Mike Olbinski went from photographing lightning in his backyard with a point-and-shoot camera to being a professional storm photographer—in a flash. His time-lapse storm videos have gone viral in a big way; one of them even made an appearance in a major motion picture. I spoke to Olbinski to find out how he does it.
Was storm photography how you started getting into photography?
I’ve always been a weather nut, and I would always write on Facebook that I should be a meteorologist, and why didn’t I go to school for that, and all that kind of stuff. So I always liked that, and I just started looking at photography, and started following some guys who were doing lightning photography, and thought, "that looks like so much fun." So I took this little camera out, and would just hold the shutter down, and it would just go click, click, click, and I would try to take pictures of lightning, and I got a few that were ok, and then one night I got an amazing one, and I couldn’t believe it. Then I got on the local news, and I was hooked from there. I told my wife, “I’ve got to get a camera that can do long exposures,” so we sold all of our DVDs on eBay for almost $500, and I bought a Canon Rebel and just started from there.
Do you remember the first storm photo that you sold?
Once I started getting into time lapses, that was when everything really took off for me, because selling prints is really hard, unless you’re a name, and getting yourself a name takes time. People started licensing footage for stuff, and that’s when I started making money. The latest big thing for me was this supercell I shot last June, in Texas, and it was just kind of rotating dust, and lots of colors, and that went viral. I didn’t think that would happen to me again after my dust storm video in 2011, which went viral; that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But this was even bigger, and was actually the #1 time-lapse video on Vimeo last year. And the biggest thing was that Marvel studios licensed it for Thor 2 and it was in one of the major scenes in the movie. They took the top half of the clouds and made it the top half of the scene, where something really dramatic was happening.
How do you find storms to shoot?
In the summer out here in Phoenix, there are pretty much storms from July 1st to sometime in September. There are storms somewhere in Arizona unless there’s a really big dry period. So the night before, I’m always looking at forecasts, reading what the weather service people say, looking at models of predicted radar. And just kind of from experience, I’ve lived here my whole life, so I understand how the storms work.
When you go out to shoot, how long are you usually in each location?
It depends. I’ve been in one location shooting lightning for an hour and a half, but sometimes I’ll get a dust storm coming and I’ll be there for 20-30 minutes before the dust storm hits. It just depends on how much time I get there before something hits me. You just never know, it’s really up to the environment, of course. If I can shoot 30 minutes of a dust storm rolling in, or something like that, I feel really good about that.
When you’re out photographing storms, do you take any precautions to protect your gear from the elements?
No, I’m pretty bad, I don’t do that. I’ve had some issues out here, I was time-lapsing this crazy storm that you just don’t really see out here too much, but we had some weird weather last summer. I was trying to shoot over this barbed-wire fence, so I had my tripod up kind of tall, and I was going back and forth between it and my other camera, which was shooting lightning with a trigger. I knew if the winds hit it, it was probably going to fall, so I was kind of holding it up, going back and forth. I got a little sucked in on the other camera shooting lightning. I looked back and I saw my camera just flipping over, falling backwards. It landed in a dirt-gutter irrigation canal, and splattered in the mud and water. The camera was caked in mud, and the thing kept shooting. It was a Canon 5D Mark III, and it just kept shooting. I went and got it cleaned and I just never had a problem. But I’m really bad about that stuff. I’ll have an umbrella sometimes, to cover the camera, but most of the time if it starts raining I’ll stop shooting anyways, because you’ll have rain on the lens, so I usually just jump in the car. I just get my cameras cleaned a couple times a year, and I don’t have any problems.
Have you ever been in any dangerous situations while shooting?
Yeah, just last summer, this storm I chased on the plains in the Texas Panhandle, we ran into some dangerous situations, at least in our minds, because we haven’t got out there that much. The storms out there are like vacuums, they pull air into them, so there was actually dust blowing across this road in front of us getting pulled into the storm. At one point, the dust was so thick that we couldn’t even see the ground in front of us. We were looking at faint outlines of power lines of either side of the road to know where to drive so we would stay in the middle of the road. We had no Internet service, so we couldn’t see where the storm was in comparison to where we were. So that’s a worry, if you’re on the wrong edge of the storm. So we were kind of scared at that point.
