General settings/lens setups on your camera?

Aug 27, 2009
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While chasing there seems to be somewhat similar photo setups that occur from time to time. I am curious to how you set up your camera while chasing.

- If you shoot in Manual mode (which I assume), do you typically tend to keep the Aperture fixed and regulate with the Shutter speed.
- Do you typically use auto ISO or alternate that?
- How do you handle the "10 sec opportunity windows", when something appears and you know you have very limited time to photograph? Fully automatic.
- Do you have a standard Aperture that you tend to keep it on, unless the situation is very specific?
- How do you do to get the most contrast out of a dark (non back-lit) tornado? For example: - How can one practice storm photography when there is no storms?

Personally, I try to get out of the car with two cameras when there is a chance of tornadoes. On one, I keep some sort of telescope lens, either 70-300mm or 18-230mm on my Canon 760 (cropped sensor), on the other I have my old Canon 460 with a wide angle lens for storm structure. If we are close to the base, I sometimes use the wide angle as my primary lens and switch the 18-230 to my secondary camera. I usually keep my camera settings to Av-mode with auto-ISO unless there is plenty of time to play around with camera settings. I have messed up several times by forgetting my camera on a fixed ISO, fixed manual focus etc and haven't realized until too late which has ruined some great photo ops for me. I still don't feel comfortable enough to go full Manual, mainly for that reason and because it would take too much time for me to find the perfect setup when time is scarce.

What is your personal strategy for photographing storms?
 

Jeff Duda

Resident meteorological expert
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Oct 7, 2008
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- If you shoot in Manual mode (which I assume), do you typically tend to keep the Aperture fixed and regulate with the Shutter speed.
- Do you typically use auto ISO or alternate that?
- How do you handle the "10 sec opportunity windows", when something appears and you know you have very limited time to photograph? Fully automatic.
- Do you have a standard Aperture that you tend to keep it on, unless the situation is very specific?
- How do you do to get the most contrast out of a dark (non back-lit) tornado? For example: - How can one practice storm photography when there is no storms?
Assuming you don't have the gobs of money needed to have multiple cameras ready with fixed settings...

-I shoot in full manual most of the time, which means I alternate the exposure time and aperture as I see fit. Frankly, I think if you want to be even halfway decent at photography you need to learn how to alternate both of these quickly and on the fly. Nikon's have rotating dials that you can control with the fingers on your right hand and maybe a separate button you can hold down with your left hand to control whether the dial switches the exposure speed or the aperture setting (when there is only one rotating dial present...that was the case with the D40...my D750 has two separate dials). During daylight chasing, the cameras will give you some leeway on not having the perfect exposure and aperture settings, so it is not particularly critical to get these exactly right. But in general you want to adjust these to get as fast a shutter speed as possible while still allowing enough light into the camera so as not to underexpose. That tends to mean low F-stops (open aperture). I only tend to get above F/8 or so when there is very good light. ....Oh, and to get the most out of this...you should use manual focus at infinity. You should really never have a reason to have to focus at any other distance.

-I use as low of ISO as reasonably possible. 100-200 works very well. On higher end cameras you can get away with 1000-2000. But I would only turn it up when light starts to become a premium (either lots of clouds blocking the sun or towards sunset).

-There is no way to be ready for super short windows other than to have your camera in hand and turned on and watching the sky.

-Lower F stops are preferred in many cases so as to allow for faster shutter speeds. However, this is at the cost of depth of focus, meaning your focus is less forgiving. If there is enough light so that you can use a much higher F-number (like 15 or above), the depth of focus increases quite a bit which allows for more forgiveness with incorrect focus.

-Try to keep the sun's disc as far removed from the feature you are shooting as possible, so as to reduce overexposed sections adjacent to dark sections. You can also try shooting HDR.

-Shoot on days with cumulus humilis (i.e., fair-weather puffy cumulus). Those days are plentiful in the warm season. Also, shoot in the afternoon when you would be otherwise chasing.
 
Aug 27, 2009
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Thanks for some really good feedback! Yeah, it is somewhat embarrassing that I don't shoot in Manual mode considering the money I have spent on cameras so far. I have been a bit too bummed out about mistakes I have made in the past, leaving me not trusting my ability as a photographer in those cases.

This season I will have a Canon 6D with a 16-34mm lens (mainly for structure & lightning) as well as my Canon 760 for more distance photos as well as video. I have a fixed 50mm and a 70-300mm that goes on both. I am somewhat considering a 24-70mm for the Canon 6D as I am buying the 6D used, allowing for some extra budget here.

