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Photos by Mike Olbinski, Bryan Snider and Susan Strom

Mike Olbinski used time-lapse photography, taking shots every three seconds, to capture this lightning strike as the sun was setting just southwest of Casa Grande. This photo was taken June 28.

Bryan Snider is particularly fond of this shot he took of Four Peaks in December of 2011. His goal was to capture Four Peaks with snow on it just before sundown.

Susan Strom, once frightened of lightning, now travels the United States to capture stunning storm imagery.

Susan Strom, also known as "The Lightning Lady," seizes moments of weather with her lens - brilliant flashes of light being her primary subject of interest.

Published by Times Publications, August 2012

Mike Olbinski knew it was time to get his camera rolling when the cars stopped coming up Interstate 10.

“I had already seen the storm coming in from south of Casa Grande, and I was actually heading north on the I-10 to get ahead of it and then shoot it coming in again,” says the 37-year-old professional photographer. Olbinski makes his living shooting weddings around Phoenix, but he lives to capture the uniquely volatile, often breathtaking skies around Arizona during the state’s notorious monsoon season.

“At first, the traffic was going really slow, and I pulled over on the shoulder of the Queen Creek overpass and started shooting,” Olbinski says. One of his first shots from that July 21st afternoon, posted on his blog and titled “Incoming,” depicts an almost eerie procession of vehicles, led by a menacing-looking UPS double-trailer semi truck, escaping a giant cloud of dust rolling in a few miles behind them.

“It was slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and then they all passed me, and I realized there were no more cars coming.” On his blog, Olbinski noted that the sudden post-apocalyptic emptiness on the highway felt “like something out of The Book of Eli.”

The Arizona-born photographer has been caught in many road-engulfing dust storms before, and has become so adept at safely riding them out that his wife trusts him to take along their 3-year-old daughter, Lyla, a fan of dad’s work, who happily left a friend’s birthday party earlier that Saturday while toting her own Fisher-Price camera.

“Usually people keep driving: some people pull over, some don’t,” says Olbinski, who always pulls over — as soon as he finds the best vantage point. “But once I looked around and noticed there were no cars coming anymore, I knew this thing was big enough to shut down the freeway.”

From the safety of his Toyota 4Runner, Olbinski trained his Canon Mark II on the wide patch of desert to the east of the intersection and set it to start shooting pictures every two seconds. By the time he and Lyla returned home sometime after 10 p.m., Olbinski had another haboob in the can: one more newsworthy time-lapse video of a massive Arizona dust storm to edit, upload to Vimeo and watch go viral by morning.

It was Olbinski who captured the now famous time-lapse video of the gargantuan dust storm that rolled over Phoenix on July 5, 2011, a sequence shot from the top of a downtown parking garage and immediately picked up by NBC, CNN, the Weather Channel and other national outlets. The dramatic footage of America’s sixth-largest city being swallowed up by a 5,000-foot high wall of dust made for a real life 30-second disaster movie, and introduced the Western world to the term “haboob,” derived from the Arabic word for wind, haab, or, alternately, habub, meaning “blowing furiously.”

“I licensed that video to a ton of places, and made a decent amount of money on it, more than I ever made selling prints or fine art photos,” he says. The National Geographic Channel soon came calling, and licensed three more of his time-lapse videos for a special on Arizona’s wild desert storms, suddenly a hot topic among weather watchers.

“Mike’s haboob video put Arizona weather on the map,” says fellow storm chaser Bryan Snider, who’d been following Olbinski on Twitter for about four months before running into him in person when the two, both pro photographers, coincidentally showed up in the same spot for a storm shoot. Scott Wood, a former Arizona storm chaser now living in Olympia, Wash., found he couldn’t leave the Valley without making one last pilgrimage to the top of te four-story parking garage near 7th Street and McDowell where Olbinski shot his famous time-lapse, cheekily designating it a “historic site” on FourSquare.

This time around, Olbinski was quick to get the video of the newest haboob up on his blog, and was immediately fielding Twitter requests from TV news outlets to run his clip.

