Season 2, Part 1 has ended, and it went fast!
I hit the ground running upon my arrival in Oklahoma City, following along as Chris Sanner chased 3 times in 24 hours (breaking a personal record). Game ON, I thought; three separate storms in three different locations throughout the state? This had to be a harbinger of an incredibly active late April, right? Noooope. In fact, aside from one other chase day–playing roulette with a crashing cold front on April 25–those first 24 hours produced the most storm action I’d see those two weeks (I was fast asleep when the damaging straight line winds hit the Metro the morning of April 29th).
A quiet tornado year in Oklahoma wouldn’t normally be so perplexing–years have gone by with below-average tornado counts in the Sooner State––but 2017 has been breaking tornado records across the United States. January 2017 was the second most active since record keeping began in 1950. The state of Massachusetts experienced its first-ever February tornado on February 25; the same day an EF2 twister struck the Scranton area here in Pennsylvania. By the end of the meteorological winter, the states of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California had experienced tornadoes, while Oklahoma was at 0.
Initial forecasts trended toward April being the active tornado month for Okies, with May being below-average. Now well into the first week of May, with no severe weather on the immediate horizon (at press time), Oklahoma-based storm chasers are weighing two possibilities; either severe weather will pick up for the second half of this month, ending May with a bang, or 2017 will be a bust. Only time will tell.
It may seem 2017 is a welcome reprieve for Oklahomans, but Mother Nature is acting out in other ways. In exchange for this tornado drought, the state has seen record flooding and a late-season blizzard which brought several feet of snow to the panhandle. It’s been such an odd weather year on the Southern Plains that Eugene Thieszen joked about returning to Kansas to chase the blizzard, after a predicted severe weather event around the Oklahoma City metro failed to pan out.
Introducing the archenemy to my workflow
Artificial lighting (lighting a photo with flash) has long been, for me, one of the hardest photography concepts to grasp. When used correctly, off-camera flash can breathe new life into a seemingly dull scene; directing the viewer’s eye toward the focal point of the photo while simultaneously keeping crisp detail in the background.
Unfortunately, I have yet to understand how to correctly implement this wizardry. All of the learning material I’ve found in regards to external flash presents itself as a complicated math problem. Excellent for you if that part of your brain works, but seeing as I’ve been known to unabashedly use my fingers to count, my brain isn’t solving an equation in order to find the “correct exposure.” I’ve found it so difficult to comprehend that my two Canon Speedlites have spent more time in their little homes (cases) than actually lighting my photography. And then I went back and reviewed my photos from last year.
Prior to beginning Behind The Bear’s Cage, I hadn’t really photographed a storm; let alone a group of people in front of one. Coming from a background of live music photography, I’m used to pushing my camera to its limits and still “getting the shot.” Shooting in hole-in-the-wall rock clubs has forced me to venture into the upper echelons of my 7D’s ISO capabilities, tricking my camera’s sensor into thinking the scene is lighter than it actually is. Low-light photography? Piece of cake! I thought on my flight out to Oklahoma in 2016.
While a lack of available light exists in both situations, I failed to realize one crucial difference-–there are no spot lights fixed on a storm chaser standing underneath a supercell thunderstorm. Furthermore, the main focus of concert photography is the artist… the background is secondary; with Behind The Bear’s Cage, capturing detail in the background (ordinarily a storm) is as vital as retaining detail in the subject. I found it incredibly difficult to expose for both at the same time, and bumping up my ISO to 3200 resulted in a muddy, grainy mess. I was sacrificing detail and spending hours in post, layering luminosity masks and painstakingly painting in higher foreground values with Photoshop’s brush tool (and no tablet). Even with all of that work, I’d already sacrificed massive amounts of detail in-camera. Since going full-frame is still out of my budget (and lamenting on how I should have done more research on the 7D’s low-light performance before purchasing a used body in 2014 is just a waste of time), I decided to unpack my friends 430EX II & 600EX II-RT.
So I’ve approached the introduction of artificial light like I do most things in life––just wing it. Holding my feet to the fire but also faking it until I make it. Though I’ve yet to really “make” it since I don’t fully understand what the hell I’m doing with these flash monsters, messing around with settings did yield some interesting results. One thing that seemed to work for me was the 600EX II-RT’s built-in bounce card. It softens the light even while the unit is attached at the hot shoe (I can hear the groans, photo purists), simultaneously eliminating harsh shadows while the Speedlite is on camera, and giving me time to ease my way into shooting with artificial light before diving into Speedlite 201: Wireless Triggers (the 7D does have wireless functionality, but it requires the pop-up flash to fire to trigger the slave units, and it doesn’t. Turn. Off.).
And that’s where I’m at. My hope is to return to the Plains in about 2 weeks.