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Interview with Ryan McGinnis of The Big Storm Picture

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Ryan McGinnis is a photographer and storm chaser. You can visit his website here.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Ryan McGinnis: I am a storm chaser and photographer who lives in Nebraska; I have no formal training in photography outside of all the books I’ve read and the thousands of rolls of film I’ve blown through (and terabytes of drives I’ve filled up) over the years. I’ve had a life-long love affair with the weather; from as young as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with storms and for most of my childhood I dreamed of one day chasing tornadoes. Living in this part of the country makes storm chasing less of a chore than if I had to drive here from, say, Virginia, but storm chasing here still requires lots of driving — on average around 600 miles per chase. These days I tend to storm chase around 15,000 miles a year, mostly in May and June. In 2008 and 2009 I was fortunate enough to get to tag along with and photographically document Project Vortex 2, a $12M science mission to learn how tornadoes tick, which was probably one of the best freelance investments of time and money I’ve ever made.

When I’m not shooting storms, my favorite subjects are candids and urban panoramas.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

RM: I first really got into photography after I got my first SLR, an old manual Olympus, back in around 1999. Before that I tinkered with point and shoots, but had little idea what I was doing. After that I bought an EOS-3 from my good friend Josh and went to work for my University’s student newspaper, and blew through more rolls of film than my pocketbook wants to remember. It wasn’t until 2003 or so that something in my head clicked and I realized that I could try to blend my passion for the weather with my passion for photography; to me, good photography is mostly about subject, with technical aspects running a distant second — and a good supercellular thunderstorm on the great plains is an incredible subject to photograph. When I started to see the photographic results I was getting back from my storm chases, I was hooked — I look at most of my storm pictures these days and think “wait, did I really take that?”

PP: How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?

RM: Honestly, with storm photography, what I’m trying to do is capture an aspect of nature that most people don’t get to experience. Even those, like me, who do get to experience it, have a really hard time explaining to someone who doesn’t live in this part of the country just how spectacular the sky can be. In my storm photos, the sky is the main subject; the rule of thirds is irrelevant — if anything, for me it’s more like the rule of fifths, as in one part ground, four parts sky. :) Which, really, in this part of the country where the ground is steam-ironed flat and the sky hovers overhead like an enormous ocean, is how most people experience reality, anyway.

PP: What was your first camera?

RM: My first camera was a blue Fisher Price 110 camera for kids that I had when I was around five years old — I remember my parents strongly encouraging natural light photography, as the flash cubes for that thing were outrageously expensive! :) It looked just like this:

PP: What equipment do you use these days?

RM: These days I shoot with a whole slew of cameras; on the digital side I use a 50D and a 20D, with a Tokina 11-16 2.8, a nifty 50 1.8, a 70-200 2.8IS, a 1.4TC, and a 580EX flash. On the film side, I have an old EOS 1N, an Argus C3 brick, and a Kodak Tourist 620 camera that I like to shoot with. And of course a sturdy Manfrotto aluminium tripod with a ball head and a cheap radio controlled remoter shutter release to keep me from getting fried by lightning.

PP: How does a storm-chasing photographer like yourself earn a living?

RM: It’s primarily from licensing. Storm photography only makes up part of my licensing, though; while it’s a big chunk, the rest is filled in with travel imagery, a bit of lifestyle, etc. It’s not so much that the demand for storm imagery is exceptionally strong, but rather that it’s one of those niches that is so difficult to pull off well that there isn’t much supply. Thus when a textbook or an ad agency needs a powerful storm image to use as an illustration for a chapter or a backdrop for an automotive ad campaign, there are only a handful of sources to turn to.

PP: How do you go about deciding how much to charge for a particular photograph?

RM: For licensing that comes in via personal inquiries, I usually use software called “Fotoquote”, which is somewhat industry standard. There is often a bit of wheeling and dealing involved depending on budgets and desired use (clients will sometimes ask for much more usage rights than they actually need, and the price can come down quite a bit once you figure out what they *really* need), but Fotoquote is a good starting point. My online portal, which is run by Photoshelter, also uses Fotoquote to come up with prices. A large number of my images are also available via various agencies (AGE Fotostock, Getty Images, and Alamy), and the agencies get to set their own prices on these images. Getty Images is the strongest performer for me, despite (sadly) giving me the smallest cut of revenue. Getty does tremendous volume.

PP: How close do you try to get to tornadoes before pulling out your camera?

RM: Generally, I don’t get terribly close at all — if I get within a mile, I figure I’m getting too close. The best storm photos are generally taken from further back, anyway — back where you can see the overall structure of the storm. Tornado photos are somewhat played out and are relatively easy to get compared to photos that show a giant storm hovering over the landscape like some kind of alien assault craft. Probably the closest that I’ve been is half a mile, and that was too close for comfort as that particular tornado was headed right for me. I value my life too much to take stupid risks — and besides that, if I ever died in a tornado, my wife would kill me!

