Storm chasing has been in my blood since I was a young boy. I remember very well when I was seven years old growing up in Clinton, Oklahoma the evening that would forever set in stone my love for stormy weather. I was at home with my family as storms moved in from the west and we were inside watching Gary England tell us that Custer County was under a tornado warning and residents should be seeking shelter. Sirens began wailing and we rushed outside to the cellar, and along the way out I happened to look up and I was mesmerized by this new thing the sky was doing, turning green and spinning as if the world were coming to and end. We rushed down into the cellar, full of musty smells and spider webs and Mom took us kids down into it while Dad and his best friend stayed outside to watch the sky (which is what you do in Oklahoma to this day). I tried to make my way up the steps to get outside to take a look and caught glimpses of the sky but Dad would tell me to get back down into the cellar and of course, my mother wasn't going to let me go out into the elements, so I sat there with everyone else until the storm had passed. A tornado ended up hitting the east side of town that night, and a seed was planted in a young boy that would drive him the rest of his life.
So, what is life like for a storm chaser? First, you have to answer the question of why they do it.
I imagine my story is similar to many others, something happened as a child or teen where a storm was involved and it ended up making such an impression that they carried it with them the rest of their life. Others who were born in the mid to late '80's may have seen the movie Twister, which told a fictional story of a group of storm chasers and it made its mark on them. Those who were born in the mid 90's may have been influenced by both the Twister movie and a reality series named Storm Chasers that made its debut in 2007 that documented the real life world of storm chasing, at least in its early years. Regardless, somewhere along the way a fascination was developed, and each person will have a different reason for chasing.
For me, chasing drives a lot of positive and deep feelings. It takes me back to that time as a boy where I was so entranced in the moment. It also is a way for me to get closer to God and stay in touch with my spiritual side because I tie that with nature and the world untouched by man. The photos I capture is driven by my vision of how I see things and that's why my photography turns out the way it does. The beauty, the inspiration, the power and the movement of feelings all come into play when you see these things in real life. Also, for me of course, weather is one of the few wild things left in the world that is untamed by man and there is something about stepping out and being a part of something much bigger than you are, seeing things in motion in real life that most only see through their television sets. Others chase because they are fascinated by the science of it all, working hard to possibly solving the mystery of why tornadoes form and forecasting when and where they will form. Some chase for glory, recognition and attention, and some chase for the thrill of it. The reasons chasers chase is abundant and none of them are either right or wrong, because it's what drives each unique individual.
Now that we've talked about why, what is life as a storm chaser like?
Contrary to what you see on TV, in movies, or read about in books, storm chasing is not all glamour and storms. Chasing is about preparation. Looking at weather models days and even weeks ahead looking for the next trough, low pressure system or dryline, waiting for moisture to return from the Gulf of Mexico and which way the wind is blowing and at what level of the atmosphere. It is reading skew-t charts and forecasting. Chasing is figuring out what equipment will work best in some of the most remote places in the lower 48 states.
It's scheduling. Weather doesn't work to a schedule, so you have to be flexible. If you work or go to school (which most do), you have to predict what days you need off and take a gamble on if it's worth it or not depending on the setup. It's about getting up early and staying out late and sometimes getting home well after midnight.
It's being away from your family, and the excitement when you return. It's meeting new friends while you impatiently wait for the first signs of initiation.
Once you figure out something might happen, and I say "might" because there is no guarantee that the weather to do anything at all, there is the driving. Sometimes getting up at 5 a.m. to get to an area where storms may fire by 4 p.m. then driving to the storms and staying with them, then driving either to a hotel or driving home. An average day of driving for a storm chaser could easily be 8 to 16 hours and even more on some days depending on how far.
It's watching the sky do what it does. Does the storm have inflow, outflow, is it stationary or is it moving fast? It's about looking at radar and looking at velocities, echo tops and looking for signs of a hook. For some it's about getting readings, for some it's about how destructive is it being, for me it's about how it looks.
All of this work for a couple of hours of sheer enjoyment, for three months of the year, for 10-15 days within those months. Again, see the list of reasons why. This is life as a storm chaser and the definition of passion.
About once a quarter I pick a destination to shoot. There isn't a whole lot of thought process behind it other than "That would be a cool place to visit" and I try to pick places I haven't been before, which means I have a lot to choose from. Last year I Monument Valley, the Grand Tetons and Rocky Mountain National Park. Earlier this year I was in Big Sur and it was a fantastic trip. But, now I needed to find a unique place that I hadn't even been close to and something was pulling me towards Washington state.
