geographically which encompasses the central core of the United States (Great lowland areas of the Mississippi, the Ohio, and lower Missouri River Valleys). During the main storm months of April – July three main ingredients come together. Tropical moist air from the south via the Gulf of Mexico collides with hot dry air from the east via the Rockies and cool dry air aloft from the north. These air masses stack up over the centre of the nation, creating a unique combination of atmospheric ingredients and which provide a perfect breeding ground for severe storms.
 
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
Extreme weather events are constantly occurring around the world. You get predictable events such as the Auroras, the USA tornado season and the monsoons of North America which can all fill a year quite easily but in addition to them you get unpredictable volcanic eruptions, storms and floods which keep you on your toes. These unpredictable events are the ones rarely captured and are the events which Mark always feels privileged to photograph. Even though he has less time to prepare for them he's a self confessed perfectionist who will explore every angle, every lens or piece of equipment that will help achieve the ‘perfect’ shot.
 
I generally have little preparation time on a shoot so I get really familiar with the camera and its settings. I’ll normally have everything ready to start shooting as that car door flies open. More often than not I’ll shoot mid aperture and wind up If need a greater DOF. I start with a low sensitivity (ISO100) and shoot mostly with this although sometimes crank this reactively up in really low light. Exposure is always a difficult one with nature as there are more often than not harsh extremes. In this respect I try (if feasible) to find a foreground that works best in dealing with this. The best I have found is a foreground filled with light neutral colour, something like a field full of wheat/corn, a concrete road or even a building or two. I appreciate this is not always possible but do try to locate these when final positioning. If I am still left with an exposure dilemma I adopt a ‘frame split’ rule. Via the viewfinder I split the scene into 2, sky and land. Expose for both separately, use AEL to hold the exposure and fine tune the composition. By working this a best case scenario will ultimately be found.
 
Of course there are certain subjects that break all the rules, such as the Northern Lights. Shooting in total darkness and long exposures is a challenge in itself.”
 
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
When it comes to weather no two shoots are the same, even with the same subject. There is no such thing as a guaranteed shoot with nature, reaction is everything. “You have to remember that my working environment is very much reaction in terms of taking the photo and as such I have no defined ‘style’. As a result of the scale of the events that I capture it is very often difficult to portray this which captures the magnificence of the event.”
 
One such method which Mark uses on every shoot is panorama. He always shoots multiple panorama images in both portrait and landscape formats horizontal and vertical in order to represent scale. He shoots with two cameras one primed with a 12-60mm swd lens and the other with a wide angle (7-14mm or 8mm fisheye). This allows gives Mark two or more compositions of the same event without loosing the sense of scale. When shooting with a mid focal lens Mark will compose and expose a sequence of images spanning the subject and in post processing will stitch them together.
 
When I'm composing these shots I always think about foregrounds (if available). When I have found or arrived at the exact shoot location I think composition. 1. Firstly I keep land in bottom third of frame and sky in the top two-thirds (opposite to landscape photography). 2. Secondly I look carefully at the foreground subject. I look for the neutral colours such as fields full of wheat, corn, and dry grass. Also yellows such as rape and sunflower really set off good stormy skyscapes. I frequently run around, when on-site, like a headless chicken to find a good composition foreground. I also move around and don't shoot everything in one spot. For a foreground object to include within the frame I look for something like a road sign (street name signs look good), or farm building. This gives great perspective.
 
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
When it comes to equipment you need at least one good tripod as even though most of his work is does hand-held there are times such as when shooting lightning, low light exposures or using a time-lapse when a tripod is a must. A good DSLR is critical too. You need a camera that gives you full manual control and one which allows you to interchange the lenses. Mark believes you will only ever need three lenses and his WAZ (Wide, All and Zoom) way of thinking means he is covered for everything nature has to throw at him. Mark chooses to take a 7-14mm & 8mm fisheye, a 12-60mm and a 50-200mm & 90-250mm his reasons for are as follows:
 
  • Wide - Nature can be a massive (size) subject to capture. Storms can, and will, stretch from one end of the horizon to the other. To capture this through a camera lens and portray the intensity and scale of the subject is not easy. To help achieve that 'wow' factor with such storms I use a couple of very wide angle lenses.
     
  • All rounder - This will probably be the most used lens. The Olympus 12-60mm SWD (24-120mm:35mm equivalent) covers a good focal spectrum in one lens and hence me calling it an all rounder. Once you take away the planning, nature is very much a reactive subject. An all rounder such as this is great to leave on the camera and when you are ready to shoot, pick it up and capture. It can also be used anywhere, capturing anything from logistical operations to storms in motion. One particular operation I use with this all rounder lens is panorama. As well as using the wide angle lens to capture entire storm structure I also use the 12-60mm with panorama in mind. It allows me to get closer on a particular storm or skyscape and then pan around to cover a 180 field of view. I then import the images into stitching software to produce panoramas. I always 'think' panorama when using this camera to capture storms. Another good subject matter for this type of lens is lightning. Which is difficult to capture well.
  • Zoom - This is the least used of my lenses while shooting nature although I always take it with me because you never know! The Olympus 50-20mm SWD (100-400mm:35mm equivalent) is a great zoom lens. It is very handy when distance needs to be covered through the lens, for example capturing intense rain or hail falling within the core of a storm. If you are lucky enough to see a tornado then the lens is perfect for grabbing vortex detail. Another good use of the lens is getting really close up on explosive convective clouds. With the right composition it can look like a bomb exploding and produce very much a 'wow' factor shot.

 
 
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
As Mark's working with nature he likes to keep his work “au-natural” which he does by keeping his post processing to a limit and only rarely using polarisers – nothing else.
 
In CS3 I do little more than adjust levels, crop and save in different formats depending on output requirements. For me I try to spend more time ‘out in the field’ than in front of a PC and getting hung up on software deliberations. I know other photographers who get so hung up on post processing techniques/software and backup that they lose track of their raw photography skills. While I respect the importance of post processing, in my opinion, it should be the other way round.
 
Certain aspects of my work will however require post processing work. For example Time Lapse. a full days worth of sky time lapse can produce hundreds of images. I then have to batch edit and run through software to produce a movie file output - see workflow.
 
In addition, I love working on star trails. I have perfected a technique whereby I set the camera to take a sequence of 15s exposures over a 2 hour period. I will then bring the 500 images together in PS, layering to produce a star trail effect. They look stunning with the right foreground subject. In fact, I attempted this on my recent Norway/Northern Lights trip and captured a 2 hour star trail with northern lights in the background. It turned out amazing. I'm lucky I have been fortunate to witness and capture some of the most hostile and natural weather conditions known to man.”
 
 Photo by Mark Humpage.
 
For more information visit Mark Humpage's website.

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