To achieve his remarkable storm photography, Jordan Cantelo has had to master the art of being in the right place at the right time on a grand scale.

Hands of God. Wyndham WA.

It’s quite common for photographers to have one or two shots of distant storms they have happened to witness, but you’ve made them a speciality. How do you do it?

There are channels through Western Australia that are almost like magnets for wild weather. I live in the northern suburbs of Perth and we rarely get storms coming through. But for no particular reason I know of, there are storm channels that appear to have a greater frequency of storms than other areas that go around Perth to the north and south. There’s one through Gingin, Corrigin, across the Wheatbelt towards Kalgoorlie, and one through Rockingham, Dwellingup, over the hills to Narrogin, and off to the south-east. I tend to target those areas.

Also, summertime low-pressure systems form in the tropics of WA and cause a line of instability down the coast called the West Coast Trough, which moves through into the Wheatbelt and Goldfields regions. I look for the build-up of what are called towering cumulus, or cumulus congestus, clouds from mid-afternoon to evening. If the ingredients are all there, this line of instability can form an area of thunderstorms anywhere from Geraldton to Merredin to Narrogin and out to Kalgoorlie.

A different planet. Parry Lagoon North, WA.

Obviously, what you’re looking for is quite specific. Not just bad weather, but the spectacle of thunderstorms seen from a distance.

That’s right. It’s hard to get that kind of shot in hilly country, and photographing in the low  cloud, wind and muck of cyclones and the like is a very different thing. I’ve only ever been in one cyclone, and that was by accident when I was staying with my brother in Port Hedland in 2013, during Cyclone Rusty [an exceptionally slow-moving cyclone that subjected the coast to gale force winds over a record-breaking 39 hours].

The raw power of mother nature can be mind-blowing. Big, billowing clouds, flashes of lightning and explosive thunder that seems to roll on forever towards the horizon. Having the opportunity to capture that on camera is extremely humbling and very rewarding.

Dowerin evening lightning. Dowerin WA.

I assume there’s no profitable career in photographing storms, so how does that aspect work for you?

I love photographing landscapes in general – especially the expansive ‘big sky’ ones so typical of Australia – but career wise, I’ve been a fire management officer with WA’s Department of Parks and Wildlife for many years, and that’s where my interest in storm photography started. We watch the weather conditions very closely and get detailed daily reports from the Bureau of Meteorology. On my days off and when it works out with my roster, and with the support of my wife and two kids, if there are thunderstorms coming in, I’ll be out and about having a look. If I have a few days off in a row, I might go further afield into the north-east of the state.

Lightning and Emus. Kellerberrin WA.

What are you looking for in your storm shots? What constitutes a great one?

It’s a very dynamic subject. What I’m looking at up in the atmosphere changes every five minutes or so. There can be that spectacular ‘golden hour’ sort of light, with massive cloud formations that soak up every bit of colour the sunset has to offer.

Compositionally, in landscapes as vast as the Wheatbelt and the like, I look for something that can scale a storm. An emu in a paddock, wheat silos, furrow lines from farming machinery, the farming equipment itself, fencelines creating leading lines into a storm… I don’t have massive foreground features, but I have something that can scale the size and power and intensity of what nature can throw at us.

Without that context, an atmospheric storm could be just about anywhere.

Exactly. I obviously have a fascination with the weather, but I can also be trying to show the hardship and risk farmers can have to deal with. At harvest time in late October and November, while I’m driving around looking for photos, they can be going back and forth, trying to get wheat, canola or whatever off their paddocks at all hours of the day and night. I have a couple of images from east of Jurien Bay, in the Warradarge area, that show that. Sometimes I capture lightning that looks so spectacular through the skies, but it can do so much damage by starting fires in paddocks primed for harvest.

Sensational sunset scenes in the Wheatbelt WA. I haven’t been able to get out and about much this season due to a very busy fire roster, which is why I’m so stoked when mother nature paints pearler scenes like this on the few occasions I do manage to get out.

Does your storm chasing take you off-road?

I can’t go far off-road because of my [Toyota] RAV4’s limited ground clearance. In areas such as the Kimberley, the roads degrade very quickly once you get off the bitumen. Also, when I’m up north in the wet season, I avoid flood areas. They really don’t need people like me getting into trouble by going off-road in a vehicle not built for it. I stick to well-formed roads.

But down in the Wheatbelt, there’s a great criss-crossing road network, and the storms can move through relatively slowly, so I can get myself into good positions for composing shots.

You seem to favour the square format for your compositions. Why is that?

My primary storm camera is a medium format Pentax 645Z. That’s actually 4 x 3, but I like to crop to the square because it tends to encapsulate everything I want in a shot. It’s just the way my eye works, I suppose, and I think it draws the viewer in and says, ‘This is what you should be looking at. Don’t be distracted by anything around the sides.’ I also sometimes use the 4 x 3 dimensions or crop to 3 x 1 if a shot seems to work best as a panorama. The Pentax lens I use most for storms is a wide-angle 28-45mm f/4. I also use a 55mm f/2.8, and a 135mm f/4 for telephoto shots.

Kimberley Boabs.

Do you digitally manipulate your storm photos in post-production?

Not always, but the colours can look a bit flat so I’ll boost them up. I try to keep it relatively natural, but I sometimes go a little beyond that to emphasise colours and bring out the detail in the clouds. I want people to see things as remarkable and beautiful as they were when I saw them.

Kimberley Buildup.

How do you think the type of pictures you take relates to your personality?

Ooh, good question. Well, I consider myself a bit creative, and I like the way being under or close to a storm with thunder and lightning links me intensely to the environment and gives me an adrenalin rush. There’s a kind of freedom to it and it sharpens my thinking.

Even with a comparatively slow-moving storm, it’s go go go. I might set up somewhere for 10 minutes, then have to pack up and move to another spot 20km up the road.

Whatever the relationship is, I just love capturing big skies over the Australian landscape.

@jordancantelo on Instagram

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 89

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