Step inside the unusual world of stormchaser Daniel Johnson

For most people, a dark cloud overhead is hardly something to look forward to - but then again, Daniel Johnson is not "most people".

For him, an ominous looking cloud formation is manna from heaven. The more threatening the better, because it spells opportunity.

He's a storm chaser, one of that rare breed of people who drop whatever they're doing, race out to the car and speed off in the direction of the blackest, most menacing clouds imaginable.

"Yeah, that's me," the 46-year-old readily admits.

He's been doing it for years now at nights and on the weekends, fitting it in around his work looking after fire suppression equipment in the mines.

When The Maitland Mercury called, he's trying to work out his favourite storm shots - and there are plenty to choose from.

The ones he selects will be blown up and hung on the walls of his Lochinvar home.

"I'd like to pick more," he admits. "If it was up to me I'd have them everywhere ... hanging in the hallway, in the toilet, in the kitchen, you name it ....

"But my wife sees it differently. She says I can have two, but I'll probably get away with three."

He understands that many people - most, in fact - would think there's something a little weird about a person who drives fearlessly into the eye of an intense storm in search of that stunning image.

But when you get the image - "I'm after the one where there's forked lightning striking the ground and the sky is lit up" - he says the adrenalin rush is like nothing else.

Then, no matter what time of night or how tired he may be, he'll rush home and start processing it to get the images up on his website.

ADRENALIN RUSH: Stormchaser Daniewl Johnson. Picture Jonathan Carroll

ADRENALIN RUSH: Stormchaser Daniewl Johnson. Picture Jonathan Carroll

It can't wait until the next morning?

"No, you've got to get it up straight away. To be the first."

You see, Daniel is an administrator on the Storm & Astro Chasers Australia Extreme Photography Facebook page that has more than 4000 members. They're into this stuff. And besides, it's always good to beat the rival Newcastle Central Coast Storm Chasers to the punch.

Clearly this is not your usual run-of-the-mill pastime, so let's step back to the beginning, to the calm before the storm (sorry, couldn't resist). It wasn't always like this.

"I was a keen photographer, going right back to school," he said. "Back in the days of black and white film cameras.

"I had no thoughts about storms until I came across this guy named John King who was a local storm chaser, but who wanted to improve his photography.

"Anyway, we came to this loose arrangement where he'd teach me about chasing storms, if I'd teach him how to take better pictures."

It's fair to say Daniel had no inkling that his world was about to change. He just thought storms might be another way to get some good images and, for a man hoping to get into professional photography, the more dramatic images he had in his portfolio, the better.

But change it did.

These days he has "two D7000 cameras, a D3500 camera, four tripods, multiple lenses, a lightning trigger, drones" ... he continues listing his equipment, but to the non photographer it's another language.

He also mentions he has the top of the range Weatherzone Plus app that gives him the latest and best storm information available, anything that might give him an edge.

"It's good, it tells me stuff like how far ahead the lightning strikes are, whether it's a dry storm, jet streams and wind direction, what's causing the storm. The sort of stuff that can influence how and where I set up for the image.

"I like to find a sport where I have a tree or an old shed in the picture to add further interest."

Mind you, it's not always smooth sailing.

There was the case quite recently when he rushed out and started tracking a storm cell as it headed up along the Golden Highway.

"I would check it as I was driving and it managed to stay in front of me the whole way," he said.

"I was up near Cassilis ... what's that two-and-a-half, maybe three hours away, when I realised the map I was using hadn't been refreshing."

Cassilis wasn't exactly blue skies, but not far from it. No sign of a storm in any direction.

"So I chucked a U-turn and headed home. What else could I do? Just keep going like Forrest Gump?"

That sort of thing hurts, but not as much as those times when he's all set up, waiting for the storm to arrive and it suddenly changes direction.

"That's the worst, for sure. You feel so deflated. I had a bad run there for a while and they were calling me the stormkiller rather than the stormchaser."

For all its excitement, stormchasing is not without risks and Daniel acknowledges there have been times he's left it too late to get out.

"When you get the halo of light from the lightning as it hits the ground, you know you're too close," he said.

"It happened to me one day at Windella - I suddenly realised how close it was, so I just ran for the car and left my camera and tripod there. It was pretty scary.

"And then not long ago I was at Lake Macquarie getting shots of lightning over the water. The rain came and I ran under a covered barbecue area. But the wind was hitting 130 km/h, the rain came in sideways. I was absolutely saturated and there was nothing I could do."

When the storm season ends Daniel will swing across and photograph the local sport. One of his dreams is to one day cover a Knights match in Newcastle.

One of Daniel's own images - a man in his element.

One of Daniel's own images - a man in his element.

In the meantime he'll make a quid where he can. In the past he's done the occasional wedding but they're very long days and, to be truthful, it's not where his passion lies.

He's even taken to doing photo shoots of up and coming models that they can use for their CV.

But, like the weddings, he knows it's not for him, either.

"I took these lovely images of a model and then I also managed to get a really good shot of these brumbies running.

"So it took me a long time, but I made up a composite image with the model in the foreground with the brumbies running behind her.

"It looked sensational. Anyway, she looked at it and all she said was haven't you got a shot of my with my hair pulled back?

"So no, that's not for me."

But storms ... big, black, menacing storms ... that's something else altogether.

Do you know you can subscribe to get full access to all Maitland Mercury stories? Subscribing supports us in our local news coverage. To subscribe, click here.

IN THE NEWS

This story Step inside the unusual world of stormchaser Daniel Johnson first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.