Behind the Shot
With Michael Strickland
The spring and summer in Kansas is my favorite time of year. Large, sometimes incredibly severe thunderstorms come tearing through the plains, wrecking havoc to nearby residents. For me, I find this time period exciting and filled with opportunity while the majority of the population wishes these storms to avoid them altogether. When I photograph my state, I try to tell a story and strike an emotion with my viewer. I want to portray the light I witnessed and the experience I felt. This experience includes the search for the composition, the chase to get the light, and the scene as it unfolded for me.
Location scouting is probably my favorite activity as a photographer (besides actually capturing the shot how I want it). As a child, I was absolutely fascinated with maps. My grandmother and I would pour over old maps and the globes she had, explaining to me where she grew up and where she had been. I always dreamt of traveling the world. Now that I’ve began this career as a photographer, I am able to travel and live that lifelong dream.
I found this location a long time ago and, at first, thought nothing of it. The age of the house was moderately new, with food still in the cabinets and a satellite dish still hanging from the tree. I discarded the idea, thinking the story the photo would tell would be bland and meaningless. As this storm fired up on the night of the 7th of June, I quickly poured through the lists of predetermined locations I had scouted, imagining which would produce the best shot. While on the way to one of the locations, I came across this house, which I had originally not intended to shoot. Jes, Charlie (my new black lab puppy) and I got out and set up the shot.
There is the common phrase spread around the internet that “buying a good camera doesn’t make you a good photographer.” While I agree with this, I do believe that having the right gear can make or break a shot. On this evening, the light was screaming for a panorama and I was fortunate enough to have my Really Right Stuff panorama-gimbal head with me to capture exactly what I wanted. As the light of sunset began to light up the clouds overhead, a strong glow of orange to the left softly transitioned to a deep purple to the right. It was perfect. This house, recently abandoned was left to decay by those who once called it their home. From this point on, it would stand against the elements until it would finally succumb to the pressure and crumble with age. The building was in a transition between a lively home, to an abandoned structure, placed between the calming shades of purple to the intense shades of orange.
Over the next few years, as I finish school and move into this career full time, I’m going to be concentrating on panoramic photography of severe thunderstorms around the midwest. This year, I began experimenting with this from time to time and I began to realize just how difficult it was. Currently, my process of taking a 3:1 panorama is a time consuming process, as everything has to be perfectly level. In a thunderstorm with winds pushing 80mph, this isn’t exactly easy. This combined with 7 individual shots (to later be stitched in Photoshop) in low light, makes for a lot of guesswork and luck.
Panoramic photography in general is very difficult when it comes to finding a composition. Most of my images take months of work and planning proior to the shot, researching weather patterns, the movement of the light across the sky, and waiting for everything to connect at precisely the right moment. After a chasing a few storms, I realized that panoramic photography of a storm was going to be incredibly difficult. Not only did I have to worry about composing on the fly, but I had to worry about fast changing light, and incredibly fast changing and dangerous weather patterns in my viewfinder.
Missed opportunities happened more often than not and there were moments where a storm changed directions and put us all in a dangerous situation. One such storm was the storm in Oklahoma, where renowned storm chaser Tim Samaras lost his life. We were chasing that very storm, attempting to get in front of it, where the strongest probability of torandic activity happened to be. As we were approaching the storm from an angle, it switched directions and came right for us. The storm was moving at over 60 mph and forced us to travel at almost 80mph in order to avoid a direct hit. We were scared to death. After we had successfully outrun the storm, we decided to call it a day. We started heading home into the sunset and came upon this scene. The beams of light were reaching through the clouds in the thick, humid air. It was a very peaceful scene after a very tragic day in the midwest.