Storm chaser and photographer Mike Olbinski has seen plenty of dramatic natural weather in his life. Last year, he captured one of the most incredible lightning photos we had ever seen, and his time-lapse films “The Chase” and “Monsoon II” kept viewers on the edge of their seats as supercells engulfed their computer screens. So on May 9th, 2016, as meteorologists across the country warned that the conditions were lining up to cause dangerous weather across the Great Planes, I knew Olbinski and others would be out, capturing the drama that helps us remember how powerful and dangerous Mother Nature can be. But nothing prepared Olbinski for what he would eventually stare down.
The chase started in Phoenix, Arizona where Olbinski lives. The travel, like the 15-hour drive to the heart of Oklahoma, can make Olbinski’s passion for photographing storms extremely challenging, as he is usually forced to drive long distances on very little notice. But Olbinski doesn’t seem to mind. I asked Olbinski if these long drives ever accumulated to nothing, and what inspires him to keep going, even after the less than stellar storms.
The driving, while excruciating, is just part of the deal. Most of these storms aren’t just coming to my front door, so I know that if I really want to push my creative limits, I need to put in a little extra work, which is usually spending a ridiculous amount of time in the car. Even harder though is the time that I spend away from my family. But they are so understanding and supportive. The excitement of the chase and documenting weather at its harshest is inspirational for me. It lets me share something incredible, yet scary, with people all over the world who don’t have weather patterns like we do in the Plains. For this chase, I left Phoenix Saturday night about 9:45pm, right after I photographed a 10-hour wedding.
I didn’t sleep, chased on Sunday and then, right when I had almost decided to go home on Monday, something told me to stay. And obviously, what I witnessed was beyond anyhing I could have envisioned.
But suddenly, as the exhausted storm chaser shook off the aching desire to head home, a large tornado started to form in front of him in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. Olbinski told me about the moment he realized what was unfolding.
When I first realize a tornado was on the ground, I was actually immediately angry because I had once again driven away from a storm to get out of the rain only to have a tornado drop right where I was watching minutes before! It happened in Canadian, Texas last year and I lost sleep over it. I soon realized it was for the best, however, because I had Interstate 35 right in front of me and could blast south to get on the rain-free side of this storm. So I did that, and the second spot I stopped at is this typical rural looking road, and all of a sudden, the tornado is right down the middle! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I wasn’t scared or frightened. I was pumped and my adrenaline was rushing. I knew this was a great composition so I raced ahead and got out at a high vantage point and started snapping like a madman. I had the 135mm on first, then switched to the 16-35mm for some wide angle shots.
About 10 minutes later I set up on a hilltop south of that location and started time-lapsing the storm, which was one of my primary goals while chasing this spring. And I did it. I got it. Not only did I get it, but it’s around 9K quality! I am really excited to edit that.
As I stood there watching the tornado, vegetation started dropping around me. Grass, leaves, shrubbery. It was incredibly eerie and spooky. One of the most surreal moment as I’ve ever had.
Olbinski also posted a hair-raising video of the tornado.
Monday, as it turned out, would generate storms that would level homes and even worse, cause casualties. But Olbinski hopes that sharing the images he captures of the raw power of these storms will help convince people that warnings need to be taken seriously and that they should always heed the advice of emergency personnel and meteorologists.