Front Range Scene

Into the Wild

A Colorado professor does double-duty as a storm and natural disaster chaser—camera in hand.

August 2012

Thunder cracks in the gray sky above Lakewood’s Green Mountain and sends hikers scrambling down. Jon Van de Grift, however, is making his way up the hill, dodging the crowd in search of an exposed spot. He finds it on a cliff edge that appears level with the ominous clouds and intermittent lightning, and sets down his tripod. 

A storm-chasing photographer at heart, the Metro State affiliate professor of Earth and atmospheric science is used to running toward things that others are fleeing. “Everybody sees the bad part of natural disasters, but there’s also a natural beauty to them,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to capture: the bright side of the dark side of nature.”

Van de Grift’s memory cards are filled with images of tornadoes, fires, landslides, and avalanches. When he isn’t teaching about the perils of such weather, he’s traversing Colorado in the midst of them. Van de Grift started chasing storms in the late ’90s. But the hobby soon became an artistic passion. He now uses his photos in the classroom and showcases them at local art exhibits (check out October’s Open Studios Fall Artists Tour in Boulder).   

May through mid-August is Colorado’s peak storm season. To prepare—Van de Grift often has to scramble over hills and rocky terrain to reach ideal shooting sites—he trail runs. A lot. Sometimes, even with all the sprinting and battery charging, Van de Grift ends up with nothing. Like today: The storm passes without one dramatic bolt. 

As we all know, though, in Colorado the weather can turn in an instant. And when it does, Van de Grift will be there. “Mother Nature is the writer, director, and scriptwriter,” he says. “I just never know what she’s going to give me.” weatherchrome.com

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Tips for Outdoor Photography

Jon Van de Grift’s pointers for getting the most out of your shots.

Awareness Know the dangers of weather. Before you head out for a shoot—and during—check the forecast at weather.gov, ncar.ucar.edu, or thedenverchannel.com/weather. 

Proper Gear You’ll be on the move, so get a sturdy pack, lightweight camera, and foldable tripod. 

Patience As Van de Grift says, most storm chasing is actually “storm waiting.”

Timing Late afternoon and early evening offer the best light for shooting clouds. Give yourself ample time
to set up equipment. 

Preparedness Water, breathable hiking shoes, and layered clothing are key. 

Practice The old adage is prudent: Practice makes perfect. Van de Grift scores a frame-worthy shot on three out of 10 chases.