(Photo courtesy of Mike Olbinski)
Carnegie Mellon University

Photographer Mike Olbinski chases nature’s drama

When dark clouds roll into the middle of America every spring and summer, photographer Mike Olbinski, unlike most people, runs toward the mayhem.

Braving hellish hail storms, high winds, torrential rain and the threat of tornadoes overwhelming him, and armed with weather forecasts more detailed than most of us care about, Olbinski takes stunning photos and time lapse videos capturing the startling beauty of nature’s wrath. 

Olbinski has received a lot of recognition for his work. He has won an Emmy for one of his storm time-lapse videos, contributed to the photography and travel magazine Arizona Highways and now is officially a contributor to the National Geographic Adventure account on Instagram.

His Twitter account is followed by former president Barack Obama. For Olbinski, it has been a winding journey to get to where he is today.    

Growing up in Phoenix, Olbinski found a fascination with storms early on in his childhood. His father was also a storm enthusiast, so father and son would sit outside on the patio to watch storms when they got the chance. 

“I still have a vivid memory of a lightning bolt hitting right behind our house about a couple hundred feet away, blinding me,” Olbinski said. He was around eight years old at the time.

Part of what made these moments so special was the desert landscape around Phoenix, meaning that there were never many storms or rains. 

“It’ll be 106 degrees out, and then we’ll get a big thunderstorm rolling through town and it’ll go down to, like, 77, and it smells heavenly because of the rain,” he reflected. 

Far from being frightened by the lightning bolt hitting close to his home, Olbinski grew into adulthood with a love for taking photos, particularly of lightning. 

His first camera was a small point-and-shoot and after taking a photo of a lightning on that camera he realized that he was “hooked” into this art and needed a better camera camera. To afford a new DSLR, he and his wife sold their entire DVD collection.

Fast forward to July 5, 2011, the day a gigantic dust storm engulfed Phoenix. Olbinski had done a time-lapse video of the dust storm, and it went viral online within an hour.

He was soon giving interviews on TV news stations, and many people and organizations wanted to license the footage, including National Geographic and Al Gore.  

“It was the most apocalyptic dust storm anyone had ever seen out here,” he said. 

The ensuing attention and demand for licenses for his footage from the dust storm time-lapse made Olbinski realize that photographing storms was actually a financially viable career. 

In 2013, after trying to see one in person for three years, he finally saw a supercell, defined as a thunderstorm with a cloud that rotates upwards. The resulting time-lapse video went even more viral than the dust storm one, even getting the attention of the creators of the movie series Marvel, who licensed it for a scene in the second Thor film.

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This further convinced him that, though he had a day job as a systems integration engineer, storm photography was his true calling. Olbinski said he “can’t help but [chase storms]” because he is so “insanely passionate” about them.

While most people would be happy with a few good photos if they choose to photograph storms at all, Olbinski said he is the type of person who will stay out and shoot away until the storm has dissipated.  

“When you do something that you really, really love, it’s almost an addiction,” he said. 

Although storms are the thing he loves most, Olbinski is well aware of the dangers they pose, perhaps even more so than the average citizen.

There are indeed high-drama situations where he and his team have to outrace a storm system, but one of the top dangers he encounters actually comes from something far less dramatic than a tornado or lightning strike: enormous hail storms.

According to Olbinski, last year in Kansas, the team of chasers had stopped at a gas station when suddenly, golf ball-sized hail fell from the sky, kicking up gravel from the ground and shattering the back windows of the cars there. Fortunately, no one was hurt. 

Another top danger in storm chasing may also seem mundane and unexpected: drivers, many of them other storm-chasers, disobeying traffic laws in pursuit of their goals. Olbinski’s friend and fellow storm-chaser, Corbin Jaeger, was killed in one such crash when another driver ran a stop sign. 

For the most part, however, Olbinski says it’s not difficult to be safe, as long as you have the right knowledge to stay at a sufficient distance from the storm. Usually, his works are captured from a safe distance, where he is not battling winds, downpours, or hail.

This is especially true for time-lapses where he needs to get extended footage from a stable vantage point that isn’t at immediate risk from the storm. 

And as long as you are sure you have a safe vantage point, he wants us to know that watching these storms in person can be a “beautiful” and “magnificent” experience.  

“You don’t have to be afraid of it as long as you know what’s going on — you’re safe and you’re aware,” he insisted. 

To viewers watching his works on social media, it may seem that Olbinski’s line of work is all high drama or that his days are spent hanging out and enjoying these awe-inspiring weather systems. 

“I’ve had days where I drove [for] 13 hours and had nothing good; nothing that I want to come home and post the next day on Instagram,” Olbinski said.

For Olbinski, above all else, passion for storms is really what drives the amount of time he puts into his work and thus the quality of it.

When he first started photography, he dabbled in all sorts of genres, including abandoned buildings and street photography. But in the end, what stuck with him were the storms and that was what he became known for later on.   

“If you get into photography, figure out what you absolutely love, what you would do for free, what would keep you up until 3 in the morning working on it because you just can’t stop,” Olbinski said.