How to photograph a hurricane

Hurricane Isaac spins its way onto the Louisiana coast. (NOAA photo)

Hurricane Isaac spins its way onto the Louisiana coast. (NOAA photo)

It’s been a long and exhausting week covering Hurricane Isaac here in New Orleans. As one of the photo editors for The Times-Picayune and its website, Nola.com, I’ve been involved in the planning and logistics of our team’s photo coverage and in trying to make sure the display on the site is as compelling as possible. This work has been made all the more difficult as we, like almost all of New Orleans, lost power as the storm blew in.

But I thought I would write something about what’s involved in making good photographs during a storm—sort of a ‘storm survival guide’ for a photographer.

Hurricane photography presents some unique challenges for a photographer. First and foremost, you want to stay safe—it does you no good to shoot amazing storm photos if you don’t come back alive with the shots. So safety is your first concern.

This usually means getting in position BEFORE the storm hits, so you can ‘ride it out’ and be in the right spot to make photos AFTERWARDS.  That spot is probably not a cheap motel room since these are known to blow apart in any strong hurricane, or get washed away when the storm surge hits the shoreline.  My favorite ‘hunker down’ spot is an area’s EOC- Emergency Operations Center- since this is a place that will have been selected and constructed to withstand both wind and water. It will also have information about what’s happening and may also be a staging area for rescue efforts.

Before leaving for a storm, I have  some standard stuff I like to have with me. This may sound like overkill, but it’s not. I’ve used everything on this list in one storm or another. Besides basic camera gear, I carry:

5 gallons of extra gas—once a storm hits, there’s usually no power, therefore there’s no gas available. You need some of your own.

14” chain saw with a sharp chain and full tank—downed trees are common.

You don’t want to get stuck with no way out.

Rain suit—self explanatory.

Poncho—sometimes this is better, once the wind dies down, because you can

hide cameras underneath it.

Ball cap—helps with the rain, especially if you wear glasses.

Change of clothes with extra socks and underwear

Shorts

Teva-type sandals—need strap around your ankle so they won’t get sucked off in the water  and mud

2 gallons of drinking water

Food: healthy snack bars, some fruit, peanut butter, crackers (survival food that doesn’t require any refrigeration and that you like to eat)

Plastic bags

2 towels—just to keep things as dry as possible

Gaffer tape

Inverter for car–to charge batteries (cell phone, computer, camera batteries)

Every hurricane is different. Sometimes it’s purely a wind event, and you’ll spend your time afterwards driving around photographing destruction. Other times water will actually be the main destructive force and to get to the photos you’ll need to either slog your way in—very wet—or catch a ride on a boat. Either way, the water hurricane is harder to shoot. Isaac has been just such a storm.

Keeping the cameras dry: Times-Picayune photographer Brett Duke at work in LaPlace, La., during Hurricane Isaac on August 30, 2012. (Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

Keeping the cameras dry: Times-Picayune photographer Brett Duke at work in LaPlace, La., during Hurricane Isaac on August 30, 2012. (Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

If you’re a photographer out in the field, you’ll need a combination of tenacity, charm (for the authorities lurking about) and sensitivity—you’ll be photographing people who have just lost some or all of their possessions. You want to be respectful of them first and foremost, since they are your subjects. Usually you’ll find them wanting to have their stories told and anyone willing to listen will be welcome. Just plan on taking your time, not rushing things. You don’t want to be an opportunistic vulture—you want to make meaningful images that document the terrible force of nature that has just passed through.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

2 Comments on "How to photograph a hurricane"

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  1. Michael says:

    This has got to be a tough assignment – first in surviving it and then seeing the destruction afterwards and the heartache it causes people who have lost everything.
    Liked your checklist of stuff to take with you. It is amazing how useful gaffer tape can be in these type of circumstances for running repairs etc.

  2. Christian says:

    Awesome stuff, we’ve only had one hurricane in the UK in the last 20 years, obvioulsy not to the same extent as you get them. I like the gaffer tape, no self respecting photographer should leave the house without a bit of gaffer hidden away. I guess that the other thing that you really need is a bit of humuility as well, respect the storm and the people around you!

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