In honor of National Weatherperson's Day on Feb. 5, we're shining a spotlight on people who have made a career out of predicting, analyzing, reporting on, and even chasing the weather.
Meet Mike Olbinski, a Phoenix-based storm chaser, photographer and Emmy-winning filmmaker. You can catch his work everywhere from music videos to Marvel movies. Mike took some time to fill us in on how he got started in such a fascinating field, and how he finds the best opportunities to capture storms on camera.
What came first, a love of storms or photography?
My love for storms definitely came first, from a very early age and likely due to my dad. He loved storms and we'd sit outside all the time watching them. Having grown up in Phoenix (and still living here!), we don't get many storms until summer hits and our monsoon begins. We'd sit out on the back patio watching big-time lightning blasts and I still have a vivid memory of one hitting maybe a few hundred feet behind our house. Perhaps that was the origin of where things began for me because what first drew me to photography was wanting to take pictures of lightning. But that didn't happen until my early 30's. That, and wanting to take pictures of our first child!
How do you figure out which storms to go after – and where to be so you’re able to catch the best views?
I've been chasing for over 10 years now and when you first start out, you are kind of lost, just looking at clouds and figuring out what you love, learning how storms work, what side is the best side and where will you get the best photos. These days, I do a ton of forecasting and planning into where I'm going to be and what storms I'll be chasing. But honestly, when it's tornado season, you pretty much chase everything. And all that experience chasing has helped hone the skills necessary to know where to be, what side of the storm will be the best, how it's moving, where the structure will be located, where the lightning might happen and where to position to be in front of a great big dust storm.
How do you stay out of harm’s way in storms? What’s the closest call you’ve ever had?
Anytime I've been in harm's way it's usually large hail being the issue. We got hit with a 90 mph microburst in western Kansas last year that blew out the back windows of about five storm chaser's vehicles. We got a little lax chasing an outflow dominant storm, had to stop for a restroom break and didn't anticipate such a powerful downburst hitting our area. I've never really put myself in a position to be truly in danger from a tornado or flash flood or some life-threatening situation. Generally as a photographer I try to stay out of the rain and hail because I hate drops on my lenses for time-lapses! So I'm usually either not as close or not in the direct path of a tornado.
Is a Pearl Jam video the coolest place your work has appeared?
It's definitely up there, they are such an iconic band! But probably the coolest licensing deal for me was when Marvel Studios asked to license a supercell time-lapse of time for Thor 2: The Dark World, and it appears as a critical scene and takes up the entire top half of the screen! As a huge comic book/superhero fan, that will always be No. 1!
You’re also a wedding photographer. Do you ever secretly hope for rain so you can shoot both at once?
Haha, I've had quite a few weddings and even engagement sessions where weather was not only a factor, but sure made for some amazing and memorable images. But I would never, ever hope for rain because I know it's such a stressful thing for the bride and groom. Back in 2014 I had a wedding to shoot on a day when most of Arizona was under an incredibly rare tornado watch, and a monster storm blew across Phoenix, flooding streets and shutting the power down all over. The venue for the wedding was a botanical garden and it was half flooded and without power. We still salvaged the day but it was close to being a total disaster!