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A Field Guide to Hurricane Photography

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The taxonomist in me can’t help but notice that photographs of Hurricane Sandy, now bearing down on the Atlantic coast, fall into distinct categories. So I’ve made a helpful guide to 10 common storm images, complete with identification tips.

1. The Satellite Overview

Hurricane Sandy approaches New Jersey. Photograph by NOAA.

Diagnostic traits: white, swirly, often accompanied by a NOAA stamp. You wouldn’t be able to take these with your cell phone. Unless you’re an Astronaut. Which is unlikely.

Other examples: (12)

2. The Rising Tide

Flooding at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences' Eastern Shore Laboratory. Photograph by Mark Luckenbach.

Diagnostic traits: water in places it really shouldn’t be. If you look out your window and see something like this, you should probably think about moving to higher ground.

Other examples: (123)

3. The Concerned Politician

President Barack Obama receives an update on Hurricane Sandy. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Diagnostic traits: furrowed brows, telephones, bureaucrats. I’d give the above looks-of-concern 7 out of 10.

Other examples: (1,  2)

4. The Oddly Empty

Times Square, normally NY's busiest station, abandoned before Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Aaron Donovan.

Diagnostic traits: whatever the venue- subway stations, roads, grocery store shelves- it’s got an unsettling amount of open space. If you’re a storm photographer averse to doing anything dangerous, here’s your genre.

Other examples: (12)

5. The Intrepid Journalist

Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Photo by Jim Reed.

Diagnostic traits: expensive equipment, windswept clothing, general chaos. High potential for self-inflicted damage.

Other examples: (12)

6. The SandBag

The New York Stock Exchange sandbagged in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. Photograph by Eleazar David Meléndez.

Diagnostic traits: Preparatory barriers and supplies, often with neighbors pitching in to help, or a child and/or family pet waiting for the storm. The pinnacle of this genre would be neighbors laying sandbags under a dark, stormy sky while a kid and her dog stand by.

Other examples: (12)

7. The Obligatory Wind Shot

Hurricane Dennis hits Key West, 2005. U.S. Navy photo by Jim Brooks.

Diagnostic traits: Objects more sideways than usual. These scenes sometimes attract Intrepid Journalists.

Other examples: (1, 2)

8. The “Are you insane?”

"Surfing Irene". Photograph by G. E. Long.

Diagnostic traits: subjects apparently unaware there’s a hurricane going on.

Other examples: (123, 4)

9. The #Instacane

"The calm before the storm" by Instragram user ivankatrump.

Diagnostic traits: Artful vignetting, hashtags in the caption, may be interspersed in a social media stream with moody photos of food.

Other examples: (12)

10. The Wreckage

Winds from Hurricane Katrina knocked over this tree crushing this Mobile home. MARVIN NAUMAN/FEMA photo.

Diagnostic traits: Trees where houses should be, houses where trees should be, unruly debris.

**Update. And how could I miss:

11. The Blatant Fake


On a more serious note: if you are in the path of this hurricane, please be careful! Pay attention to official advice and act accordingly.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Bora Zivkovic 2:39 pm 10/29/2012

    All the Type #9 pictures I am seeing on Facebook now are either super-obvious photoshops (and yet people fall for them), or photos from previous storms (nobody bothered to check).

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 2:58 pm 10/29/2012

    Bora- thanks, I’ve updated accordingly.

    Link to this

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