So, I boarded a flight from OKC to Seattle and arrived a little after 9 p.m. pacific time and that was a little tough to start off with because of the two hour difference in time that my body clock was used to. I had about an hour drive to my hotel in Olympia so by the time I got to my room it was after 1 a.m. Oklahoma time, well past the time I usually head to bed.
I got some sleep and woke up early the next day ready to hit the road. I chose to drive west on my first day to get coastal shots, I didn't want to be too obvious and drive directly to Mount Rainier which would have been the easy thing to do. I went through the town of Aberdeen then headed for the coast up Highway 109 finding Roosevelt Beach along the way. I was there fairly early in the morning so there was no one else on the beach and it gave me a lot of time to explore. The scenery was pretty nice with the forest coming up to the shore while fog made its way inland. I love shots like these because it's not an obvious subject and can easily be overlooked. But, not this time.
I found a few more interesting subjects along the beach including a sandpiper asleep along the beach and a makeshift wedding alter made of driftwood. I'm sure if you've seen this stuff a million times it's easy not to give it a second thought, but since it was all new to me I think it comes out nicely in the photos.
After spending quite a bit of time on the beach (it felt amazing) it was time to head inland towards the rain forests. It took exactly five minutes once I was out of Moclips to leave the coastal scene and get into dense forest lining each side of the road, which felt a little spooky especially with the fog lingering in the low lying areas.
After about an hour drive I arrived at the Quinault Rain Forest and it was a pleasure to explore the area. The temps were warm and it was as green as I've ever seen any place. Fog obscured the higher altitude views so I focused on the immediate area to shoot in and stumbled upon a couple of nice waterfalls, including the impressive Merriman Falls. I almost missed seeing it, in fact I drove right by it and didn't know it was there until I saw another visitor stopped on the side of the road looking upwards at it. It was such a beautiful waterfall with the lush vegetation all around. I may have been pretty upset knowing I missed a place like this.
After exploring the rain forest I headed back out of the park to get some lunch. It was time to travel up the coast further north as far as I could go for the rest of the day. The fog had pretty much lifted for the day so as I traveled west the views became amazing especially as I drove north on Highway 101 right along the coast. There are several stops along the way where you can get out and walk down to the beaches, aptly named Beach One, Beach Two, etc. The views were incredible and getting to shoot the forest leading right up to the coast was a real treat.
I finally stumbled across a gem of a beach called Ruby Beach. There I would find seastacks like you see in those classic beach scenes and knew it would make some great photography. Unfortunately, sea fog had developed and rolled in making the rest of the day a wash as far as capturing anymore photos. So I jumped back in the car and headed back south, but only for a bit. I stopped at one of the numbered beaches and got out just to soak up some beach life before I headed back to Olympia for the night. I was incredibly lucky because gray whales (at least that's what I was told they were, I had no reason to doubt the info) had decided to make their appearance, but again the fog and rain was a factor. I was fortunate enough to capture a couple of shots with my camera although they were more for personal enjoyment more than anything.
The fog and rain intensified and I called it a day and drove back to the hotel. My first day in Washington was incredible and the next couple of days held lots of promise and I couldn't wait to see what else I would find.
Be sure to check back for my Day Two post very soon.
What better way to rev up the ol' blog than to revisit one of my favorite days this year....August 21st, 2017, the day of the first total solar eclipse to happen in almost 40 years. I didn't plan for it much ahead of time, but when we got about 30 days from the date I started to look at shooting it seriously and purchased a solar filter that arrived about two weeks before the event. After a couple of practice runs in the backyard, I felt like I had a good game plan to shoot it. I would travel almost straight north of my location about five hours away and shoot it outside of the small town of Geneva in southern Nebraska.
As the day approached the forecast models were calling for heavy cloud cover with breaks in the clouds here and there, so the risk was high if I was to leave early on the morning of the 21st. It would be very possible to make the drive only to find an overcast sky waiting on me and there would be no time to adjust. At the last minute on the evening before, I made the decision to take off and get to my location the night before so I could adjust if needed. I ended up driving a bit further north and stayed the night in York, Nebraska. From there I would wake up super early and adjust to my next location if need be.
