Chasing your passion is often easier said than done, even if the passion in question is safe and not-so-life-threatening. But there also exist some exceptionally brave people who willingly risk their lives in the pursuit of their calling. These eight weather photographers from West Bengal, who call themselves ‘Kolkata Cloud Chasers’, belong to the latter category.
Since their official formation in 2014, Kolkata Cloud Chasers have been following their passion by braving storms and getting right into the midst of mother nature’s fury! Storms, cyclones, downpours, lightning strikes—KCC has captured and documented them all, while also creating awareness on such extreme weather events and the changing climate as a whole.
To celebrate the 2021 World Photography Day, The Weather Channel India got in touch with these storm-chasers to know more about what they do, and why and how they do it. Here’s the exclusive interview, along with some jaw-dropping photographs the group has captured over the years:
How did you all think of the concept of Kolkata Cloud Chasers? What’s the origin story of your group?
Nature is a binding force—not only does it bind our planet, but it also binds some crazy photographers from Bengal! Extreme weather has always excited us, and the love for it brought together this small team of eight storm and cloud chasers. We love documenting extreme weather events. Furthermore, we also like creating awareness on the changing climate and sharing these images, alerts and updates with everyone.
Why weather photography? What excites you the most when chasing/photographing extreme weather events?
Why weather photography? That’s difficult to answer. Something simply clicked inside all the 8 members of our group, and that made us fall in love with extreme weather. We get an adrenaline rush while photographing the rage of mother nature. The unpredictable nature of storms excites us the most. All our storm chases are like a cat-and-mouse game, with the storms winning 90% of the time. But the 10% of the time when we do successfully chase the storms down is a different, indescribable feeling altogether!
How do you chase and photograph clouds, storms and other weather phenomena? What motivates you to pursue this passion?
Chasing storms and photographing them requires a lot of groundwork, followed by perfect execution. All our members are grouped into performing specific tasks. For example, the ‘trackers’ are responsible for tracking the storm formations via different apps and the Indian government’s IMD website. Once the trackers get a confirmation of the formation of the storm cells, they study the wind patterns, cloud altitudes and temperatures, and figure out a possible trajectory of the storm. Once we have an idea about the storm’s possible path, the ‘navigators’ plan a GPS route on Google Maps.
Members of the team are engaged in their professional duties and it is not possible to get all of them together every time to join a chase. So the available members gather at our base station, where our chase cars are parked. Once we get running, we try and calculate the storm position and our own position. As we approach the location of the cloud cells, it is up to the ‘spotters’ to get visual confirmation of the storm cells. Then we intercept the storm cells while taking all the necessary safety precautions, plan an exit route (in case things go wrong), and then shoot the storm. We keep tracking the cell as it moves and documents the formation.
I think our love and respect for mother nature is what motivates us to do this. Storm cells, while dangerous weather phenomena are also incredibly gorgeous. Therefore, tracking their formation and ultimately intercepting and photographing them gives us a lot of satisfaction.
What kinds of weather-related phenomena do you guys photograph?
We mostly photograph storms, cyclones and nor’westers (localised rainfall and thunderstorm events that occur in West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand). Some of our members shoot lightning bolts too. Besides the stormscapes, some of us are very fond of sunset colours.
What has been your most memorable/favourite experience so far?
There have been many. It was a memorable incident when one of our members, Roadrunner, photographed a tornadic spout over Galsi, near Bardhaman a few years ago.
Two of our members, Boltanator and Phoenix, visited West Bengal’s Henry Island to document the very severe cyclonic storm Bulbul in November 2019, while the other members constantly provided cyclone updates to them.
Further, documenting Cyclone Amphan clouds and some mesoscale systems along with shelf clouds have also been some of the memorable moments that occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
What has been your most dangerous experience so far?
The most dangerous experience for our group is when two of our members got struck by lightning—luckily, it was mild! This happened when we were out capturing lightning bolts.
Among all the photos that you have clicked, which one’s your favourite? What’s the story behind it?
Roadrunner: I love arcus/shelf cloud formations. My images containing these phenomena are my personal favourites.
Phoenix: For me, it’s very difficult to choose only one favourite photo, as all my photos are like my babies. But I’d say I love shooting anvil crawler lightning and bolts with branches.
What are the challenges you face in this field of photography?
The biggest challenge that we as a team face is time. We are all engaged in different professions, and we also have our own families. Therefore, finding time to match the formation and path interception of a storm tends to be the biggest challenge.
Then the sheer unpredictability of extreme weather systems is another big challenge. Even with all the modern weather tracking systems, you really don’t know how the system might behave at the last moment.
Have you guys practised weather photography anywhere else apart from West Bengal? Also, do you have a dream destination (anywhere in the world) where you’d love to capture weather phenomena?
Of course. A few years ago, Roadrunner beautifully documented the monsoon of Maharashtra. Albatross has captured some stunning footage from Ladakh. Phoenix was lucky enough to document a mothership cell while she was in Odisha. Hellboi has some mesmerizing monsoon images from Assam.
As for dream destinations, all of us have different ones in mind. Phoenix always dreams about shooting lightning strikes over the Grand Canyon, while Roadrunner wishes to document cyclones and their impact on the urban and rural areas of India.
What kinds of vehicles, devices and equipment do you use when out to photograph weather events? Do they have to be specially prepared for weather photography?
We track and chase storms in our chase cars, SCIF 01 and SCIF 02 (Storm and Cloud Intercept Four Wheelers). SCIF 01 is a Force Gurkha Xplorer, and normally it is our lead chase car (the car that goes into the storm). Both vehicles have been modified and accessorised to our needs. We prepare them for chases by checking their fuel levels, air pressure of the tyres, and recovery equipment (in case our cars gets stuck in slush, mud or sand), and basically ensure they are in perfect condition.
For photography, we use cameras, lenses, GoPros, mounts and our drones. Before we head out for the chase, we ensure their battery levels are at 100%.
What advice would you give someone who wants to take up weather photography and storm chasing?
The first thing one needs to do in order to pursue weather photography and storm chasing is to read up on the weather. It is a vast subject and will take time, but it is crucial to have proper knowledge of local weather systems. This knowledge will help you read weather-related maps and data properly, which is key to track and locate storms and reach favourable areas to photograph the weather phenomena.
Then you also need to be a good and safe driver, as chasing storms requires expert driving skills. You will need to drive along highways, narrow roads, slush, sand, gale-force winds, hailstorms, blinding dust storms and rain.
And last but not the least, you need to practise and sharpen your photography skills. Storms move quickly, allowing you barely any time to set up your equipment. You need to be quick so that you can get the shots you desire.
Experience is also vital. The more experienced you are with storm-chasing, the better your chances of coming out of these chases unhurt.
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