Photo Tips / Pointers from the Pros


Dec 10, 2003
So. Cal.
Well, I finally plunked down the cash and got the Canon Rebel XT with the 17 - 85 Lens. I am fairly new at photography (at this level) and wanted to know what you all recommend for shooting storms / storm structure / tornados etc.... as it pertains to ISO / Wide vs. Tele / Custom setups on the camera etc.. etc.. (whether Canon or not, just general tips).

I will have a few weeks to get myself up to speed, but I would hate to get out during my chase vacation, and use the first few days to make mistakes with the setup... I only have 10 days, so I gotta make all the pix count!!
Since you are just starting out, I wouldn't recommend slide film. Print Film is much more forgiving as far as exposure mistakes go.

Film. Fuji seems to be the better films for print. ISO 100 to 400 works pretty well. ISO 400 is a good "all around" film speed to use. I don't know much about the ISO 800 films as I never did use them.

Tripod! You must get a tripod. When using the slower shutter speeds, a tripod is a must! Follow the rule of thirds when composing the shot. Here's a link that helps illustrate that rule:

Basically what you are doing is classified as "Landscape Photography". Do a Google (or your favorite search engine) search on that subject and you will find loads of information.

For the fast easy answers, tehre you go. Aaron Kennedy does a very nice job with his photos as do others on the site. Hopefully they'll pipe in here and give some other nice Pointers.
cstok, isn't the Rebel XT a digital camera? (and a pretty nice one at that!) :wink: The 17-85mm (IS?) lens gets pretty darn good reviews if you don't need full-frame EOS, so you should be ok there, too!

Get yourself ample CF card storage, an extra battery you keep charged, and shoot RAW. Be careful of getting the camera wet. Hasn't happened to us yet (a 10D), but I understand the Canons are rather sensitive to moisture.

What I most notice, and I'm still learning, is that digital doesn't have the dynamic range of slide film, so you have to be more attuned to high-contrast situations. These are all-too-frequent when you have detail in dark storm clouds and bright sky. You're in general better off over-exposing by 1/2-1 stop, and it's one more thing to consider when you set up your shots. Also... use the auto-bracketing feature routinely. It's nice with film and priceless with digital.

What's also nice about digital I confess is that you can set your ISO for each shot. So for those Chinese firedrills when you don't have time to tripod, you can crank up the ISO and trade some noise for sharpness.
Camera Tips

Keep the camera in your lap. I threw my camera in the backseat and couldn't find it right away - missed some shots of the Russell KS tornado because of it.

ISO still applies. My Sony DSC-707 had a fair amount of noise using the ISO 400 setting - I'll be using 100 or 200 from now on.

I haven't actually photographed a tornado, but I do a lot of landscape photography of storms and lightning. Here's a few tips:

* Practice lots! Get out there and shoot everything. Get a feel for how the camera responds, and how to change settings. Also, learn how your camera focusses in different situations. When shooting storms, it can be difficult for the camera to lock on the dark storm structure, and it may lock on something else, giving you bad focus. Don't be afraid to take TONS of pictures. Digital is cheap. :)

* Review your shots and histogram after shooting. I have my 10D set to automatically review (w/ histogram) any shot I take. This keeps me from making silly exposure mistakes. Look for flashing highlight areas. This means that area of the shot is overexposed. Also, dark storms can really fool an automatic camera. You may find that you need to intentionally underexpose to keep the clouds dark.

* Use a high Aperature for landscapes. If you want to keep most of the scene in focus, use a higher aperature. I like to stay around F8 or so. Also, most lenses are sharper when a higher aperature is used.

* Be careful with slow shutter speeds. Unless you are shooting lightning, your shutter speeds should probably not be slower than 1/60 of a second or so. Use a higher ISO setting to get higher shutter speeds. The XT takes very clean images up to 800, and 1600 isn't really that bad. Better than having a blurry landscape where things have moved.

* Get a good, sturdy tripod. This will allow you to keep the camera steady and anchored, as well as keep your hands free.

* Consider getting a remote or intervalometer. The remote will allow you to take pictures without shaking the camera (if you are using slower shutter speeeds). An intervalometer is basically a cool remote that allows you to take repeated pictures or pictures on intervals. It's great for lightning photography.

* If you plan on doing any landscape work, get a Circular Polarizer. A polarizer will bring out the colors in most landscapes. Makes skies bluer and plants greener. Also eliminates reflections.

* Get a backup battery and extra CF cards. Don't worry too much about the faster, more expensive CF cards, unless you plan on shooting a ton of frames, and don't want to wait long while they are written. I have one of the oldest CF cards made for my 10D, and it works fine. If you find you're firing off frames and waiting for the camera to catch up, a faster one will help you more.

* Shoot in JPG while you are learning. This is a very controversial subject, and you'll get tons of opinions. Here's mine: RAW is great for certain instances, like if you are unsure of your exposure or white balance settings, but is unnecessary in most situations. Using RAW, and with time and the right software, it is possible to recover underexposed shots, and it is easier to change WB settings. RAW basically gives you the picture info straight from the camera, with nothing chnaged. With JPG, the camera is compressing the info somewhat into a JPG format, and is also applying WB, sharpening, and color settings to it (depending upon your camera settings). I use JPG 98% of the time with my 10D. It saves me a ton of space on my cards, which is a must with the way I shooting lightning. It also takes less time (IMO) and work to process later. When I shoot weddings, I use RAW exclusively.