PP: What’s something unique about photographing storms that other types of photographers don’t have to deal with?

RM: There are several things that are somewhat unique — the largest of them being the sheer amount of driving. An average chase starts at 7AM and runs 600 miles or more before ending well after sundown. Most of that time and distance, however, is boring — storm chasing is hours upon hours of evaluating weather conditions, driving, waiting, and driving some more for perhaps the occasional fifteen minutes of excitement and terror. It’s a bit like nature photography, except my car is the blind and the animals can pick my blind up and throw it a few hundred yards if the animal sneaks up on me. Another issue to deal with is protection of equipment — camera gear doesn’t like water, for example, and cars don’t like softball-sized hail. (I had a Honda Civic totaled out by softballs back in 2002.) My cameras will sometimes have DIY rain protectors made out of clear trash bags over them if I anticipate being in rain, and a photographer has to understand a lot about how storms tick in order to stay away from big hail. And, of course, storm photographers have to learn a ton about storms and weather forecasting to be successful — finding a good storm is much, much harder than you’d think, and getting in position to intercept it at just the right time with just the right foreground is as much luck as it is skill.

PP: What advice do you have for shooting storms?

RM: The most important thing is to learn as much as you can about storms before giving it a go. Storms can go from looking pretty to smashing the heck out of all your vehicle’s windows in less than a minute. If you know what to watch for and know how storms are structured, you can safely avoid big hail or being in the path of an unexpected tornado. If you don’t, you’re relying on luck, which will run out sooner or later. One of the better places to learn about how to safely and successfully chase storms (which is required for good storm photography) is a web forum called “Storm Track“. A lot of good chasers hang out there and talk shop, and you can learn a lot by being a fly on the wall. It’s also useful to have a program that shows you live radar data. For a PC laptop, the program you are looking for is called “GRLevel3“. For your iPhone, the best program is an app called “Radarscope”. Both will show you live updating radar with a little GPS blip showing your current position (assuming your laptop or your iDevice has GPS). These programs are invaluable to me, as they allow me to see what a storm is doing even when visibility is obscured. Lastly, when it comes to equipment, I find the most important bit of kit for storm photography is a decent superwide lens. 16mm or 17mm on a fullframe, or 10mm / 11mm on a crop body. Storms are huge and take up so much of the sky that anything other than a superwide is only going to see a small slice of the storm.

PP: How much post-processing do you do with your photos?

RM: It depends on the application and how it was shot. My panoramas for example have to be stitched together, which is in itself pretty heavy lifting for a post processing program when you’re talking about blending 10 to 15 images. For general storm shots, my post processing usually revolves around fixing the dynamic range limitations of the sensor — for example brightening up the ground so that it’s not a black hole (our eyes don’t perceive a black hole, so neither should the picture!) and adding a bit of contrast. A good sample of what I generally do for post processing is here. I suppose I could probably use split density filters (and I know that another really good storm photographer, Jim Reed, swears by them), but I guess I don’t want to have to fuss with adjusting them every time I change composition.

PP: What’s the favorite photo you’ve made so far, and the story behind it?

RM: My favorite photo so far is this one:

This was a shot I got while documenting Project Vortex 2, a two year science mission to study tornadoes. I like this shot because it’s one of those few photos where you can really perceive that the storm is spinning like a top. I like it, too, because it’s a testament to not giving up — this storm developed near Dodge City, Kansas on a day when conditions for supercellular storms were marginal at best in that area. Had I been chasing on my own and not following Vortex 2, I likely would have gone east to Missouri that day, where the odds looked better. But Vortex 2 had some of the best forecasters in the world working with them (you know the guys in Norman Oklahoma who issue the tornado watches? Those guys) and after a lot of sitting around and waiting at the target area, to my utter surprise it actually paid off. A beautiful supercell formed over perfect territory (flat, flat, flat — as far as the eye could see), and slowly marched towards us. This photo was taken just before we had to leave, as the rotating area of the storm was only about four minutes from being directly overhead.

PP: Who are your favorite photographers?

RM: One of my favorites is probably one of my biggest competitors — a man by the name of Mike Hollingshead who also lives in Nebraska. He’s a guy who could trip and fall down an open manhole and end up taking award-winning photos on his way down. To be candid, a lot of what’s influenced my photography has actually come from motion pictures — I’m a big fan of Ron Fricke’s cinematography, with Koyaanisqatsi being his magnum opus. I’m also pretty heavily enamored with the wide-angle symmetrical style employed in most Kubrick films.

PP: Is there anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

RM: Only to re-emphasize that if you plan to ever go out and take photographs of storms it is absolutely crucial that you first learn about storms — how they are structured, and how to avoid unexpected encounters potentially fatal hazards. Storm chasing is actually a much, much safer activity than it appears to be, but only if you approach it cautiously and with knowledge.

Image credit: Fisher Price 110 camera by electric.porcupine [bmazz.tumblr.com]. All other photos by Ryan McGinnis and used with permission

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