Chasing Storms with Elisabeth Brentano and Kelly DeLay
Picture yourself in an open field. There’s no cover from the elements apart from the car you parked on the road 40 feet behind you. Rain pelts down, the tall grass swirls with the wind and a tornado stretches out of the not-so-distant clouds, reaching towards the ground. Do you run away? Or do you, like Elisabeth Brentano and Kelly DeLay, smile and ready your camera?
For these photographers, thunder and lightning are no match. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re looking for. Over the past decade, Elisabeth and Kelly have checked the weather every morning, crossing their fingers and hoping to find storms. That’s because their favorite thing to photograph is weather—and the more intense the weather, the better.
Storm chasing may not actually be as thrilling as the film Twister would have you believe, at least not all the time. Elisabeth and Kelly report that a lot of time is spent waiting. Elisabeth explains, “Storm chasing has a lot to do with luck, but it has more to do with patience and time.” During their storm chasing trip this year, Elisabeth and Kelly drove nearly 3,000 miles but found only a few hours worth of incredible storm watching. “You have a lot of down time,” Elisabeth says, “and you sometimes will sit in a spot for hours waiting for a storm to develop, only to watch it fizzle. Some days there is absolutely nothing to photograph, so finding a local park or a motel with AC is your best bet.”
In addition to the luck and patience that go into being a successful storm photographer, you also need to have a bit of scientific know-how. Elisabeth and Kelly study storm models, read radar and make daily decisions about which storms to chase. “It’s a gamble,” Elisabeth assures us, “and you won’t always win. But if you spend enough time doing this, you will see some incredible things.”
For storm chasing photographers like Elisabeth and Kelly, arriving at the perfect shot is rarely smooth sailing. Amidst high winds and violent rain, it can get a bit scary along the way. Kelly has a healthy respect for supercells, and, although Elisabeth is rarely frightened while photographing storms (perhaps her craft serves as a distraction from her fear), driving through them is another story. Kelly recalls, “One time near Matador, Texas, I pulled off the side of the road waiting for the bad part of a storm to move past when hail the size of a softball hit my drivers side windshield, cracking the window outwardly in circular shape!”
If Kelly’s photo isn’t enough to frighten your kids out of trying this at home, Elisabeth and Kelly reminisce on some of their close calls.
Elisabeth remembers her experience photographing double tornadoes in Dodge City, Kansas back in May 2016. She was driving through the storm, but soon realized it was no longer safe to drive. She says, “I ran into a local convenience store. The clerk must have been about 18, and she was absolutely terrified that the glass doors were going to shatter. We all took cover for a few minutes away from the front of the store, fully prepared to get into the large freezer in the back if the storm started ripping into the structure. If you don’t have access to a shelter, a freezer is a good place to take cover. If you’re in a field, getting face down in a ditch is your best bet.”
Kelly’s close call came at dusk one stormy evening. He says, “We were standing out near the edge of a field, watching a severe storm approach and thinking we were a safe distance away. I looked over and noticed my friend’s hair was starting to stand up on end. That’s not something you want to see when you are in a field in the middle of nowhere! We quickly gathered our gear and ran to the car. Lighting struck behind us where we had been, and we heard an immediate, percussive boom. It’s so loud that you feel it. I swear I smelled the charge in the air.”
According to Kelly, there always seems to be one last big strike or charge of lightning before a storm dies down. Then, when the storms have come and gone, it’s time for Kelly and Elisabeth to head home and look through their bags full of loot (or, rather, their SD cards full of photos).
For Elisabeth and Kelly, photo editing their storm chasing shots is all about capturing what it was actually like to be there. According to them, when photographing larger-than-life events, it’s not just about what your camera can do; it’s about how closely you can replicate the feeling you experienced through your editing. Elisabeth shares, “I’m definitely a big fan of graduated filters, as those help me create moodier skies in post. I don’t use them on every single photo, but have used as many as four at once to either soften the color and light in the sky or make it dark and moody.”
Adding drama to photos isn’t always necessary when the content is already this dramatic. A lot of the work is in the details. Kelly explains, “Pull darks up a little to reveal dark details. Use sharpening moderately to bring out details you want others to notice. Always shoot in raw if possible and take advantage of the dynamic range between lights, mids and darks.”
Before we let Elisabeth and Kelly run off to chase another storm, they’ve been kind enough to share a few parting words of advice.
Elisabeth on originality: “Shoot what inspires you and don’t compare yourself to others. Photography is a very competitive industry, but if you’re trying to be the best in the business, you might be putting less of a focus on creating original work that comes from the heart. It’s always good to understand the balance between work and art, and do your best to score assignments that allow you to grow on a creative level.”
Kelly on lifelong learning: “Be patient and learn. No matter what I do or how hard I try to advance to the next level, I have found it takes a few years for these things to happen. Learn the tools of your craft, be an expert with your camera and your software, be diligent and learn everything you can—it will make you a better artist. Remember, none of this happens overnight.”