Weather events, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, thunder and lightning storms, blizzards, and more, can be devastating, even deadly, but they can also be stunning to look at — from a safe distance or in retrospect. Such events often produce striking visual imagery.
We went looking for the most beautiful photographs of weather events. To arrive at our selection, we considered thousands of images, both amateur and professional. We trawled the offerings of photo agencies, publications, and government agencies, and considered the pertinent results of photo contests. (A few of the images we chose may have been enhanced by the photographer to better evoke the sensations of seeing the events in person.)
Weather photography goes back a long way. Mark Twain is sometimes credited with having said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, one thing people actually did start doing about it, while Twain was still very much alive, was taking pictures of it.
The first known photograph of a tornado was snapped by fruit farmer and amateur photographer A. A. Adams in Garnett, Kansas, on April 26, 1884. He was hardly the last to turn a camera towards the sky. The 1880s were a time of technological advances in photography, as well as an expansion in the range of subject matter that photographers considered. A year after Adams immortalized his tornado, a Vermont farmer named Wilson Bentley started photographing snowflakes, going on to shoot frost, dew, and other results of atmospheric conditions.
Throughout the early 20th century, people took pictures of blizzards, hurricanes, lightning strikes, dust storms, and more. In 1947, the U.S. military reengineered captured German rockets to photograph clouds and other weather phenomena from on high for the first time. Today, NASA satellites track storms from outer space, producing dramatic abstract-seeming images, and NOAA, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, records both satellite and ground images of meteorological events and maintains an archive of historical weather images.
Since the 1950s, people who call themselves storm chasers have been doing just that, pursuing bad — and often beautiful — weather, and frequently photographing what they find. And, of course, these days anybody with a smartphone can grab shots of whatever’s going on in the sky or on the horizon, often to memorable effect.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the most stunning images we found involve lightning in various forms and contexts. Many others picture clouds in a myriad of shapes and colors, both foreboding and gloriously bright. In some of the photographs, tornadoes tower majestically if threateningly over the landscape; in others, sheets of rain hang like gauzy curtains in the air.
We’ve included one shot of tsunami waves here. Though these series of mega-waves are usually caused by seismic activity, they can also be generated by rapid changes in atmospheric pressure, so can count as weather events. And the aurora borealis, or northern lights, are present too. These are “weather” in the broadest sense, caused by particles of plasma escaped from the sun, borne to Earth by the phenomenon called solar wind.
Whatever they may be, these weather events are dramatic expressions of nature’s beauty, captured for us to savor by skillful photographers.