Around 3 a.m. I woke up excited and worried to see what the forecast would look like. Sure enough, a low pressure system would bring cloud cover into my area and I couldn't risk sitting there until sunrise, because the eclipse was to begin at 11:30 that morning and if I waited too long I might not see it at all. I started to venture west on the back highways along the total eclipse path, ready to end up 5 hours west if need be, but hoping to stop well before then. As I made my way west and the sky began to light up after sunrise I realized I made the correct choice. After three hours of driving west there were some clouds in the sky, but it was 90% clear.
I ended up near the small town of Arnold, Nebraska, nestled in a valley at the southern edge of the Sand Hills. It was about 8:30 a.m. when I arrived (I took the trip fairly slow, stopping along the way) but the valley was full of morning fog. I figured it would burn off, but it was really slow about doing it and it got to be around 10:30 a.m. and it was concerning me that it might stick around to impede visibility.
I stuck around in the spot I chose, which was an off the beaten path pasture along a lonely country road, and got my equipment ready to go and did a couple of practice shots. But still, the fog and low cloud cover persisted. I finally decided to make my way out of the valley to a higher area a couple of miles to the south. It would shorten my time in totality by seconds but that makes all the difference in the world when you have a limited amount of time to capture something that won't come around again in another 8 years or so. Along the way I was lucky enough to capture a beautiful scene where pink wildflowers had overgrown a pond, so I had to stop for that.
Finally I found a good spot to shoot the eclipse. There would be no foreground subject for the photos on this trip, only the sun and moon and whatever dazzling display it might put on. I spent a good hour sitting there as the sun got higher in the sky and the temperature rose. It eventually made it up to 95 degrees, which for an Oklahoma boy like me isn't terrible but still on the toasty side for my tastes.
After about 30 minutes of waiting, the funniest thing happened. A car with four people stopped at my little turnoff along the highway and a man got out and walked my way. Seeing him coming I stepped out of the vehicle ready to give directions or talk about whatever he might want, as this happens many times during a stormy day and I'm out chasing. He told me he was with the AP news service and was doing stories on the eclipse, and wanted to know if I had time for an interview. Of course I did, because other than sitting there what else would I be doing while I wait?
Hours after the eclipse I found out that he had indeed written up a little blurb on my adventure and it had been picked up nationally.
Finally, it was time for the show to begin, just after 11:30 a.m. and it didn't disappoint. The best way to describe it is with the photos themselves, so without further ado here's how it unfolded in picture form.
Such an awesome day for such little anticipation on my part. I was captivated by the mid-day darkness and how the bugs were even fooled as they showed up out of nowhere. It was everything the hype made it out to be, which is a rare thing these days but for this one moment it lived up to it.
"Totality" and "Diamond Ring" are available for purchase both as a print or canvas.
Today is the day my blog really comes to life. I finally have the time to sit down each day and thoughtfully write about any subject I choose, though mostly it will be about my travels and images with a sprinkle of opinion from time to time. I'm choosing to bring it back to life because I'm pretty much over social media, and although it still has a usefulness to me, the fighting through algorithms to be seen has worn on me and its become more work than fun and the connections from likes and shares has diminished somewhat over the years.
So, here is where I'll put my words and images going forward and I do have so much to write about these days. A trip to Big Sur earlier this year was an adventure with the massive amount of rainfall it received over the winter months, and a storm season that may have lacked in photogenic storms but had plenty of adventure sprinkled in. There was the total solar eclipse and time spent in Washington state photographing that beautiful state. Not to mention the images themselves. So much to talk about and it starts right here.
If one were to only pay attention to social media they would think that 2016 was the most awful year known to man. As for myself, I was pleased with the way the year went and had a lot of exciting things happen along the way and had some photos to show for it as well. So, without further ado I'd like to take a look back at what was an eventful 2016 for Southern Plains Photography.
I never thought it would happen in a million years, but early 2016 saw me walk away from a good paying full time job to focus my time on weather and landscape photography. The seeds were planted a couple of years ago but through hard work, long hours and dedication to my goal I made the leap and haven't looked back. If there's one achievement other than getting married and having kids that I'll look to the rest of my life with pride it's this one.