Some follow up questions:

- I assume then you keep your ISO fixed and change it while needed? I.e. not in "Auto".
- Similarly, do you tend to keep your lenses on Manual, and only shift to Auto-Focus when needed?
- I am a bit suprised that you "optimize" in shutter-speed. I can understand that for a tornado photo when it is lit enough so that you can stop it in the motion, so to say. Otherwise, the motion never really seems to be fast enough that shutter speed is an issue, but rather getting as much of the details in focus as possible i.e. optimizing on high aperture.

Given my photo from Cope, CO, which is a tornado view I usually find myself most in. Do you think there would have been any camera setting that would have made the tornado less "flat", you think?
 
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Jeff Duda

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Thanks for some really good feedback! Yeah, it is somewhat embarrassing that I don't shoot in Manual mode considering the money I have spent on cameras so far. I have been a bit too bummed out about mistakes I have made in the past, leaving me not trusting my ability as a photographer in those cases.
Another part of the reason for using manual focus is that auto focus mechanisms can have a hard time focusing on wispy elements such as clouds, so even with autofocus you may not get great results. With manual focus you are assuring yourself of having correct focus.

ChristofferB said:
This season I will have a Canon 6D with a 16-34mm lens (mainly for structure & lightning) as well as my Canon 760 for more distance photos as well as video. I have a fixed 50mm and a 70-300mm that goes on both. I am somewhat considering a 24-70mm for the Canon 6D as I am buying the 6D used, allowing for some extra budget here.

Some follow up questions:

- I assume then you keep your ISO fixed and change it while needed? I.e. not in "Auto".
When you shoot in manual modes on a Nikon, it by definition keeps your ISO fixed unless you change it. When in auto modes, it will adjust as it deems necessary. So, yes, I keep my ISO fixed.

- Similarly, do you tend to keep your lenses on Manual, and only shift to Auto-Focus when needed?
yes

- I am a bit suprised that you "optimize" in shutter-speed. I can understand that for a tornado photo when it is lit enough so that you can stop it in the motion, so to say. Otherwise, the motion never really seems to be fast enough that shutter speed is an issue, but rather getting as much of the details in focus as possible i.e. optimizing on high aperture.
I am not a professional photographer, but I do understand the basics and have experience. This is only my personal preference, and it is just an opinion. There is more than one way to prioritize your settings, and they are equally as valid. IMO, if you focus accurately enough, then the aperture setting really doesn't matter that much. I have had more than a few otherwise decent shots ruined by camera motion blur (i.e., my hand not holding the camera steady enough) when using slower shutter speeds (generally slower than 1/100 s), so that is my rationale for wanting fast speeds. It can get really hard to stay faster than 1/100 s when you're deep into a supercell and anvil shading has completely eliminated background sunlight...and it's close to 00Z.

Given my photo from Cope, CO, which is a tornado view I usually find myself most in. Do you think there would have been any camera setting that would have made the tornado less "flat", you think?
I don't know for sure, but given there was some significant distance between you and the tornado, and the terrain around there is very flat (I was there that day, too) I would say probably not. That shot is more the result of chase positioning than camera settings or framing.
 
Aug 27, 2009
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Thanks Jeff for a lot of really good answers! I will try to see if I can simulate storm chasing back home in order to practice what you have mentioned!
 

Mike Z

EF1
Sep 11, 2017
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Northeast USA
www.undertheanvil.com
-Lower F stops are preferred in many cases so as to allow for faster shutter speeds. However, this is at the cost of depth of focus, meaning your focus is less forgiving. If there is enough light so that you can use a much higher F-number (like 15 or above), the depth of focus increases quite a bit which allows for more forgiveness with incorrect focus.
I think this is great information.
 

Darren Lo

EF0
Feb 25, 2012
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Stopping down a lot does increase your depth of field, but at the cost of diffraction which limits overall resolution. Where the precise diffraction limit is depends on your sensor, but I don't like to stop down beyond f/8, or f/11 on ultra-wide zooms which need it.

As for the original question, my Nikon bodies have auto-ISO with a minimum shutter speed that is determined by the focal length (e.g. 1/focal length). So I usually just shoot in aperture priority with the auto-ISO, at the aforementioned "landscape apertures". If light is getting low or there is a tricky situation, then I will open up the aperture or switch to manual entirely. One body always has a 24-70 mounted, while the other gets either a 70-200 or 12-24 as needed. Despite having two bodies, I've still found that the correct lens for any given situation is always the one that's not currently mounted -- or, if I'm holding only one of the bodies in a time-critical situation, then it's always the other one that I need.