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Chasing the Clouds: Life As A Weather Photographer
When it comes to heavy downpours or bad weather, most of us head indoors at the first drop of rain. Not Camille Seaman, a weather and storm photographer who has seen what many can only dream of — larger-than-life icebergs in the Arctic and the tumultuous weather of the Great Plains.
We sat down with Camille to learn about taking photos of unruly forces of nature, the biggest misconceptions about this work and how it feels to be up-close-and-personal with all those majestic clouds.
(A word of caution – weather photography is dangerous so it’s best to leave it with the pros.)
Is this kind of photography dangerous?
The most dangerous thing about storm chasing is driving. If you’re incredibly unlucky, misinformed, or reckless, you put yourself in a position to get hurt.
To be a real chaser, you need technology. In our vehicle, we have a laptop computer that is receiving through wifi live-streaming doppler imagery laid over a GPS map.
So we have actual real-time information about everything that’s happening in the storm, how fast it’s moving, how high it’s climbing, how big the hail is, if it’s producing lightning and if it’s producing tornadoes.
The danger is if you lose your wifi signal — which does happen, some coverage is patchy — you always have eyes on the situation. It’s only when you lose those eyes and you continue into a situation that you have no real awareness of that things can go bad.
Tell us about your series, The Big Cloud.
The Big Cloud series for me was trying to show that there’s a beautiful side to these storms that so many people see as terrifying and scary and that there is no creation without destruction. There’s always a give and take and a yin and yang.
I had no idea that taking photos of storms would feel so overwhelming. It’s such a moving experience to stand under these massive, powerful phenomena. Usually people are running the other way.
What do you wear while working?
I don’t wear sandals because I like to protect my feet so I’m usually wearing some sort of Gore-Tex® shoe so they are waterproof — if I step in some mud as I’m getting out of the car, I’m not gonna cry because my shoes are ruined.
But it’s also summertime in the middle of the Great Plains so it can be incredibly hot and humid. I usually wear capris with cargo-type side pockets. I’ll also wear a short-sleeved shirt, but add a layer like a hoodie sweatshirt. And then you always have to have a handy raincoat.
If you chase properly, you can do it without getting wet. That’s the goal — to position yourself in just the right way so that you are just beyond the rain curtain, if there is one, and you’re able to witness the structure without getting wet. And I usually have a baseball hat and good sunglasses because it’s so bright out there.
How close do you get to the storms?
As a photographer, we’re not doing any science where we’re trying to gather data, punching the core or getting hit by a tornado – that’s not our goal.
Our goal is to actually photograph the structure. These things are so big. Some of them, the clouds themselves, can be up to 50 miles wide, so it doesn’t serve us to be right in it.
We need to have some distance from it in order to photograph it in any real, beautiful way. You don’t need to actually get that close to get a great photo.
What is it like photographing storms?
You realize the scale of things when you look at these storms and the rotation and the colors and you look at the tiny light pole or the house or the farm or even the entire town, which looks minuscule beneath it. You start to really realize how small we are.
What are the misconceptions around this kind of work?
A lot of people say, “It must be so exciting or I’m so crazy, don’t I get scared?” The reality is, we spend anywhere from eight to 10 hours in the car, driving just to get in the right position each day. So you have to think — you’re in the car for that long, and you’re stopping at truck stops and 7-Eleven® convenience stores to get a snack or drink or use the bathroom. You’re staying in really remote, small towns and and eating food on the road.
That might kill the romance for some people.
How do you stay safe while doing your job?
I think a lot of people think you can just set up your tripod and have all the time in the world when the reality is these things are moving and some of them are moving 60 – 70 miles an hour, so you might have 30 seconds or less to shoot it. Then you have to get back in the car and get out of there.
When someone says ‘Get in the car now!’ there is no room to spare, not even a second, for another frame, exposure, nothing. If you hesitate, you will be left on the side of the road because it can be a life-threatening situation. So we don’t play that way.
I think a lot of people think you have this leisurely amount of time to just photograph what you want, but the fact of the matter is you have just seconds and very few opportunities to set up a tripod. So a lot of this photography is — actually all of mine — is done handheld.
I’m using fast lenses because it’s actually a lot darker under these storms than you would imagine. So it’s really important to have a lens that can make exposure and capture the available light.