Text & Photography by Roger and Caryn Hil
Dramatic weather yields dramatic photographs. Roger and Caryn Hill are dedicated, expert storm chasers and photographers. Every year they strike out across the United States to photograph the wild weather systems that emerge in the summer. Above: Supercell tracked from Rapid City, South Dakota to Valentine, Nebraska, 2009.
Darkening skies, a flash of lightning and a distant clap of thunder. Most people are naturally curious about thunderstorms. For me and my wife, Caryn Hill, it goes beyond that. As a rapidly rotating maelstrom approaches, we don’t run for cover. Instead, we set up our cameras on tripods and capture the beauty and danger of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
For us, it’s a way of life, as we spend as much as 150 days a year on the road in pursuit of the most violent weather we can find. We operate storm-chasing and photography tours for those with a strong heart to capture one of the most intense weather events on the planet.
Lightning strikes in Arizona, 2011.Severe thunderstorms occur over virtually the entire U.S.; the most violent and photogenic storms, however, occur during the spring and summer each year, and in the Great Plains region from the Canadian border to Texas. Here, the combination of moisture, instability, lift and wind shear produce amazing storms, lightning and tornadoes. During early spring, the southern plains areas of Texas, Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico provide the best storms. During late spring, the central plains of Kansas, Nebraska and eastern Colorado usually have the most photogenic storms. In summer months, the northern plains and high plains abound with severe storms. Traveling northward with the jet stream as seasons change would give the severe-weather photographer the most opportunities to witness nature’s fury.
In the plains, visibility is generally very good, while the open prairies and grasslands help set the stage for unforgettable severe-weather photography. Some amazing images can be captured using the landscape’s features, combined with the structure of a storm or tornado. Imagine a scenic windmill and pond with a lightning bolt in the background, reflecting in the water, or the rugged South Dakota badlands with a backlit tornado roaring across the prairies. Position yourself with the sun behind your back, and you have the ghostly-white tornado with dramatic contrast. There are a tremendous variety of foregrounds to use to get that perfect image. The opportunities are endless!
Monsoon clouds, Arizona, 2011.Various Types Of Weather
For most severe-weather photographers, there are several different events that warrant photographing. These include supercell thunderstorms, monsoon thunderstorms, lightning and tornadoes.
The supercell thunderstorm is the most violent thunderstorm in the world. These storms are different in that they rotate and can last up to 12 hours or more! The average garden-variety thunderstorm has a life cycle of less than an hour, while these long-lived monsters can rage all afternoon and well into the night. We captured one such storm that developed near the Black Hills of South Dakota at noon, and the next morning at 2 a.m., it was still raging as it moved across northern Nebraska. Supercells are responsible for the majority of tornadoes and large hail, and produce incredible amounts of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. Sometimes, the rotating cumulus tower in the storm resembles a barber-shop pole, spiraling to 60,000 feet, or it can appear like a spaceship with lightning strafing throughout the cloud tower. The most photogenic view of a supercell is if you’re east or southeast of the storm and the sun is being blocked out by the cloud tower.
Supercells also produce most tornadoes each year. A prized image of a tornado is one of the most sought-after photographs in severe weather.