Have you had a chance to photograph storms in other countries?
I’ve got some contacts in a couple of places where I’ve tried to get some photo assignments. Like in South America, there’s a place called Catatumbo, they have certain times of the year when they get lightning every night, in the same spot, over these mountains. Sometimes it starts after midnight, like clockwork. They did a story on it on Dateline, and I know a guy who does tours out there, and we’re kind of friends, so I’m trying to plan a trip out there to do that. A few years ago, I was in Holland for my day job, and there was some pretty good weather there, so I shot storms there. But for the most part, it’s just been here. I don’t get out of the country too much, but I would actually love to go to Australia for their storm season. Last year they had insane pictures of a dust storm blowing over the ocean with crazy clouds above it. I mean, that would be amazing.
Are there any other photographers that you’ve learned from or looked to for inspiration?
Yeah, Mitch Dobrowner, he’s a storm chaser, and his work has kind of been all over the place lately. But he does a lot of black-and-white, and I’m not sure if he shoots infrared, or if he processes like infrared, but he does some sick photos of storms on the plains that just blow my mind. I think, like, two or three years ago I saw that, and I took a storm photo of mine, and I made it black-and-white, as opposed to stuff that I was usually doing, and I was kind of blown away by how great the black-and-white looked, so I have him as an inspiration to take my photography to more of an artistic level. But then there’s Zack Schnepf; I saw some photos of his on 500px, and he does amazing work with luminosity masks, which I hadn’t heard of. So I kind of studied what he did, and bought his tutorial, and started learning how to do that, and I feel like that’s really helped me a lot. I started using HDR, but I knew that wasn’t right for me, and I saw what guys were doing with manually blending things, and with luminosity masks you get realistic-looking photos, and not HDR-looking photos. So that’s been a huge thing for me, and I feel like it’s increased the quality of the stuff I do, and gives it a more natural look. So I’ve kind of looked up to him a little bit, he’s been really nice. I did my own storm chasing workshop last year, and I gave his tutorial away to my workshop attendees so they can learn the stuff I learned from Zack.
Can you talk about your equipment and gear you use?
I shoot with all Canon, most of my stuff in the last year was shot with a 5D Mark II or Mark III, they have an extra card slot, so you can actually cram for way longer if you want, and SD cards are cheaper, so you can get larger SD cards for less money. I have a couple of Manfrotto tripods, and a Pixel wireless intervelometer that’s pretty basic, but when you storm chase, you have no time, and you want to set up as fast as you can. I rush to set things up, sometimes in the dark, and the wires would get tangled, so the wireless has been amazing for me. It does time-lapse, intervals, it lets your camera be in bulb mode, and do long exposures for lightning, or you can just keep shooting the same 30 second exposure over and over again. I don’t use filters too much, but I think this year I’m going to start using ND filters, so I can do some slower shutter speeds for the time lapses during the day. I’m about to purchase a dolly system, but when you storm chase, you don’t have much time to worry about setting up a dolly, but I want to use one when I know I’m going to have a little more time.
What is your workflow and post processing like?
I sort of keep it simple. A lot of people are using LRTimelapse, and these flicker apps, but my goal is to not have any flicker when I’m taking the pictures. That’s the biggest problem with time lapse—flicker—and there’s all kinds of methods to avoid that, like wider aperture, and lens twisting, and so I try to get that right in camera. When I put it together, I import it all into Lightroom, and I edit it there to get the right look that I want. Then I export those JPEGs, and I use Quicktime Pro to compile them into a 24 fps or 29 fps time lapse, and that’s a nice high-quality Apple ProRes file. That’s it, I try to keep it pretty simple.