Mike Mezuel II on chasing storms and pushing further.
It will be 16 years this May since I first grabbed my camera and chose to stare down the most violent of weather that Mother Nature can produce, the tornado. When most people find out that every spring I voluntarily take my camera gear and myself to Tornado Alley, their first response is, “You must have a death wish.” It’s quite comical because really, I don’t. I love everything about my life, so why would I want to risk ending it?
Sure, documenting a twisting and turning force of nature that can rip concrete off the roads, send semi trucks flying hundreds of feet into the air, and leave trees stripped of the bark may have its dangers, but man, the beauty of seeing nature at work is a reward worth the risk.
An EF-4 tornado touches down near Chickasha, Oklahoma, lofting parts of houses into the air.
The west Texas sky filled with glowing mammatus clouds after severe thunderstorms rolled through the area.
Before I go into the joy of being a storm photographer, let me first say that I’m not going out there without any knowledge in how these killer storms work.
I studied meteorology throughout college, and when I first started chasing storms, I went out for the first few years with experienced chasers who showed me the ropes. With that said, yes I have knowledge and experience, but when you are dealing with nature, there’s no guarantee that things will go by the books…they actually hardly ever do.
A supercell thunderstorm with a striated updraft near Jolly, Texas.
Now that I’ve done my best to abolish the idea that I have a death wish, let’s talk about the photography aspect of chasing tornadoes.
The visuals are simply endless and jaw dropping.
To see a tornado while out chasing is really a rarity. You must have the perfect mix of atmospheric ingredients come together at the exact precise time. Then, you must be in the perfect position to see the tornado. And if that isn’t challenging enough, as a photographer, you must, of course, have light. Most tornadoes tend to occur right around sunset, so light is limited and most of the time you are left with tornadoes occurring with less than optimal light. The danger level rises rapidly after dark and as much as I would love to capture some long exposures of lightning lit tornadoes, that’s when I feel the risk is a bit too great and grabbing a crappy gas station dinner takes priority.
A tornadic supercell thunderstorm churning over a plowed field in west Texas.
A storm chaser stands in a field in Wyoming observing a supercell thunderstorm as it approaches his position.
I try to go into each chase day with no expectations. If I see a storm, awesome. If I see a storm with great structure, fantastic. If I see a tornado, initiate the happy dance. There are so many stunning subjects to shoot besides the tornado itself. I’ve seen storms that look like UFO’s flying through the sky, or storms that look like upside-down wedding cakes spinning at a stand still. I’ve seen rainbows that are more vibrant than the highest level you can take your saturation slider to on Photoshop. I’ve seen lightning bolts cut through the air and dance through the atmosphere creating a dazzling display of light and electricity. I’ve seen storms that look like they are straight out of Independence Day, ready to devour the landscape ahead. Needless to say, I’ve seen and photographed a lot of really cool things out chasing storms.
Dual lightning bolts strike down on the Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona.
A large stovepipe tornado is illuminated by the sun as it moves across open farm land near Dodge City, Kansas.
A tornado warned supercell thunderstorm spins over Leoti, Kansas.
For my weapon of choice in documenting severe weather, I go with a Nikon D810 on top of my Induro 304L tripod. This setup gives me the greatest ability to capture these forces at work. Shooting conditions are usually pretty intense in these storms. We are talking about winds that can break 100mph, softball sized hail, flooding rains, and more. What’s truly important to me though is what my expensive camera is resting on while I try to document the storm. Over the years, I’ve gone through a variety of tripods while out chasing. (For the sake of not embarrassing these other brands because their sticks couldn’t handle the harsh environment, I won’t mention their names).
So why have I stuck with trusting my Induro for my storm photography? Well, I find the ability to get low and stay stable absolutely key. Other tripods have felt like my camera was balancing on a set of chopsticks. I’ve had cameras blown over because the tripod simply wasn’t able to stay stable in some crazy winds.
Plus, the carbon fiber is a bit of a nice safety blanket that gives you that warm and tingly feeling inside knowing you are not a huge conductor of lightning once the storms approach.
Obviously, there is still danger with lightning, but I prefer to not enhance my odds of getting turned into a crispy Mike. Another huge plus is the ease of setting up quickly and getting the shot before danger gets too close. I absolutely love the twisting locks of the tripod, and how fast I can get my ball head level and capture the frame.
A young woman stands in a field watching a tornado pass by in the distance in southern Kansas.
In sticky situations, I can have everything set up in less than ten seconds, and that’s key to getting out alive.
It’s a pretty harsh environment while out documenting supercell thunderstorms, but I love every moment of it. I’m thankful for my safety, the beautiful displays of nature that I’ve seen, and my trusty gear.