How Ken Sklute Got The Shot

I have photographed many fun and unique subjects in my career, but one of my most favorite subjects to photograph are those that are remarkably challenging to capture: lightning, lava, the Aurora Borealis, tornados, etc.

I currently live in Phoenix, AZ and have been Monsoon chasing for many years now. Monsoons have dust storms, “Haboobs” if they are large enough, and dramatic lightning storms that are magnificently photogenic. Successfully capturing storms isn’t simply a matter of going outside when you hear loud thunderclaps and see the sky light up. Storms roll in, and continue rolling elsewhere once it leaves you. The most difficult, yet most important, part is planning. My planning stages require me to watch the weather both present and forecast. Chasing lightning storms is a technique of watching and understanding trends in weather patterns.

Tornado chasing requires an inordinate amount of decisions to be made, based upon many conditions in the atmosphere. A slight change and nothing may occur. The first decision that we made was to head west from our northeast Nebraska base for the night. We had just completed an exhausting day of chasing and encountered a total of 11 tornados. We also needed to choose between a possible F5 tornado, destroying more of the saturated towns of Nebraska, or head 3 hours west to a rather rural, open, few roads, grazing community near Mullen. After a few minutes of discussion, we elected to avoid the possible devastation and drive towards the beauty; it wasn’t a hard decision to make.

The drive was amazing. We drained a full tank of gas as we drove through mist, then thicker mist and finally into what looked like a dense fog, all not conducive for tornadic structure. We watched as the lead storm went up and quickly collapsed. We then headed towards the southern storm that was 45 miles ahead of us and closing in quickly on the lone southern direction road. Ahead in the distance, we watched as the cone formed and soon made contact with the ground. Knowing how briefly a tornado may live, we stopped to grab a quick image and then drove closer!

As we blasted down the road, I recognized something in our lane several miles away; it was unclear what it was from where we were. As we got closer, I could see that it was an overturned 18-wheeler; we sped even faster now. First on the scene, we ran to the flipped rig. Once we got to it, we witnessed the driver, in a cool and unflustered manner, kick his way through the shattered windshield. We offered help, but he was calmly in control of the situation. Meanwhile the storm was in motion and moving away from us. We got back into the car and watched the funnel nearly rope out and then descend again right in front of us, all while golf ball sized hail started pummeling us and then the car. The impact was deafening and luckily our windows remained unbroken. We were now at the foot of the funnel, witnessing it receding back into the cloud.

At this point my buddy looks over to me and asks, “How do you feel about blasting underneath the storm in order to get ahead of it? It’s pretty dangerous.”

With my face pressed up against the windshield, I watched as the clouds churned. Finally after a few long seconds, I responded, “Let’s go for it!”

Jeremy’s foot immediately went to the floor as we accelerated to the SUV’s maximum. I maintained a close watch on the sky with my face pressed against the windshield for total vision of the clouds above us. After journeying down the road for several miles, we finally reached a safe zone. The cone was now behind us.

After studying the road system, it became clear that we needed to drive an hour or so south and then east in order to intercept the Super cell again. We were just hoping that the cell would have enough stamina to last and make it to the crossroads, which we determined was the best area to capture it from. We would also have escape routes in all directions, just in case the storm changed direction. Storms can either strengthen, weaken or remain the same strength. They also continue to move across the ground, sometimes on a continuous path or other times changing direction dramatically. You always need to keep an eye on what the storm is doing in order to maintain a safe position, as well as do your best to keep a specific area of the storm visible, which often means shifting locations from a few feet to miles away.

Once the rotating wall arrived from the northeast, we were ready for the encounter. I have to say, we were not disappointed; it was simply beautiful. We were facing westward, looking right into the setting sun as the approaching tornado spun and belched cloud to ground lightning. We were thrilled, as it seemed that the twister had lost its forward momentum, sitting in front of us for an hour. As I had two cameras firing, capturing unique cloud to ground lightning in every configuration, I could not imagine this scenario in front of me. I had captured a majestic spinning super cell producing a tornado that was framed by a gorgeous cloud to ground lightning bolt.

The series of images were captured using a Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 1DX, both with 14mm f/2.8 lenses, mounted on ReallyRightStuff BH-55 ball heads. Images were safely written to Delkin Devices 64GB CF 1050X UDMA 7 Cinema memory cards.