Skip to content Skip to footer

Why storm chasing photography could be the deadliest profession on Earth

Storm chasing and photography.

The combination of words alone is enough to conjure images of thrill-seekers rushing into the heart of a deadly tornado for the sake of exciting photographs and video footage.

Shows about storm chasing tend toward the sensational, almost fantastical depictions of the storm-chasing profession. Storm chasing photography is in and of itself one of the deadliest professions possible, as photographers potentially risk everything, for that one perfect shot.

It truly is a dangerous job, in that you definitely should not try it without the proper training, equipment, preparation, or guidance.

But the entire job also requires much more than just preparation for constant danger.

Storm chasing photographers take the trophy for having the deadliest profession on earth

Storm chasing is a waiting game

Most of storm chasing, really, is about patience, perseverance, and caution.

Why do people chase tornados to begin with? The powerful wind storms – common in a region of the central United States known as Tornado Alley – are fearsome.

There is a season, typically from April through July, during which severe thunderstorms that can spawn tornados are extremely common. Staying out of the way and keeping watch is the safe thing to do. So why go out of your way to get closer to a tornado?

There is certainly some thrill to it. When a tornado is close, the sky darkens and you can feel the air shift. When there’s a potential storm coming on, you can just feel it. For storm chasing photographers, this exhilaration feeds them, but it is not a reckless hunger. Because without the proper patience and respect for Mother Earth, they would not survive to see another day (and storm).

And it isn’t just about the thrill of the chase itself. Nor is the excitement of being in sight of a deadly storm, but out of its reach, the only thing that’s important here.

Storm chasing photography

Tornados make for great photography. There’s simply nothing like them. That’s a big part of why tornado chasing photography is a real thing, and it’s also why people are so eager to see the work of storm photographers like Brian Barnes, the chaser behind Storm Chasers USA.

What does it take to be a storm chasing professional and stay safe?

Chasers will listen to the weather radio to help them identify storms that are likely to develop tornados. Why try to predict the weather unaided when there are professionals doing it for you? They’ll follow the clouds, watch for movement and wait for something to form.

It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t all about the excitement you’ll see in finished videos like on popular storm-chasing TV shows. That material is edited down for maximum excitement, and you’re only seeing the best videography moments.

Most of it is waiting, and you’re certainly not going to find a storm every day even when you drive all the way up and down tornado alley looking for them.

“It’s a lot of driving around and a lot of second-guessing yourself, second-guessing the weather.”

Brian Barnes

Tornadoes form quickly and are gone quickly, giving tornado chasers a particularly difficult task. Catching up to their targets is always a challenge.

Thankfully, you don’t need a tornado to get some great pictures and videos. Even thunderstorms that will never spawn a tornado, but which are severe enough to warrant a storm-chaser’s attention, can be the subjects of some truly stunning photography if you know what you’re doing. Lightning shots in particular stand out.

Into the eye of the storm, tho?

Most of the SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras that storm chasers use have a “bulb setting.” Use a wide-angle lens with the focus set to bring everything in sharp, and a timer-release.

Hold the button down for as long as you want, then release it. However, many lightning strikes occur when you have the shutter open, and that’s what will record into a single image. You can use that technique at night and expect some great shots.

The method is a bit reminiscent of light-painting with a camera in the dark. You can set up a long exposure in a dark room, turn on a flashlight or a glowstick and wave it around, and get some previously-thought-to-be impossible photographs.

Don’t be stupid

But make no mistake – storm chasing isn’t as safe as you might want it to be, it is possibly the deadliest profession. While you can predict the movement of a storm, and stay out of its way, the storm itself isn’t the greatest danger when you’re on the road with your video equipment. The greatest danger is other people.

“Traffic can become very dangerous when you have people trying to get away from the storm as well as those chasing after it.”

Sheena Koontz

For any major storm, you’ll have experts trying to predict the storm system’s movement in real time. The same care and attention is rarely paid to the traffic.

Other threats to the storm chaser’s safety include downed power lines, hydroplaning, and large hail.

Make no mistake: tornadoes are dangerous storms, for as brief as they are. The people who produce this marvelous art are not just great photographers, but experts in dealing with the storms themselves.

Listed as one of the deadliest professions on Earth it’s wise to not try this yourself unless you’re very sure of what you’re doing. And if ever in doubt, and facing a storm: put the camera away, and follow these guidelines from the Red Cross.