“Channel 3 showed it that night, and the Weather Channel put it on the front page of its website,” he says, noting his name was properly credited each time, even if — as is normally the case with the news media — the usage was granted free. But the real coup was having Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore, host of the channel’s Storm Stories series and frequently the first field correspondent the news networks turn to whenever there’s a major hurricane, retweet Olbinski’s link to the new video.

“He’s basically the No. 1 weather reporter in the country, and he retweeted my message to all of his 116,000 followers,” says Olbinski, whose ultimate dream is to one day be hired by the Discovery Channel to chase storms professionally. “Not exactly Ashton Kutcher numbers,” he allows. “But to a guy like me, that’s a major celebrity!”

Mojos Rising

It’s nearing dusk on the fourth day in a row of mid-July monsoon activity, and KTVK TV3 meteorologist April Warnecke admits she doesn’t have a clue what kind of weather may be coming our way this evening.

“You know, I haven’t looked at the radar since I left work about noon,” says the busy American Meteorological Society-awarded forecaster, who handles weather reporting on the 4:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. Good Morning Arizona broadcast. “It did look like there was some stuff on the rim that could come into the Valley, so I’ll probably switch on the news in a couple of minutes and see what they’re showing.”

No worries. Warnecke, like all of the weather reporters on Phoenix TV, knows she’s got at her disposal a talented team of unpaid “mobile journalists” — mojos, for short — who are happily following whatever storm activity may be brewing.

“They’re extremely useful,” she says. “We love showing pictures on the air from every viewer who sends them in. But there are a few guys, like Mike Olbinski and Bryan Snider, who are constantly getting amazing pictures. During the actual storm, these guys are very helpful because they’re on Twitter a lot, so they’re constantly tweeting about what they’re seeing at that moment. So for me, you get an eyewitness account just by following their Twitter feeds. You get some great observations about what’s actually going on with these storms from the ground — which is always helpful to us, because we’re stuck at the station.”

Storm chasers have been around for as long as Mother Nature has been amazing us with her unpredictable behavior. But since the advent of camera-equipped smartphones and social media, traditional news outlets have come to rely on the contributions of regular folks.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in weather reporting, where every local news channel invites viewers daily to upload their scary storm videos or pretty sunset photos via their websites or free mobile apps.

Bryan Snider is a perfect example of the modern mojo. A recent transplant from the Midwest, where he worked for a time as a news photographer at a Missouri TV station, Snider discovered that as an amateur storm chaser, unlike a member of a traditional news team, he could move fast and travel light, armed with only a smartphone and a decent-quality camera.

“I subscribe to the RSS feeds of sites like weather.gov, which is the website of the National Weather Service, and NOAA.gov, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” says Snider, who’s also an avid user of the RadarScope app, a $10 mobile application that lets users view the same NEXRAD Level 3 radar data and severe weather warning data that meteorologists rely on. “That gives me access to all of the radar, lightning and storm tracking data right from this mobile application.”

Today, he’s friends with most of Phoenix’s top meteorologists, at least through Twitter, where he trades links to his on-the-scene photos and videos in exchange for tips on where the next big storm is brewing. On this particular evening, while Warnecke is just getting ready to turn on the news at home, Snider is out with Olbinski getting amazing shots of a sudden intense rain shaft near the Superstition Mountains that they’ll each be tweeting later to the local weather teams.

“They seem to appreciate us because we give them some nice images to use for their newscasts,” says Snider, who, thanks to his wife’s job as a flight attendant, has time to drive around the state shooting storms. “And in return, sometimes they’ll say, ‘Hey, it looks like you guys should go here, I think you’re gonna get some really nice shots.’”

While there’s normally no monetary compensation for images used in newscasts, frequent contributors like Snider and Olbinski develop a name recognition that often boosts their bread-and-butter photographic work — portraits, in Olbinski’s case, and nature and travel photography in Snider’s.

