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My name is Chris Allington, I am a photographer and storm chaser that lives in a small town called Crofton, Nebraska on the Nebraska/ South Dakota border near Lewis and Clark Lake. I have lived in Nebraska for most of my life, and during the frequent thunderstorms we would get all spring and summer I started getting interested in severe weather. Every spring and summer I chase storms in the Central Plains, traveling from North Dakota to Texas in search of supercells and other extreme weather to photograph. During the rest of the year, I keep myself entertained with landscapes, wildlife, and other weather phenomenon like winter storms, atmosphereic optics, and the night sky. All of which you will find in some form or another here on the site. The image above is me photographing the Odell, Nebraska supercell on June 17th, 2009 and was taken by Tyler Burg (you can see more of his work here).
I remember one particular experience that solidified my interest in storms and seemed to plant the seeds of what would eventually become my interest in chasing storms. One day, after school towards the end of the school year in Early May, I came home and a tornado warning was issued. It was the first time I didnt have anyone telling me to take cover immediately so I decided to see what I could see (though I definitely advocate taking cover if a tornado warning is issued). I eventually headed to the basement, but not before seeing some incredible structure as a wall cloud moved just off to my south, nearly over head. I remembered the colors, deep blues and greens in the storm, and the striations carved into the storm by the wind with that constant rumble of thunder. It was incredible to me that something so potentially destructive and frightening could also be so beautiful and awe inspiring. After this experience I started looking online and trying to learn. I found other chasers websites and looked at their images, read about their experiences, and starting trying to learn as much as I could about weather. A couple of Christmases later my brother and I got a Sony video camera, so I would film local storms, and when I got my learners permit, start driving to within a couple of counties to film storms locally and see what I could see. I didnt catch much of note in those first couple of years but it definitely got me increasingly interested in storms and the weather, as well as documenting what I experienced. I got my first Digital SLR in 2005, after saving for quite awhile and started snapping some images. Then in 2006-2007 I briefly attended the Univeristy of Nebraska as a meteorology and climatology student. I soon decided it wasn't for me and have been working and doing this full time ever since.
I went on my first true 'chase' in 2008 and didn't have much success that year (beyond a couple of accounts posted on this site). 2009 saw me getting out alot more but it was a rather poor year in the Plains for supercells and tornadoes. 2010 was an incredible year, but one that I still learned alot and made alot of mistakes in, and I suppose the same goes for this past season in 2011. I'd estimate that I've driven a total of around 50,000 miles so far, just chasing storms, in 10 states across the Central Plains. The wierd part is that I feel like its a journey that has just started and I'll never get tired of, so I look forward to many more years of long drives to obscure places with my camera, all in search of clouds to photograph. I've seen a number of tornadoes and incredible supercells, but some that stand out to me are the Aurora, Nebraska supercell and tornado, The Vivian, South Dakota supercell that produced world record hail, the Last Chance, Colorado supercell, and being within about 150 yards of a rope tornado near Shawnee, Oklahoma. Events like those are why I chase, to be there when Mother Nature has a tendency to be at her worst, most unique, and also somehow most photogenic. After getting involved in photography more and more I realized how much more is around us that I wanted to document and see as well, and obviously severe weather doesn't happen year round (though I certainly wouldn't complain if it did) so I started looking for other weather events and things to photograph. The image at right was taken by Evan Ludes as I stood in a wheatfield below a developing storm in Oklahoma (you can also see his images here).
My goal with my photography is pretty simple and straight forward I think. I want to document the things I experience and give my perspective on them. I also want to show people some of the fascinating things that happen in the natural world around us. I want to evoke that same feeling of awe and fascination that I feel when I witness alot of these scenes. I hope you enjoy the images here and the words I've written about them. I look forward to continuing to document storms and amazing scenes in nature. If you have any questions or comments feel free to pass them along here.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I bought my first Digital SLR in early 2005 after looking at a number of photography websites online I decided it was definitely something I was interested in and purchased my first Canon Rebel XT. I dont have any of my images from prior to 2007 because the laptop I had them on crashed, but to be honest I wasn't very good then anyway haha. That camera broke in 2007 after my tripod was blown over in some wind while photographing lightning. I purchased another Canon Rebel XT to replace it. For a short period of time I did not have a camera. Then in 2008 I purchased a Canon Rebel XTi and battery grip. This is when I really started getting more into photography. Throughout 2009 I documented a few storm events and other phenomenon and well into 2010. In late 2010 I purchased a Canon Rebel T1i, which is still the body I'm using now. I've also added a few lenses, with a Canon 28-80 f/3.5, Canon 50mm f/1.8, Canon 75-300mm f/3.5 USM II, and Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5. I also have a number of filters. I plan on hopefully purchasing a new body sometime this upcoming year and am looking at the 60d. I also want to add a much nicer telephoto (hopefully the 100-400mm f/4 L) to the mix for my wildlife photography. One thing I have not done is shot many videos, I do from time to time using the video feature of my T1i but plan to purchase a camera solely for video this winter in time for next storm season. (UPDATE 2013:) I have upgraded my camera equipment and am now using a Canon 5d Mark II. I also have the 24-105mm f/4 L and 17-40mm f/4 L lenses as well as an intervalometer for timelapse work.
