Extreme weather events triggered by our changing climate have become a regular news item. Droughts, floods and spells of unusually cold or hot weather are just a few of the symptoms we have to cope with on a global scale. Violent storms are another one and despite of the destruction these storms bring, they also bring unique photo opportunities.

The Perfect Storm, Loop Head
Loop Head, Co.Clare, Ireland on 1st February 2014: One of the most violent storms in many decades. I was standing around 3 meters from the cliff edge at a place I knew wouldn’t be reached by breaking waves. Nevertheless I kept a close eye on what was happening to my left.

I have been photographing Ireland’s coast for over a decade now and being out and about when it’s wild is always a thrill. Over the past few months, this thrill was taken to extremes when Ireland was hit by a series of storms that caused a lot of damage and destruction, but also allowed me to create unique images. Photographing storms, however, is slightly different from “normal” landscape photography.

1. Safety First

The most important thing before even thinking about photography is keeping yourself and the equipment safe. All coasts are potentially dangerous, sudden gusts of wind and freak waves can sweep you off your feet and drag you out to sea in an instant. To minimize the danger, you should preferably photograph at locations you have visited before and know rather well. If it is your first visit, it is advisable to explore the place before the storm and check with locals who know the area. Checking tides, wind direction and speed is a must before setting out as is letting someone know where exactly you are going and when you plan to return. Once on location, I always watch the show from a distance, first to get an idea on wind and wave behavior on the day and to figure out the safest place to set up.

Suitable clothing is a no-brainer, water and wind resistant pants and coats and wellington boots help keep you dry and warm. Once you get wet and cold, your reactions slow down and you are also more likely to make some foolish decisions. On some occasions, I even wore a helmet (as protection from flying pebbles) and life vest. On average, I limit myself to about an hour on location, depending on the conditions. On a day with storm force winds (130km/h and more), rain, hail or snow showers and high seas all around you, exhaustion can start to set in pretty quickly and an exhausted photographer is prone to accidents.

2. Equipment

A rain-cover for camera and lens (Think Tank Hydrophobia is convenient to use and takes salt very well) is also very helpful even if your camera and lens are sealed. Saltwater/salt-spray is a killer for electronics and it’s best to keep it as far away from your equipment as possible. After the shoot it is a good idea to wipe down all exposed equipment with a damp cloth to remove any salt residue.

Any camera can be used but a camera body capable of a high frame rate certainly helps with catching the action. The lens should be a normal lens to medium tele, my personal favorite is a Canon 70-300mm/4-5.6 L. These allow you to stay at a safe distance and most also have rather big lens hoods that keep spray away from the front element of the lens.

A classical landscape composition with foreground and leading lines and one of the few occasions I used a graduated gray filter to balance the exposure.

A sturdy tripod (I mainly use Gitzo Mountaineers, but Berlebach wooden tripods are extremely good in absorbing vibration if you want to carry some extra weight) makes composing the image easier and, more importantly, keeps the composition steady. In high winds, it is almost impossible shooting hand held and keep the image framed properly. In addition, a tripod mounted camera allows longer exposure times which can be used as an artistic tool. Filters can be used in theory, but in practice it only works out on rare occasions. You won’t be able to use the lens hood with most filter systems and with the air filled with salt spray, filters will fog over in no time which creates an unwanted soft focus effect on the images.

3. Composition

The usual composition rules apply. What is important however is that you stay with a composition for a while and wait for the perfect moment. Moving the camera constantly and trying to capture a moment here and there doesn’t really work in my experience, you always will be a split-second too late. Also, make sure you have the wind (more or less) on your back when you choose your viewpoint and composition. With the wind in your face, you will constantly have salt spray on your lens and will be more busy with cleaning than shooting.

4. Exposure Time

There are 2 ways to capture wave action. You can either freeze the moment with exposure times of 1/250 or faster or you can go for a slight blur effect to emphasize the movement. A time of 1/3 to 1 second works best with the latter, but much depends on the conditions on location. The danger with the longer exposure times, especially when you are shooting a longer lens in high winds, is blurred images due to camera/lens movement during exposure. IS (image stabilization) can help but make sure to check your manuals first, not all IS systems work when the camera is tripod mounted.

The Perfect Storm, Loop Head
A short exposure time of 1/200 freezes the movement of the breaking waves. These cliffs are around 30 meter in height!
Surf & Sunset
An exposure time of 1.3 seconds adds some motion blur to emphasize movement.

5. F-stop/Depth of Field and ISO

I choose my f-stop and ISO according to the exposure time I want. DOF is not that important here than with conventional landscape images where you want front to back sharpness. The attention when shooting storms is often focused on a certain part of the frame and an aperture of f8 – f14 (on a full frame body) is more than sufficient for most situations.

[REWIND: 6 Ways to Keep Your Expensive Camera Gear Safe]

6. Exposure and Focusing

Exposure can be tricky especially when shooting on rocky coasts. Very dark cliff surfaces and white surf cover a huge dynamic range and even some of the best modern cameras struggle with it. The solution is to shoot RAW and expose to the right to the point just before any highlights are blown. The image will look rather flat in camera, but a lot can be done at the processing stage by adjusting shadows/highlights and blacks/whites. The NIK tonal contrast plug in (part of Color Efex) is also very helpful because it lets you easily adjust shadow, highlight and mid tone contrast separately.

Focusing can also be tricky. AF systems often give up when faced with a white wall of water, so I often revert to MF, find my focusing point (cliff wall, piece of rock, etc.) and leave it at that.

7. Catching the Moment

The wildest moments during a storm always happen around high tide, unfortunately this is also the most dangerous time to be at the coast.

The Perfect Storm, Kilbaha
Right place, right time, right moment… and sometimes you just get (very) wet.

Once I have my composition, I watch and wait. There is always a repeating cycle with calmer periods and periods when the big ones roll in. After a little while, you will be able to read the signs and know when to press the shutter. I always shoot a series of 5-10 frames with each wave that hits, which means a lot of images to sift through in the end. It is the best way, however, to catch the decisive moment.

After the Storm, Kilbaha
Coast road after the storm: Protective walls have been smashed to pieces and the road surface has been stripped away.

Storms are both scary and beautiful events and are a reminder of the power of nature. Enjoy the experience and stay safe!