Photographing Hurricanes and Extreme Weather – by the Man With Over 30 Years Experience

Photographing Hurricanes and Extreme Weather – by the Man With Over 30 Years Experience

Jim Reed is a renowned extreme weather photographer who, in 1992, started a 30-year project on climate change. His day-to-day work includes tornadoes, blizzards, floods, and droughts - not to mention 19 hurricanes, including Katrina. Here's what he's discovered.

Naturally, I was keen to ask about his experiences. What’s his protocol? When does fun and adventure become foolishness and danger? “You must always pay attention to the hazards and dangers involved in weather photography,” Reed warns. Occasionally he’ll be shooting a nice landscape, but trying to capture a hurricane is an entirely different story. Reed says he is always learning and often takes knowledge from shooting one year into the next.

When I inevitably query any accidents he's had along the way, he tells me he's been lucky in that, 27 years into his 30-year extreme weather project (we’ll come back to that shortly), he can only recall one or two moments of which he’s faced damaged equipment due to underestimating the severity of a storm. He remembers one particular incident well – it was Hurricane Georges, 1998, in the Gulf of the US. He was photographing a researcher who was trying to document the storm near the edge of the beach, by a small sea wall. Reed watched from behind as a huge wave drenched him. What he didn’t realize was that he was next: the same wave knocked him off his feet; an incident that saw his camera – as he describes it – “going down.” Once the storm was over, Reed took it back to his studio, had it cleaned and, miraculously, it was working a few days later - images recovered and all.

If you’re looking to venture into extreme weather photography, Reed recommends investing in the fastest glass you can afford. Looking through his own equipment, he notes most of his own lenses are either 1.8 or 2.8. Both storms and hurricanes, of course, involve dealing with existing light conditions – which often, he says, aren’t very good. “In bigger storms, I often shoot handheld – there’s simply not enough time for a tripod.” Reed says it's all about having that faster lens, and a good sensor for low light, he's in pretty good shape. It's this requirement that is testament to why he has stuck to Nikon equipment throughout his career. From the first year of his project, he cites the reliability of the equipment and the continued improvement of the sensors that made photograph the weather possible.

Reed is also in the final stages of a project spanning 30 years (he’ll be done in 2021). I wanted to know what the hardest challenges about persevering through it had been. Without question, Reed is certain that witnessing the aftermath of such destruction is the worst part of the job; being there to witness people struggling with having their entire lives destroyed. Or in his own words, “Seeing peoples lives change right before my eyes.” He finds himself on wreckage sites so frequently that he decided to learn first aid, so as to be able to assist medical teams when necessary.

He has actually stayed in touch with some of the victims he met in the 90s. He notes that, quite often, people ask him for images of the storm that tore apart their homes – something he always provides free of charge. He says the images seem to provide a sense of closure. Making reference to Hurricane Irma, he says it’s important to note: “What [affected residents] are going through right now is a very, very tough challenge. It won’t always be in the news every day, but the recovery will go on for years.” Aside from the obvious, being an extreme weather photographer also requires a degree of perseverance. Reed details how he has driven up to 400 miles while chasing hurricanes in the past, not to mention committing to staying in shape so as to be as agile as possible when working in hazardous conditions.

1992 saw Reed set out on his 30-year project – one which, as previously mentioned, sees him currently in year 27. The aim was to document climate change and its subsequent impact. Of course, before the end of our chat, I needed to know a little more about his observations. As part of the project, Reed has previously published a book entitled Storm Chaser: A Photographer’s Journey, which will celebrate its 10th Anniversary next month. Looking back through his book, Reed tells me he can see quite evidently what’s happened in the past 10 years. As for the future? “We can expect harsher storms, more frequent storms, and more abrupt storms.”

Read a detailed description of Reed's experience with the Supercell Storm of 2004, below:

Supercell Storm, Medicine Lodge, Kansas, 2004

Saturday, June 5, 2004, called for a chance of thunderstorms in the Wichita area, but nothing special. I had planned to take the day off and was visiting my storm chasing mentor, Jon Davies, a renowned tornado researcher. Around 4 p.m. Jon noticed a small, isolated storm on radar just northwest of Sedgwick County. I was several weeks into test-driving a handheld weather-tracking device called Storm Hawk for WeatherData, Inc. This was an excellent opportunity to do a spontaneous test and have a little fun, so out the door we went.

Using Storm Hawk, we intercepted the cell in less than an hour. At first all we could see was a gray curtain of rain, but then something magical happened. The storm moved ahead of the core of precipitation. We were suddenly observing a highly picturesque, striated, low-precipitation supercell. It was one of the most uniquely shaped storms I had ever witnessed in all of my chasing.

Unfortunately, the lighting was flat and little color was present. But this storm was different. Unlike the majority of storms that move northeast, this cell was moving due south – and the sky was clear to the west. If we could stay with the storm, the sun would eventually set directly behind it. That might give me some color to work with, certainly better lighting.

In the meantime, we shot a few pictures, drove a few miles, stopped again, shot more frames, and gradually made our way south, patrolling the storm. Sunset was less than hour away and our anticipation was mounting. One more shot, I thought, and then we’ll blaze south and get out ahead of the mesocyclone. I pulled off the rural farm road at a graveled intersection. Suddenly, the ground beneath my front right tire began sinking near the edge of a culvert. I instantly yanked us into reverse and floored it, but it was futile. The rear of the vehicle went up, the front went down.

The side of the road, soften by rain earlier in the week, had collapsed. With the storm continuing to move south, we would be out of position for the sunset. Our chase was over… or was it?

From seemingly out of nowhere, two van loads of meteorology students from my home state of Illinois suddenly pulled up. Paul Sirvatka, a professor of meteorology at the College of DuPage, had recognized us and our dilemma. Without even asking, more than a dozen young storm chasers piled out of the college vans and surrounded the front of my Explorer.

“All together!” hollered the oldest student. “Three… Two… One… Lift!” And suddenly, as fast as Jon and I had become stuck – we were free!

As we sped south, the sun began to set. We had less than 15 minutes, but that’s all it took. We pulled over, jumped out, and – while dodging hail the size of golf balls — set up our tripods. The view was spectacular. A rare, rain-free, isolated, saucer-shaped supercell backlit by the setting sun. CLICK. CLICK. On the second squeeze of my shutter, a lone, magenta-colored lightning bolt dropped from the storm. 

The image represents everything I love about storm chasing: following a hunch, travel, science, friendship, fellowship, second-chances, serendipity, technology, art and atmospheric magic.

See more of Jim’s work at his website and Instagram.

All images used with permission.

Jack Alexander's picture

A 28-year-old self-taught photographer, Jack Alexander specialises in intimate portraits with musicians, actors, and models.

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Awesome alright, crazy awesome

I always love photographers who have a narrow specialty because they tend to be REALLY good at what they do. (When a photographer tells a prospect/client, "I shoot ANYthing," I know they're probably not all that good.) This is a great example. Terrific photos and story.