* Learn how to use your Photo editting program. Your camera probably came with Photoshop Elements, which is what I use. It will do most of what the more expensive CS will do. I process all of my shots before printing or showing via the web. Mostly I do slight color corrections, a bit of color saturation, and sharpening.

Well, this is tons of info. Hope I didn't overwhelm you too much. :p

I don't believe it was brought up earlier, but with digital cameras, and shooting outside (ie. storms) you should also use a UV filter to protect the sensors. They are very inexpensive and can prevent costly repairs later.
The UV filter is different from a Circular Polarization filter..
UV Filter

Hi Paul,

I've not ever heard of anyone using a UV filter for protecting the sensors. I know that some will keep one on in order to protect the lens itself. How does using the filter protect the internals? Enquiring minds want to know. :)

I have never used a UV filter on my lenses. There really isn't much to protect the sensor from (don't shoot 2 second exposures with a telephoto into the sun!). In my experience... any glass in front of the lens just adds to less contrast/saturation and more internal reflections/lens flare. Some like to use UV filters to protect the lens... I just make sure i'm careful ; )

Originally posted by Aaron Kennedy
I have never used a UV filter on my lenses. There really isn't much to protect the sensor from (don't shoot 2 second exposures with a telephoto into the sun!). In my experience... any glass in front of the lens just adds to less contrast/saturation and more internal reflections/lens flare. Some like to use UV filters to protect the lens... I just make sure i'm careful ; )


I think you're right, Aaron. As far as I know, UV filters do nothing to help protect the internal components of the camera. They are there mainly to protect to outer lense element. Shatter your UV filter and it will cost ~$40 to replace. Shatter your outer element and it will cost hundreds to thousands to fix.
Originally posted by David Wolfson
. . . and shoot RAW. . .

The XT has several significant improvements over the earlier version, one of which is that "for ultimate flexibility, JPEG and RAW images write simultaneously." No need to have to choose ahead of time. (Not sure if this is a setting or the default mode). Post-process only the RAW images that are worthy of the attention. This feature is also available in other better prosumer cameras, like the Nikon D70.

Darren Addy
Kearney, NE
Originally posted by Ryan McGinnis
As far as I know, UV filters do nothing to help protect the internal components of the camera. They are there mainly to protect to outer lense element. Shatter your UV filter and it will cost ~$40 to replace. Shatter your outer element and it will cost hundreds to thousands to fix.

Ryan is correct. Color film is sensitive to UV light, not digital camera sensors, so there is no color benefit (and certainly no protecting the internals). You would use a filter simply to protect the outer lens element. In my opinion, helping keep dust out/off the front lens element is reason enough to use a filter. No harm will be done if you wipe moisture, etc. off the filter with your shirt in the heat of stormchasing, but I would certainly avoid such behavior on your multi-coated front lens element.

Regarding other filter options, this article may be of interest: Filter Options for Digital Cameras.

Darren Addy
Kearney, NE
A cheap lens hood will do a very nice job protecting your lens from physical shock, and will offer a small amount of rain protection as well. Look for soft plastic or firm rubber. If you anticipate tripod blow overs, go for a rigid plastic model, it will probably offers a bit more high G protection by cracking to dissipate energy. At the least, get a UV filter - it will save your lens' filter threads from minor dings, and will offer some protection against bigger hits.

Some of the kit lenses out there appear pretty fragile, I'd think that any mechanical protection would be welcome. Older metal lenses are surprisingly tough. I recently body slammed my beloved 20mm FD into the ground when I slipped at the very end of a hike. The lens was face down, and the camera, tripod, and me all landed on the poor thing. After a bit of cursing, I inspected the lens, expecting to find a shattered filter and loose focuser, at the least. Fortunately, the only damage was lots of scraped anodizing and gouged aluminum, all on the sacrificial filter ring. After a short repair session with an emery board and magic marker, things look nearly as good as new, and the mechanicals seem unphased. I'm getting a set of rubber hoods for all my spendy lenses ASAP.

Try not to get sucked into the equipment trap. For now, use what you have and don't worry about getting that fancy L lens. High end equipment makes it a bit easier to get good shots, but is in now way a substitute for effort and ability. Master what you have, and when you reach the limits of your equpiment, you'll know it.

Haaving said that, I do suggest a sturdy tripod. Buy the heaviest and most rigid one you can afford/are willing to carry. Landscapes and low light situations require longish shutter speeds, and image quality will benefit greatly from the use if a good 'pod. Go to a camera store and play with the various heads. Some people prefer the tilt-pan layout, while others like the smoothness and 'pointability' of a ball head.

The rule of thirds, and many other compositional 'laws,' are general guidelines at best. Study and appreciate them, but please don't go around composing with the specific aim of following them. Instead, take your time (NOT applicable for tornadoes :) ) setting up your shots. Try different zoom settings, adding or deleting items from the frame. Try alternate camera positions, keeping an eye on how the foreground and background interact. Look at the image. Consider the flow and interraction of light and subject - you'll know when the composition is right. If the camera has a DOF preview, or auto DOF feature (focus on two subjects - the camera selects an aperture to keep both in focus), use and experiment with it. (This may be difficult, given the small viewfinder many DSLRs feature, but do try.)

Above all, go out and practice, critique, and think about your pictures. With 'free' images, the digital temptation is to blaze away and hope for a few 'good ones.' Don't. Pretend every exposure costs $5. If you plan your shots, they will ALL look halfway decent. At the very least, they will be properly focused and exposed. Not all your compositional ideas will work, of course, but that is exactly how you learn. Practice this now, and you will get very good at quickly composing good shots - the exact skill you'll need for chase photography.