As storm chasers, one of the integral parts of our equipment is the photography gear. In years past, the choice was rather simple with basic manual focus 35mm and/or VHS camcorders the standard choices. But with the wide array of equipment available today and an even wider variety of price ranges, the choice is becoming more a pissing match than choosing what it financially practical and, in the long term, going to give you the biggest bang for the buck.
First, let me start off with what I take with me. Currently, my main camcorder is a 1998 vintage Sony Hi 8mm with not a little road wear. The tripod socket on the bottom is broken but otherwise, it’s in as good a shape as it ever was. Easy to operate, not too heavy, and has proven itself roadworthy by having endured it’s share of rain, hail, and dust…not to mention having taken a few spills even on hard concrete. My other camcorder is a small Sony MiniDV which doesn’t have the optional features of the older Sony, but it does the trick. Within a year or two, I’ll be replacing one of them with an upgraded model with more features and picture quality. So far, I’ve been lucky. The older Sony is the third camcorder I’ve bought since I started using a camcorder while chasing in the spring of 1992. For one season, I used a huge VHS beast that sat on my shoulder. The next year, I bought an 8mm Sony that lasted me for five seasons. Eventually, the toll of dust, vibration, and moisture put an end to that one. It would make a nice doorstop today.
In today’s camcorder market, there’s little reason to pay more than $1,000 for a camcorder used in storm chasing unless you are involved full-time in video production and have someone with the budget to back that up. Trust me, taking a “Ferrari” of camcorders isn’t what it’s cracked up to be when storm chasing. This past spring of 2009, I took out a borrowed $18,500 professional camcorder from a friend who does work in international commercials. In spite of the camera’s capability, it was a nightmare. Fiddling with a camera that costs more than my minivan was nerve racking enough, but this beast would only be useful on a big tripod. Once was enough. I can say I’ve used one…been there, done that. Besides, I already knew that it’s not the money invested that makes for a great video. That’s more closely connected with good forecasting skills and knowledge of storm structure and behavior.
Now, lets move into still photography. This area seems to evoke more volatile responses than any other. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because more people have cameras now and can consider themselves “photographers.” Perhaps because of the proliferation of websites devoted to photography ranging from personal sites of the pros to general purpose sites like Flickr. And, perhaps because of the recent digital revolution that has almost eliminated the need to take photos to a developer, wait for them to return, then sift through and find one or two worthy of saving in your photo album. Likely, it’s a combination of all three, and much, much more.
Here’s what I travel with. First and foremost is my trusty Canon AE-1 which I purchased new in the spring of 1979. I’ve now had this camera over thirty years and it has yet to have let me down. If anything has gone awry, it’s been my fault. That camera won’t do anything unless I tell it to. Matched with it are 28-85mm and 75-205mm lenses. I carry a tele-extender lens with me which will double the telephoto range to 410mm. The usual UV filters which I never take off my lenses for protection, polarizing filters, power winder, etc…I’m all set. There’s nothing I can’t do with that camera that a $8,000 Nikon 3x can do. In fact, with a low ASA slide film, I’m getting the equivalent of 25 megapixels which is just over what the 3x is capable of. My other camera is a nice Pentax auto focus outfit with two lenses. I like the auto focus feature the best on this unit. Otherwise, I still prefer my AE-1. It may be manual focus, but I can also manually control the f-stops, shutter speeds (bracketing is the term for that), and even “push” the film when necessary.
I’ve made a small step into the digital realm with a Nikon Coolpix point & shoot camera with a whopping 6 megapixels. All the fuss over megapixels is something I’ll never understand. Unless you’re producing printed photos the size of the Empire State Building, there’s no reason to waste your hard earned money on megapixels. If and when I do make a leap into digital SLR, I’ll probably choose between a Nikon D40 or the D90 and put the money I saved by NOT falling for the sales pitch into lenses and a nice stout tripod. Anywhere between 6 and 10 megapixels will do you just fine, especially in landscape photography that’s closely based in storm chasing. Remember, it’s the person behind the camera than has everything to do with a great photograph, not the equipment itself. Don’t confuse process with content. A lousy photographer is a lousy photographer and will take pics that suck to no end with very expensive equipment. Learning to be a good photographer is a lot like learning to successfully storm chase. Read, ask questions, practice, ask more questions, solicit advice, accept constructive criticism…and practice more.
And whatever you do, don’t listen to people who belittle basic digital or old film slr’s. Usually there’s a big ego with very little self-esteem behind all that.