One other thing I'll touch on here is what I use for image editing. To do my raw conversion and image editing I use Adobe Photoshop Elements 9, I had CS2 for the longest time but found myself not having a need for alot of the more robust features to do simple image editing so I bought Elements. For noise reduction I use Neat Image, which is a stand alone program and also a photoshop plug in. For my HDR work I use Photomatix, which I really enjoy. To resize images and batch watermark them I use ReaConverter which can be purchased online for a pretty small fee.
One other thing I'll briefly touch on here is the vehicle I chase in. This has changed many times over a few years. The first vehicle I did alot of chasing in was a 2000 Nissan Sentra. Ironically alot of people think you need 4x4 or a large vehicle to chase in, but there are very few times I have used 4 wheel drive, and when I have it was probably still a road I should not have taken, even with 4 wheel drive haha. For all of the 2010 I chased in a 2008 Jeep Compass Sport, that was awesome, never had any problems despite an incredible amount of miles, was decent on gas for a SUV and had a very easy to engage AWD system for those crappier roads. This year (2011) it varied alot, but I chased primarily in a 2011 Kia Rio (so as you can see, 4 wheel drive wasnt a selling point haha). Despite being very small it was comfortable and an amazing on fuel chase vehicle that handled everything we threw at it (including some very poor road choices in Western Nebraska.) Going forward I'll be chasing in a 2000 Ford Ranger 4x4. Im pretty pumped to see how it does as a chase vehicle except when it comes to filling up the gas tank. Something to consider is that chasing storms is very VERY hard on vehicles. Between an incredible amount of miles each spring, and some of the long hours on the road combined with some of the abuse they take on poor roads makes maintenece a top priority. Then theres the obvious caveat of hail damage. I've only lost 1 wind shield while chasing, but all of my vehicles have had some pretty significant hail damage. (UPDATE 2013:) The Ranger was totalled in a car vs. deer incident and I'm now driving a 2006 Chevy Impala. Already has hail damage from the 2 chases its been on, miss the 4x4 but not the gas mileage.
What got you into chasing storms, how did you learn about them?
When I first started getting interested in chasing my biggest source of information was the internet. I discovered some other chasing sites online. I joined a couple of forums and started reading the discussions there to learn what various parameters meant. These forums also had threads where people would make forecasts so that helped to be able to see what their reasoning and logic was. People would also post graphics from various weather models so I started learning how to read them. In addition to learning about weather parameters and very basic forecasting I looked at images from chasers like Mike Hollingshed and Scott Blair to observe storm structure and try to identify features in the images. Pretty much any chaser describes whats going on in the images on their websites so it was a good learning tool. There is definitely a wealth of knowledge out there so dont be afraid to ask questions.
That being said there is definitely no substitute for first hand experience. After trying my hand at forecasting some events after reviewing model runs and then seeing what actually played out I felt more confident that I was understanding the gist of forecasting, though I still definitely learn something new on almost every chase day. I had also been observing storms in my local area for some time before actually driving long distance to chase, so by the time I felt more comfortable with driving long distance I was fairly comfortable being around storms. There are a couple of links at the bottom of the page that can point you to some model data and real time data if you'd like to check those out.
What is your favorite storm that you have witnessed?
It gets really hard to pick a 'favorite' storm when they are all so unique and incredible at times. They all have seem to have their own things going for them and that's part of what makes chasing storms so fun. You seem to never see the same thing twice. That being said there are definitely some notable ones that stand out for me. Probably the most memorable single chase I've had so far was the Vivian, South Dakota supercell that produced world record 8 inch diameter hail. Sadly I have very few images from that day and I wish I had been documenting it on video because we had some incredible experiences that day. First of all it had incredible structure, and it was one of the few times I've been scared while chasing. We got much too close to the core of the storm navigating some gravel roads and had sporadic hail stones larger than softball size pounding down around us and even bouncing over the car at one point. It was an incredible display of mother nature's power. That day also had some of the most incredible and vivid lightning I can remember. We had a number of strikes within close range, including one that left a tree smoldering close to us, hit Lake Oahe as we crossed at Chamberlin, and shut down gas pumps as we were filling up in town. These combined to make it a rather incredible day.
Some other examples of note include the Last Chance, Colorado supercell for its incredible sunset structure show that allowed us to sit virtually in the same spot for 45 minutes. The Aurora, Nebraska supercell and tornado. Which gave us incredible structure show with a tornado present underneath. This tornado moved right towards us as a CRAWL for 20 minutes before disappating all in the twilight shortly after sunset. In addition the Shawnee, Oklahoma tornado, which was the first time I had been at close range to a tornado within about 150 yards. This tornado destroyed a semi right in front of us and was close enough that it extended well out of the frame of my camera. The roar of the tornado was plainly audible and I won't forget how I felt as it turned east and rained debris out of the sky around us as we flew east to escape before it dissapated rapidly.