It was a great year overall for capturing shots of tornadoes, and I was lucky enough to be there for most of it although I did miss a couple of important events. I'm a little bummed that I missed the beautiful Wray, CO tornado that everyone and their dog seemed to get, and I missed the powerful Wynnewood tornado in May. On the flip side, I got to witness every single tornado that the Dodge City, KS storm produced...such a historic event. It made up for everything I'd ever missed out on before. Here are some photos of tornadoes I captured this season:
2016 also saw some of the most extraordinary storm structure and it made for some unforgettable scenes. Leoti, Kansas on May 21st in particular stood out for its incredible look and I was lucky enough to be there. Chases in Colorado with linear storms as far as the eye could see yielded incredible views, and meanwhile just down the road from my house I'd get to capture one of my best photos of the year. Here are the highlights from my (non-tornadic) weather adventures.
It was such an incredible year to travel different places and get the opportunity to shoot some iconic scenes and not be rushed to move on. I traveled to northern Arizona and saw Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon and set my eyes upon the Grand Canyon for the first time. I made my way to eastern Utah and shot Delicate Arch and spent time in Canyonlands National Park. I spent a full week in the Grand Tetons letting my camera feast upon the most beautiful scenery in the world. I also spent plenty of time in Rocky Mountain National Park, drove slowly over the Million Dollar Highway in southern Colorado, hung out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and relaxed on the white sands of the Emerald Coast near Destin, Florida. All in all I visited 18 different states in a 12 month period. I have quite a few more on the list for 2017. Here are some shots I caught along the way:
These are just the highlights of what was an incredible year. I could go on endlessly but it's time to look forward to an active 2017 with so many places to see and photograph ahead. Thanks to everyone for their support, including my incredibly supportive wife and kids. It's not easy being gone to spend time in these beautiful places but knowing that I have their support makes it all worthwhile. Here's to a great year that was, and to even bigger things ahead!
A few weeks back I took a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park to complete this years adventures. Up til then I had visited Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Southern Colorado and many other states during storm season and this was the grand finale. I stayed in Estes Park for three days, each day wandering into the park at different times to catch the beautiful landscapes at different times of the day. In this photograph, named "Rocky Mountain High" the sun had set and the full moon was visible in the east so the landscape was awash in moonlight, though when I took the photo is was pretty hard to see anything around. It was a gorgeous scene through the eye of the lens though, as the snow capped peaks stood out brightly against soft glow of the sky and the moonlit valley.
This photograph is available to purchase as a print or canvas.
After spending some time in Utah at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, just one week later I found myself in Grand Teton National Park spending time shooting one of nature's most beautiful scenes. In this shot, I set up at Schwabacher's Landing, little spot off a gravel road just inside the main highway that cuts along the outer edge of the park. The sun was pretty well up at this point but the light was just good enough before the harsh noon light moved in to get this reflection shot of Grand Teton. In total I spent six days on my trip but three of them were hampered by clouds and a fire that had blocked the south entrance to Yellowstone, preventing me from entering the park and unleashing a smoky haze over the mountains. But, I did have three good days and I was pretty happy to land this photograph of one of the most amazing places on earth.
They say good things come to those who wait, and I'm one of the most impatient people around. I walked the 2-mile hike up to the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in eastern Utah and much to my chagrin was greeted mainly by overcast skies and the sun quickly dropping in the sky, although at the time it couldn't be seen. I got a quite a few shots with the gray background but just as I was about to call it a day when the clouds broke up in the west and the sky cleared, letting sunlight through and setting the arch aglow with golden light. I couldn't believe my luck and quickly unpacked to take advantage of a few glorious minutes. The shot above, "Golden Arch" is one of the rewards for waiting just a couple of minutes longer and I'm so happy that I did. This place has been photographed a billion times and from any angle imaginable, but I'm pretty happy with this photograph and think it stands tall in a sea of Delicate Arch images.
Every once in a while when I capture an image it beckons to be in black and white. I can't really explain it, but after working this photo up in color it just wasn't doing a lot for me so I let it be for a while. One night I woke up around 3 a.m. and my first thought was this needs to be in black and white. So the next day I got up and worked on it and it turned out exactly as I had pictured it in my head when I was laying in bed. There was a small rainbow in the left hand side of the photograph that basically disappeared when I worked it up, so I decided to keep it in color and it added a very nice touch of hope to the picture that is kind of wistful overall. This was captured just southeast of Dodge City, Kansas.
Drylands is a photo that takes you into the past, where toughness and grit were required for survival. The whimsical skies serve as wistful memories while the old homestead lays protected from the harsh winds of the plains by surrounding trees, which were surely planted as a windbreak and to keep from being exposed to the harsh elements of the southern plains. Taken in southern Kansas, only the rumbles of thunder kept me company as I captured this beautiful moment.
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