May - tornadoes You are here: Home Techniques Camera types


Not all camera types are suitable for weather photography. An SLR 35-mm camera is most useful for starters, and - I might say - a necessity for skilled photographers. Below, I give a description of types of cameras and why they are or are not (in my eyes) suitable for weather photography.

SLR camera

For outdoor photography, and especially for weather photography, the common SLR type of camera is best suited. SLR stands for single-lens reflex, where both the composition and metering as well as the actual film exposure are being done through a single lens. When the shutter of the camera is closed, the mirror is in the path of the lens, reflecting the light upward and focusing it onto a matted glass, where you look at through the viewfinder. When you take a picture, the mirror flips upward, the shutter opens and the film is being exposed, and after the shutter closes again the mirror falls back down.

The typical 35mm SLR camera body. Most amateur and professional 35mm-photographers use such SLRs.

Some advantages of an SLR camera over other types of cameras are:

  • ruggedness - most SLR camera bodies are mechanically strong, which gives them good protection from possible accidents happening in the outdoors, and the weather environment in general. Most cameras are not water-tight or dust-proof, however; but many SLR cameras do have a fair chance to survive these conditions. This is especially true for the older, fully mechanical SLR cameras like Zenit, Pentor and Praktica.

  • adaptability - SLR cameras are used by amateurs and professionals alike, and tripods, cable releases, flash shoes and so on are widely available for these cameras.

  • modularity - choosing a separate body/lens camera system has the advantage that you can mount a wide range of lenses on a single camera body. If you plan to photograph at focal lengths between 28mm and 200mm or so, you might do well by just having a single zoomlens, but for fisheye-lenses and telescopic (very long) telephoto lenses it is always easier to have the modularity the SLR camera bodies offer.

  • single lens - you will be using a wide range of lenses, and you can easily compose the frame by looking into the viewfinder, which shows the frame like it will appear on the frame, eventually, whichever type of lens you are using.

  • picture-taking stability - SLR cameras are generally heavier and bulkier than small digital or point&shoot cameras, which makes photography by hand less prone to camera shake and blurry photos.

Select an SLR body which has an easy mount for a manual cable release (usually part of the shutter release button). A metallic body is convenient to see your camera better at night, and the camera stays cooler in daylight when the sun is shining.

There are also a few disadvantages:

  • Vibration and sound of mirror: especially when using far-telephoto lenses like 1000mm or longer, the tremor of the mirror flipping upward will shake the camera, causing the photo to be unsharp, since the shutter opens immediately after. This can be really problematic when photographing the sun's green flash, for example, or mirages. Getting yourself a camera with mirror-lock would be better, but this does not work well either, since for green flash photography you have to keep looking through the viewfinder until just fractions of seconds before the event.

  • single-lens: while you are taking a photo on B mode (or a long exposure in general), like you would do with lightning and aurora photography, you cannot look through the viewfinder. This can sometimes be irritating, e.g. when you want to check if a thunderstorm producing lightning is still in the frame, or to see whether an airplane or car would get in the frame, possibly ruining your photo.

Point & shoot compact cameras

The small compact cameras are not useful, except if you only take pictures of the most common weather phenomena like clouds, sunrise/sunset and so on. There are many more exotic weather phenomena which you can't photograph using a compact camera. Such a small camera is only useful to have with you all the time when you are not photographing with your SLR equipment, in case you see a rare or beautiful weather phenomenon (especially halos, rainbows, clouds, sunset).

Do not use an APS camera but a 35mm camera; APS film is too small for large prints to be made; this film is more suitable for photos you take during holidays and the like.

A few things to take into account when you buy a compact camera for always at hand: a flash is completely useless for weather photography; if you buy a camera with zoomlens, it is only practical to cover the range 28mm - 80mm or so; try to locate a camera with B shutter speed option; choose a compact camera which you can mount on a tripod. Those options do not make the camera much more expensive and can be of great help.

Medium-format cameras

Film frame size comes in a variety of ranges, the most widely used being the 35mm format. However, especially for high-resolution photography (e.g. lightning!) you might wish to expand your camera collection with a medium-format camera. Medium-format are sizes like (in millimeter) 60x60, 60x90 and 60x40. For comparison, the 35-mm format measures 24x36 mm. The medium-format makes for much sharper photos, but is also more expensive; the cost scales approximately by surface area of film.

There are many types of medium-format cameras, but most are considered professional and have professional price tags. For starters, a good model would be a Mamiya or older Rollei dual-lens camera. A more modular camera system is the Hasselblad system, but this is outside the ballpark of a starter's budget. Rollei cameras are older, and available cheaply at occasion photo stores; they have the disadvantage of a fixed-focal length lens and hence are not very modular. Mamiya is newer, more modular, but also a lot more expensive already.

My advice in this is: don't start with medium-format photography until after at least a few years of experience, only if you consider yourself an advanced photographer and only if you think it is worth the better quality photos.

Large-format cameras

The large-format sizes range from 4x5 inches up to 8x10 inches (this is slide/print film size, not even a printed photo yet). This is not really useful for weather photography - you would need a lot of time to get such equipment set up, composing the frame, and light metering. It is more useful for landscape photography, where the subject is fixed and you have time to get set up. Film at these sizes is very expensive so you want to be sure that your photo will be successful.

Digital cameras

These are becoming quite useful for many subjects with weather photography. I will write something about the usefulness of digital cameras on a separate page soon.

B setting

The Nikon FE semi-automatic SLR camera has manual shutter speeds ranging from 1/1000 to 8 seconds, as well as B and auto (electronic) shutter control. The B mode does not use battery power, unlike most modern SLR cameras. This camera has just about everything you need for weather photography, and lacks everything you don't need or want. The only thing it doesn't have, which would be handy, is spot-metering.

When choosing a camera body, make sure that the camera has the B shutter speed (manual shutter control). It may have this option included by another name. B stands for Bulb and is an old acronym, from the times when exposures would be made with a shutter open and a flash bulb exposing the subject (I think, anyway).

The B setting allows you to manually control the time the shutter of the camera is open, which means the same as the time that the film is being exposed. Usually the B setting works by pressing the release button which opens the camera shutter, and releasing the button which closes the shutter again. In the meantime, while you keep the button depressed, the shutter stays open and the film is being exposed. This allows you to make exposures for several seconds, minutes, or hours (actually, indefinitely, if you have a mechanical camera). The automatic shutter times on a camera usually range from 1/1000 of a second up to a few seconds only, which would seriously limit the range of weather phenomena you could photograph.

To name but a few things you can only photograph on B mode: lightning (at night), night scenes, the twilight arch and wedge, the stars, Milky Way, zodiacal light, meteor showers, noctilucent clouds and aurora.