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.
EK: 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.
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.
EK: 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.