“We don’t pay them,” says Warnecke. “I think the better ones are becoming well-known, though, which helps promote their regular photography business. Sometimes when they post their photos on Facebook, we share links to their websites on ours.”
Sometimes, too, the meteorologists even become customers of their mojos.

“I actually had Mike take our family photos last year,” says Warnecke, who also has a print of one of Olbinski’s haboob photos from July 2011 that she purchased hanging on her living room wall.

“He’s a great family photographer,” she discovered. “Just as patient with a cranky 2-year-old as he is with a building thunderstorm!”

Lightning for Dessert

For all the hubbub about haboobs, for most storm chasers, there’s still no greater prize than a perfectly timed photo of a crisp lightning strike over the dry Arizona desert.

That’s certainly true for Susan Strom, a graphic artist and casual photographer who moved from California to Arizona in 1994 and was initially frightened by the lightning that flashed outside her windows almost nightly during the summer monsoon season.

“My first summer here, I had a close call with a lightning bolt, and I ended up developing a fear of it,” says Strom, who, shortly after moving into her Fountain Hills home, witnessed a tree in her back yard split down the middle by a lightning strike. “So, because I needed to kind of work through that, I decided to find out everything that I could about lightning and how it works. I learned that it doesn’t work at all how I thought it did. And then I thought, if I could photograph it, I could get a better look at it. Because when we look at it in nature, it doesn’t let you see much. It’s there for a split second and then it’s gone. So I set out to take pictures of it just for my own therapy.”

Eventually, Strom became quite good at photographing lightning — a difficult trick, even for a professional photographer. “The thing that used to bug me is when I’d see these images of lightning in magazines where the lightning bolt looked really thick, like it must be 50 feet wide,” she says. “But in reality, lightning is only the width of a pencil. It’s very thin. So basically, a photograph like that is overexposed. I really wanted that accurate, journalistic depiction of what lightning really looked like.”

Strom took so many photos of the phenomenon, the manager of the processing lab at Tempe Camera took to calling her “The Lightning Lady.” Today Strom is recognized as one of the few female storm chasers in Arizona, and her lightning photos have appeared in Arizona Highways, on the Weather Channel, and in TV news programs from Arizona to the United Kingdom and India.

For five seasons, Strom’s storm chasing took her to the so-called “Tornado Alley” area of the central United States, chasing twisters and supercells and lightning in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. But she was happy to return to Arizona, where she says the lightning is actually the best.

“From a photographer’s standpoint, the lightning in Arizona is more appealing. The structure of it is more interesting — in the plains, the patterns are more straight up and down — and also we’ve got mountains, ghost towns, gold mines and Native American ruins that you can put in the foreground to create a really interesting shot. The only disadvantage for us, really, is that the season is so short. I wish it were longer!”

Mike Olbinski agrees. Despite his fame as Arizona’s premier haboob hunter, Olbinski says monsoon season feels incomplete for him until he captures a few great lightning strikes on camera.

“My wife and I were talking last night,” he says on the Monday following his capture of that massive July 21st dust storm, “about how it had been a great weekend, how I got my time-lapse on the Weather Channel and everything. But for me, it was still a little disappointing, because I didn’t get any real good lightning shots.”

Olbinski says there’s something about capturing that once-in-a-lifetime lightning strike — “when you’ve got that good exposure going off and you get that big flash and you can’t wait to look at the back of the camera to see what you’ve got” — that properly ends an evening of storm chasing.

“It’s kind of like my dessert,” he explains. “When I’m out chasing storms and trying to get clouds and time-lapsing dust storms, once it gets dark, it’s like, ‘Now it’s time for some lightning.’”

And so, after three straight days of chasing storms all over central and southern Arizona, from Casa Grande and Tortilla Flat and then on to Surprise and Cordes Junction, Olbinski prepares to set out on the road yet again for one more attempt to capture that elusive, inspiring flash of electrical energy.

“It’s been like, this whole weekend, I’ve had no dessert,” he says with a laugh. “And I really need to get some!” – end —