Lesson Learned On This Day…

I was watching this massive tornado, which was probably a mile away, move relatively slowly across my field of view. I had time to take a bunch of pictures, as fast as my motor drive would let me. The massive power of this tornado was in stark contrast to where I stood recording it. It was raining lightly and relatively calm. The Edmonton Tornado, July 31, 1987. 

“When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear.” Alfred Eisenstaedt

Today is the anniversary of one of my most memorable photo experiences. This image goes back a long way, but I remember that July 31st very well.

There is no question in my mind: concentration is a major factor in closing the gap between the photo you hope to get and the one you end up with. It doesn’t matter if it’s a highly charged episode or a mundane one; when I let my concentration lapse, I’m often disappointed. 

This image was made when I was a new photographer at The Edmonton Journal, where I had started my photojournalism career a year earlier. I was working the afternoon shift and had just finished gassing up my car when reports of funnel cloud sightings came over the newspaper’s radio system. 

A moment later, I looked up and saw those funnel clouds; in fact, they transformed into a tornado seconds after I first saw them. 

The problem was, from my industrial location in the city’s east end, there were a lot of obstructions, and I didn’t have a clear view. I was nervously excited as I stepped on the gas to find a better spot to see the tornado. 

There were not a lot of cars on the road at 3pm in this part of town, so I was able to drive fast, one eye on the road, the other on the amazing weather phenomenon through my windshield. I drove for what was likely less than a minute to find the open space from which I took this picture. 

Though I was young, I had been shooting pictures since I was 11 years old. I knew what to do. The light had dropped, remarkably for 3:00 in the afternoon on a midsummer’s Edmonton day. 

I remember the exposure because I had to push the 400 ISO negative film two stops to get a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250 second, wide open at f/2.8 with my 180mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens.I felt I had some time, so I changed to my 35mm f/2 lens and took a few wide shots with more of the landscape surrounding it. 

This shot was taken seconds later with my Nikkor 35mm f2 lens.

Because the tornado was moving across my field of view and not toward me, I didn’t feel threatened and felt I had a bit of time. But the second I saw debris circling the outer edge of the tornado, I know it was time to leave. I was probably shooting for about 30 seconds. 

I jumped in my car and drove away from the tornado, toward the office where the film was processed and the image made the front pages of newspapers all over North America and around the world. 

The damage was extensive; 27 people were killed and hundreds more injured. The tornado was rated at F5 at its peak, with wind speeds above 250 miles per hour. I was very lucky to be able to concentrate and shoot from a position of relative safety. 

My experience at the time allowed me to keep my mind and camera sharply focused on the tornado, ensuring I would get the shot. Keeping your cool and concentration is essential to doing good work, and it’s a skill that will get better over time as you accumulate experience and develop your intuition. 

The more you shoot the faster you will become in taking care of the technical so you can concentrate on more important aspects of the picture-taking process. Have you ever seen a tornado?

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