By Mark McConville
INCREDIBLE images have revealed some of the most dramatic moments captured by a famed tornado hunter who was once caught inside the largest one ever recorded on earth.
Frightening pictures show huge tornadoes flinging debris high into the air, spiralling quickly towards cars driving along a road and knocking electrical pylons over.
Other awe-inspiring shots show an enormous fork of lightning strike a lonely farmhouse, a small town illuminated by lightning and lightning spread across the sky.
The spectacular photographs were taken by professional tornado hunter Greg Johnson (48), from Regina, Canada, who was caught up in 2013 tornado, the El Reno, in Oklahoma that killed storm chased Tim and Paul Samaras as well as National Geographic’s Carl Young.
“I have had several close encounters with tornadoes and lightning strikes but that was a day I will never forget and probably the only time in my 48 years where I felt a real sense of mortal danger,” he said.
“The tornado was a few hundred meters wide and grew to be 4.2 kilometres wide in less than five minutes. My truck was struck by an exploding barn and was bounced into a ditch and back out again on a couple of occasions.
“I was fortunate that I was not in the most extreme region of the tornado, but nonetheless, the smashed glass, the destroyed undercarriage of the truck and the loss of life from that tornado were terrifying.
“Since that day, my method has changed a bit however it is still my goal to get close so that I can try and capture images that no one else can get.”
Johnson has a TV programme called Tornado Hunters, which is available currently on Netflix in the UK, based around his travels and photography of Tornado Alley.
“The biggest thrill for me is getting to that place close to a tornado and there is no one else around,” he added.
“I know I will be able to create images that no one else is getting. Every day, I wake up and never know what images I will find. I don’t know where I will end up sleeping, or who I will meet. Every shoot day is a real adventure.
“I have three very specific types of images that I love to share. The first is what I refer to as structure photos. Photos that show the raw power of a thunderstorm. The clouds change by the second and so do the colours. Often, people will make the assumption that a photo is fake because there is no way that a cloud could look so unusual. Clouds, thunderheads, stars and ambient light sometimes conspire to create backdrops of colour that do seem other worldly.
“The second type of image that you will see me produce, is the lightning shot. Lightning is elusive, unpredictable and every strike is unique. It is the uniqueness of the lightning strike that is so important. Every time I pull the trigger on the camera, I am unaware of what the result will be. Every time I pull the trigger, there is the chance that I capture that one shot that will define a season, or even my career. Lightning comes in so many different forms and for some reason holds a viewers gaze.
“The most important type of image for me is the grand daddy of weather phenomenon; tornadoes. Tornadoes are rare, dangerous and incredibly difficult to photograph. Forecasting the weather, getting to the right place at the right time, often travelling a thousand kilometers in a single day, wonky road networks, flooding and a fickle mother nature all make it very difficult. So, when the right conditions exist and I can get to the right place at the right time and capture a devastating tornado the emotional and professional payoff is significant.”
Johnson uses two main camera systems to hunt tornadoes including the Nikon D850 and Sony A7.
Despite years of experience and expensive equipment he explained the problems he still runs into chasing storms.
“There are always problems that arise when storm chasing: roads, navigation, the fluid nature of weather, road blocks, flat tires and so many other variables,” he said.
“I rely heavily on the cell phone data and satellite data for radar and weather information. In many areas of tornado alley the population density is so low that cell data can be spotty at best, which in turn makes it hard to forecast and target storms.
“From a camera perspective, the biggest problem I experience is low light. Often tornado bearing storms form in the evening and can often last well into darkness.
“Obviously, shooting in the dark prevents high quality from being achieved and often it is simply too dangerous to continue when a violent tornado is nearby in the dark.”