I love the images but I know I would be scared if I saw that, do you ever get scared while chasing?
Once you have been chasing for awhile and you know what your looking at, the risks from chasing themselves are fairly minimal if you use common sense. In most cases I worry about long hours on the road with other drivers more than I do any storm. Tornadoes by nature are not exactly common, and when they do occur are very localized. It is a small point of swirling winds in relation to a much larger storm and it is moving, plus you are also in a vehicle and can move as well so typically as long as you have some escape routes (which are easy to plan with the gridded road networks on the plains) and can determine which way the tornado is moving your relatively safe. Of course getting extremely close can complicate matters as your time to get out of the way is reduced quite a bit and any error costs valuable time. Straightline winds are something that occur with alot of severe storms on the Plains, but it would take pretty substansial winds to damage or roll a vehicle and the storms that can produce winds of that magnitude are fairly rare. Alot of storms produce gusts of wind around 60-70mph which is not close to flipping a car or truck, finding something in the 80-90mph range is very rare and even that will not flip a vehicle. Usually the best thing to do is simply stop moving, and avoid parking under any trees, powerlines, or other items that can fall in the wind or become debris that can strike you.
Hail and Lightning are both risks that can be minimized by staying in the car when they are occuring. Of course very large hail can damage or break windshields or other windows in a vehicle, but getting into baseball or softball sized hail is fairly uncommon unless you are trying to do so. Even then, close your eyes to avoid and flying glass and chances are your car is going to protect you. Same thing with lightning, if a number of close strikes are occuring its just a better to stay in the car than play human lightning rod outside. Of all of these items I'm probably honestly the most afraid of lightning, simply because it is so random and you dont really have any warning of where it will strike. With the other things listed here there is usually some kind of precursor to indicate that they are going to happen.
Chasing looks like a lot of fun, what does a normal chase consist of?
Hopefully this answer isn't to much of a bummer. But most chases are actually fairly boring except for the portion where there is a storm occuring. Usually things start a couple days out, looking at forecasts and nailing down a target where storms will occur. The morning of begins the long drive to the target. Sometimes as much as 8-9 hours one way just to get to where your thinking storms will occur. I've driven from Omaha to Central Oklahoma, Western South Dakota, or Eastern Colorado in a single morning, trying to get there in time for afternoon storms. I usually chase with friends, which helps significantly both with cost and keeping each other entertained but there is only so much you can do with an 8 hour car ride. Usually we joke around with each other, listen to music, and talk about observations or other things related to the chase day to keep us entertained. Lunch time rolls around and it typically involves fast food or something close to the interstate for convience purposes. Some of our favorites include Dairy Queen, Sonic, and Subway for whatever reason. Then by the time you are reaching your target area, if storms have already fired your trying to make decisions to get to the best storm and make the right choices road wise to have a good day (this can often be stressful and not entirely clear until youve committed to something haha), or your trying to find somewhere remotely interesting to wait for storms to form. On occasion nothing happens and you start the ride back home empty handed, or sometimes storm do fire, but they aren't what you expected intensity wise, or from a photogenic standpoint which often results in an even longer ride home as you follow junk storms for a few hours. Obviously the best option is you get a great storm and incredible images. While a storm is happening it can be exciting, but its usually short periods of excitement, followed by the stress of making decisions and reviewing road options to keep yourself positioned correctly on the storm. This can be very hard to do depending on road options and the speed the storm is moving at. Very rarely do things go perfectly. Then after witnessing the storm for a few hours you being the exhausting drive back home, which can be another 8 hours depending on where you are. For every day I've seen something incredible there are probably 4-5 days that didnt pan out as I expected or didnt have storms fire at all. There are also days I've spent hours chasing actual storms but have very few good images worth posting. Usually we end up hitting a fast food joint thats open late on the way home, and have to make a stop or 2 for energy drinks to keep us alert on the drive home. Then when you finally get home catching up on sleep and working on images take over.
Mike Hollingshead- Photographer and Storm Chaser from Nebraska
Tyler Burg- Photographer and Storm Chaser from Nebraska
Evan Ludes- Photographer and Storm Chaser from Nebraska
Dustin Wilcox- Storm Chaser from Nebraska
Caleb Elliot- Nature Photographer and Storm Chaser from Missouri
SPC Mesoanalysis- Severe weather parameters, surface observations, and satillite imagery.
Twister Data- Model data for forecasting severe weather.
National Weather Service- Sioux Falls- My local NWS forecast office for local weather information.
Space Weather- Information on night sky events and Northern Lights forecasting.
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