Nothing adds drama to a photograph quite like dark, brooding, rolling clouds in the background. Capturing those clouds, without resorting post-processing trickery, is rather challenging. By the time clouds get as dark and ominous as we might want, chances are the weather is getting feisty and that’s not a good time to be taking pictures.
Growing up in Kansas and Oklahoma, one learns a lot about weather; it’s a necessity of survival. Weather forecasting back then was still in the relative stone age compared to the computer-driven real-time analysis available to meteorologists now. No matter how much one knew about the weather, usually the best tool in forecasting was having a large window through which one could look out. We were taught to respect, not fear, bad weather. Tornadoes could be avoided with some precaution, we were told. What we had to watch out for was lightening.
Stories abounded of people getting hit by tree limbs or knocked out of fishing boats because of lightening, but the incident that really drove the danger home was Johnny Bill. I met Johnny Bill (yes, that was his real name) through his grandparents my final year of college in 1983. He was the type of kid grandparents took pride in introducing to everyone. He was tall, athletic, an unruly shock of ginger hair on his head, and the kind of kid that attracted a following of little girls no matter where he went. He was intelligent, polite, and extremely kind.
Football season was still young. After school practice was critical, but Oklahoma high school coaches had strict policies about weather. Playing or practicing in the rain was acceptable, but at the first sign of lightening everyone was to be off the field. So it was this Thursday afternoon. Storms were still several miles away it seemed, but at the first rumble of thunder the coach called practice and sent his team toward the locker room. Johnny Bill was crossing the endzone, his helmet in his hand, when lightening hit. He and two other players fell to the grass. The other two slowly got up. Johnny Bill didn’t.
A lot has changed in meteorology over the past 30 years. I’m sitting here this morning knowing that storms are, once again, on their way. Where, when, and at what strength is hardly a mystery, though. I can watch my phone and see exactly the same information meteorologists see. I know upper level wind speeds, I can see barometric pressure readings, and radar has real-time accuracy. I don’t have to wonder whether it is safe to go out. I’ve known all week, in fact, that today’s weather was going to be rough, so we didn’t schedule anything outdoors.
Would it be tempting to take advantage of the dark clouds I know will be rolling in this morning? Sure, tempting, but stupid. By the time the dark clouds are most photographable lightening is likely at its most ferocious. Just because it sounds like it is still miles away doesn’t mean the next strike won’t be right on top of you.
For that reason, I’m not bothered too much by photographers enhancing skies in post-processing, provided it is done well. I would much rather see a carefully used photoshop brush than an obituary notice. Little of what photographers encounter has the ability to be lethal, but lightening is one element of nature that’s never worth the risk. Please use some common sense before going out into stormy weather.
And perhaps consider learning how to photoshop clouds really well.