Storm Chasing Photographer: Steve Lenz

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Amaz­ing pho­tographs often inspire oth­er pho­tog­ra­ph­er to learn new cam­era skills. Steve Lenz, pro­fes­sion­al storm chas­ing pho­tog­ra­ph­er, is known in the pho­tog­ra­phy world for his use of col­or with sun­ris­es, sun­sets and espe­cial­ly, thun­der­storms. Below he shares some of his favorite tips for pho­tograph­ing in the out­doors, as well as some of his most dan­ger­ous encoun­ters with lightning.

Eliz­a­beth Kovar: What got you into pho­tog­ra­phy?
Steve Lenz: As a young child I was fas­ci­nat­ed with nature and art. I spent a lot of time out­doors watch­ing, catch­ing and col­lect­ing things from nature. When I wasn’t doing that, I would be look­ing at pic­tures of nature in mag­a­zines and books, and then sketch­ing what I saw with pen­cils. Around 8 years old my par­ents bought me my first cam­era, and I was hooked. Ever since then, I have been join­ing my love of nature and art into this one medium.

EK: How long have you been a pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er?
SL: I start­ed my appren­tice­ship in 1991 and have been pro­fes­sion­al­ly active ever since. My pho­tog­ra­phy skills have been paired with a vari­ety of jobs includ­ing web devel­op­ment, adver­tis­ing pro­duc­tion, and my cur­rent work as the art direc­tor for a region­al magazine.

sl1EK: Do you have any sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ments that are you proud of?
SL: Being pub­lished is always a great feel­ing. I have been in La Vie Claire, Newsweek, inter­na­tion­al news­pa­pers, and region­al publications.

EK: You are known for your keen eye for col­or. What can ama­teur pho­tog­ra­phers do to enhance the col­or in their pho­tographs?
SL: The most impor­tant thing is get­ting your expo­sure cor­rect. Under­ex­posed and over­ex­posed images will wash out col­ors. Famil­iar­iz­ing your­self with your cam­era using the own­ers man­u­al is very impor­tant so that you know how to adjust expo­sure. Most cam­eras, even inex­pen­sive point-and-shoots, will allow for expo­sure adjust­ments. Usu­al­ly it is with a + and — sym­bol. Sim­ply, if you want it brighter, push +, and dark­er, push — (refer to your man­u­al). You can see on the pre­view screen on your cam­era how this affects the image. Anoth­er tip is to learn col­or the­o­ry. Com­ple­men­tary col­ors when placed next to each oth­er will make them seem more vivid. Yel­low leaves against a blue sky is an example.

Last­ly, learn­ing your pho­to soft­ware is impor­tant. This is the mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent of the dark­room. Peo­ple crit­i­cize dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion but most of what the soft­ware does was being done in the dark­room. The trick is to not over­do it. Col­ors can be sat­u­rat­ed and expo­sures cor­rect­ed with soft­ware. This was also done in the dark­room. I rec­om­mend only cor­rect­ing images to match what you saw with your eye. Oth­er­wise, the image becomes more dif­fi­cult for the view­er to con­nect with and cross­es over from pho­tog­ra­phy into impres­sion­ism. This is my opin­ion though and not a rule. Rules are stifling.

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EK: What is the best way to shoot sun­ris­es and sun­sets?
SL: I watch for inter­est­ing weath­er pat­terns and plan ahead. If you see a beau­ti­ful sun­set in progress and then go find a place to shoot it, it will be too late. When I see the clouds are look­ing dra­mat­ic a few hours before sun­set, I will start look­ing for the fore­ground I want and then wait there as the sun drops. Expo­sure is impor­tant here.

Ear­ly on in the sun­set, the sun is very intense and will make your cam­era dark­en the image too much. This is where you can use the +/- but­ton to bright­en up the image. Usu­al­ly +2 will help cor­rect the expo­sure. As the sun gets low­er, more orange, and less intense, you can adjust this back to +/- 0. A sun­set by itself is beau­ti­ful, but can be trite. Find­ing ele­ments to add to the image make it more inter­est­ing. Trees, moun­tains, lakes, ani­mals, etc. Sun­ris­es are basi­cal­ly a reverse of the above, but start­ing a twi­light before the sun is peek­ing out.

EK: So you shoot thun­der­storms, what is that like?
SL: Storms are very excit­ing! It is moth­er nature at her most dra­mat­ic. The scenes are much more dynam­ic with big­ger-than-life clouds, dark skies, wind-blown land­scapes, pound­ing rain and hope­ful­ly light­ning. Areas that, dur­ing good weath­er, can some­times become bor­ing will trans­form into fan­tas­tic scenes. There is also a pri­mal ele­ment of being in the dan­ger zone that ener­gizes my spir­its which then ener­gizes my creativity.

EK: Have you ever encoun­tered a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion while shoot­ing?
SL: Yes. In the sum­mer of 2012 I was out chas­ing an unusu­al­ly intense light­ning storm. I found myself in the hills south­west of Wal­la Wal­la. These are exposed tree­less areas. Some incred­i­bly intense strikes were hit­ting ground a few miles away and I was so engrossed in pho­tograph­ing them, I didn’t notice how swift­ly things were chang­ing around me. For­tu­nate­ly at this point, odd­ly enough, my shut­ter broke after 122,644 pho­tos being tak­en over about 5 years. My heart sank as this was the most mag­i­cal storm I had been in. Dis­ap­point­ed, I got in my car and that’s when the light­ning began ground-strik­ing all around me. Know­ing how obsessed I was with tak­ing pho­tos at that moment, I would not have got­ten to the safe­ty of my car with­out the break­down. For the most part, I am very safe with what I do. But now and then a moment can over­pow­er your sen­si­bil­i­ties and the awe will out­weigh the reason.

sl3EK: How can the aver­age pho­tog­ra­ph­er shoot clear light­ning bolt strikes? 
SL: What I do is watch for the storms and get a feel for where the strikes are most com­mon. An area with wide panoram­ic views, such as wheat­fields, is help­ful so that trees aren’t hid­ing the light­ning. I will then tri­pod mount my cam­era, aim it in that direc­tion, and leave the shut­ter open for a long time. Cam­eras will vary on their abil­i­ty to man­u­al­ly set their shut­ter speed. Your user’s man­u­al will help with this.

What I do is set the shut­ter speed for 30 sec­onds at about F8 at ISO 100, some­times ISO 400 depend­ing on the bright­ness of the light­ning, and just keep press­ing the shut­ter hop­ing for a few good strikes in that 30 sec­ond win­dow. Focus­ing the cam­era is impor­tant too. Some­times set­ting it on infin­i­ty is enough. Some­times the light­ning is clos­er than you real­ize and you need to focus on some­thing that is par­al­lel to it. On point-and-shoots, set­ting it in Scene mode and select­ing the moun­tain icon, or scenic set­ting, will be best.

EK: Got any words from the wise?
SL: Be safe! Fol­low the rules about light­ning so you don’t get zapped. Stand­ing out in open areas with a met­al tri­pod is not a good idea. Stay ahead of and away from the actu­al storm and zoom in on it. Set the cam­era on a tri­pod, then wait in a car or build­ing dur­ing the long expo­sures. Cov­er the cam­era with a water­proof bag as freak rain storms can wreak hav­oc on unpro­tect­ed equipment.

See more of Steve’s pho­tog­ra­phy on his web­site.