Fred Wasmer: Under the Maelstrom – Aircraft & Mammatus Clouds
Arlington, Texas, United States
Time / Date:
7:12 pm / May 26, 2009
Camera Body: Nikon D300
Lens: Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8
Shutter Speed: 1/90
Focal Length: 26mm
Storms have always been a favorite photo subject of mine. They’re one of the grand spectacles of nature — pure, majestic, untamed power. Every year, I travel 15,000 miles or so, crisscrossing the United States, seeking the worst weather I can find.
There are never any guarantees with storm chasing. It’s all about playing the odds, looking at the forecasts, positioning yourself where severe weather is most likely, and then reacting quickly when a storm develops.
On the day of this photo, the Dallas area looked promising. The atmosphere was forecast to be very unstable — if a storm could manage to form, it would grow quickly. Most of the afternoon was spent sitting in a gas station parking lot, waiting under sunny skies and hoping the forecast would be correct.
Around 5:00pm, a storm formed to the southwest. I call this the kitten stage of a storm, when it is newborn, small, and weak. I always take a snapshot, so if the storm does grow into something significant, I can remember just how little it used to be.
By 6:15pm, the storm had grown dramatically. It was mature, with a well-defined core of rain and hail. I was positioned to the east, so that the rain shaft was nicely backlit.
By 7:00pm, I had moved east to stay ahead of the storm. I was in a mall parking lot in Arlington, near Fort Worth. The dangerous core of the storm, a few miles to the west, was now totally shrouded in rain. It was a black featureless wall emitting a dull roar of continuous distant thunder.
Overhead was a spectacular display of mammatus — smooth, pouch-shaped clouds that often form near severe thunderstorms. While looking quite menacing, they’re not actually dangerous. Air traffic control at the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth airport obviously wasn’t too concerned about the mammatus — plane after plane was departing the airport and flying underneath them.
I suspect there were many thousands of vertical feet separating the planes and the mammatus. But the clouds provide nothing we can use to judge scale or size, so it’s easy to fall under the illusion that the planes were skimming the surface of a violent, boiling maelstrom. It was a surreal scene.
I keep my kit light when storm chasing — conditions change quickly, and it’s important to be able to move fast. Typically I’ll have a small bag with two bodies, one with a wide-angle zoom and the other with a normal-range zoom. I keep a telephoto in the car, but it’s rarely needed. Fast glass and bodies with high ISO support are essential. I always bring a tripod, but sometimes it’s not possible to use it — things can unfold far too quickly.
Another important piece of gear, specific to storm photography, is a laptop with a cellular internet connection, to keep track of the radar and weather service updates.
If you’ve been watching too much reality TV, you might imagine another piece of gear — an armored tank-like vehicle for driving into the heart of storms. Sorry to disappoint you, but I chase in a Prius.
Making the Shot:
The actual shot was quite simple. Upon noticing the planes, I lay down on the parking lot pavement and shot straight up. Usually in storm chasing, you’re fighting dim conditions, necessitating wide apertures and high ISOs. But this mammatus cloud layer was thin, with plenty of light coming through, so I had the luxury of f/8 at ISO 200.
Editing & Processing:
My post-processing tools are pretty standard. Most of my work is done in Lightroom, with Photoshop used for special situations.
For this image, apart from routine Lightroom edits (color temperature, contrast, etc.), I did a bit of localized clarity and sharpening on the plane so it appears nice and crisp.
To me, this photo is a symbol that represents all the unusual and unexpected scenes that you come across around storms. I certainly didn’t set out that day with a vision of airplanes under mammatus — in all my years of storm chasing, I’ve never seen this before, and may never see it again. But that’s OK, because with every storm, I know there will always be something new and unexpected.
Don’t approach a storm with preconceived ideas about the shots you want. Storms are complex, dynamic individuals, and often evolve in ways that surprise even the experts. Stay fast and light, and be receptive to the photo opportunities that each storm gives you.
Where to even begin? There are so many great photographers out there, producing so many fantastic images. With the cross-pollination of ideas that the Internet has unleashed, I believe we truly are in a golden age of photography.
As far as what drives me to make images, that is easy — it’s the lure of the unknown. It’s the feeling of exploration that comes from never knowing what photo ops a day will bring.
About the Photographer
At heart, I am a hunter of special moments; sublime points in space and time where the forces of the world come together to produce something extraordinary. These can be as awe-inspiring as a tornado churning up a field on the sweeping great plains, or as intimate as a songbird performing a mating display in a quiet forest glade.
What these moments share is an intense sense of privilege. I’m left with a feeling of gratitude at being fortunate enough to have witnessed them.
The camera allows me to share these special encounters. My goal is to produce images that evoke the strong emotions — awe and fascination; humility, delight, and wonder — that these moments evoke in me.
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