Grapefruit-sized hail? Cloud-to-ground lightning that melts asphalt? Fleeing a 50-mile-wide supercell in a van jetting 95 miles per hour? They’re all worth it to witness the terrifying power and unimaginable beauty of a summer tempest, according to former storm-chasing photographer Camille Seaman. Her book “The Big Cloud” shares her best photographic works from years stalking supercells in the American West.
Her start: After many years photographing the melting poles in the Arctic and Antarctica, Seaman was ready for a new project and was curious about global warming’s effect on weather in temperate zones. One day while she vacuumed, her 8-year-old daughter pointed to the TV show “Storm Chasers” and said, “Mom, you should do that.” Seaman was intrigued. Via a quick Google search, she found a storm chaser who offered guided trips. “He emailed less than an hour later and said, ‘Can you be here in three days?’” Three days and one storm-chasing trip later, he asked if she’d like to join the team full time, launching Seaman into a stint that spanned six years.
Equipment: Even though storm clouds are epic in size, using too wide of a lens risks distortion in the image, Seaman says. The widest angle she used was 21mm on a full-frame sensor camera. Storm clouds bring with them incredible darkness, so a fast lens is required. And there’s no time for a tripod, so Seaman practiced a tai chi stance and sharpshooter breathing to make good images in gusty conditions.
Best moment: After determining they weren’t in danger, the team decided to stay put while a massive rotating cloud known as a low precipitation mesocyclone passed overhead. It looked like a spaceship. “It was one of the few times where I didn’t know what to do. Anywhere you looked, it was unreal.” The cloud was so large it occupied the entire visual space, she says. “It was sort of like, ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat.’ I was going to need a bigger lens. You couldn’t make one wide enough.”
Moving on: In 2013, respected storm chaser Tim Samaras, his son, and best friend were killed while chasing a tornado. “That was a real wakeup call,” Seaman says. She continued chasing for another year before acknowledging she was no longer willing to take the risks to capture ever-more-unpredictable storms. She’s now returned to making photographs in the Arctic.
Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.