One look at the cover of Jim Reed's book, Storm Chaser: A Photographer's Journey and you shouldn't be surprised that his passion for extreme weather photography has put him in harm's way more than once. Getting fantastic images of nature's most incredible tricks involves a lot more than running head-on into a storm. It takes patience, science and surprisingly few new camera bodies.
Q. When did you first become fascinated with extreme weather?
I was raised in Springfield, IL and we had a variety of weather challenges, like ice storms, blizzards, floods, and tornadoes. I was shoveling snow by the time I was seven. I was always interested in the visuals associated with these storms. When you're a kid and you're climbing a tree and then a month later it has been uprooted by a meteorological phenomenon, that leaves a lasting impression.
Q. When did your love of photography begin?
My mom bought me my first camera when I was about eight, but I was more interested in recording sound effects and creating my own little shows. It motivated me to get into filmmaking and I went to USC for film, so I was always looking through a viewfinder. I didn't take any formal photography classes, but I came out of school understanding the important elements of exposure.
Q. When did your two passions collide?
I was making films and I realized that four out of the five productions I would work on would be disrupted by the weather. I remember one day thinking: "I was pointing the camera in the wrong direction. I needed to be focusing on the sky."
Q. What was your first big weather photography job?
I began documenting the Vortex project back in 1994. I was writing about it for magazines and the editors would ask me if I could get pictures because there was just no room for a photographer in these small research vehicles. Eventually, I began to like taking photographs more than writing.
Q. What kind of preparation goes into your photos before you get behind the lens?
The day before a potential event, I'm looking at the computer models, maps and data just like any weatherman on TV does. That part is a lot of science, but once I get there, it becomes a lot more artful. I'm out there interpreting the sky and observing the landscape. That helps me decide which camera and lens I want to use. Will I have time for a tripod? Do I need to sandbag it? You really only have a few seconds to make all of those decisions. I also have to decide how close I want to get.
Q. Have you had any close calls where you were worried about losing more than your gear?
In almost 20 years, I've only marked down two near death experiences in my journal. The first was Hurricane Charley in Florida on Friday the 13th 2004. I was down there with a meteorologist partner and we thought it was going to be a Category 2. It suddenly changed directions and intensified to nearly a Category 5 and caught us out in the open. We were literally swatting away debris and getting hit by shrapnel. It's the only time I ever videotaped a goodbye to my mom. I thought, "This is it." Trees were coming out of the ground, but what saved our hides, was the center of the eye. In the matter of a few minutes, we went from violent winds to dead calm. It's the only time in my career I have experienced that. It's other worldly and bizarre in a good way. We had a 4 minute 52 second window and we found someone with a tornado shelter and they let us in.
Q. When was the other one?
It was during Hurricane Katrina. We were in Gulfport, Mississippi at the same hotel we had been in for three other storms. It was built just after Hurricane Camille so it was designed to withstand a Category 5. We rode it out in this five story hotel about 70 yards from the water. We were poking our heads out of the doors and windows as much as we could until the surge reached out to us. It was about 26 or 27 feet in our area. We couldn't go downstairs anymore after that. When the water subsided, it was like someone had pulled the stopper on the bathtub and the water went out faster than it came in. Everything to the east and west of us had been completely raised from the concrete foundations. Our hotel had lost half of the building. We were the only area left standing. We could've been crushed … I still dream about it.
Q. Do you use a rain-shield or an underwater housing on your gear to help keep it safe?
I shoot and let the camera get wet. Then, the minute I get back in the vehicle, I dry it off with a towel. I just work too fast for any other way. Hurricanes are very hard on your gear though because of the salt. You can taste it in the air. Shooting Katrina, I just couldn't get the taste of it out of my mouth. If you don't clean everything out after shooting in that, the salt will eventually destroy it.
Q. How many of your cameras has nature destroyed?
In 18 years, I've only had one of my Nikon cameras stop working once and it was because I took a direct hit by a big wave during Hurricane George and the camera went into the ocean.
Q. Are there weather phenomena that you want to capture, but haven't been able to?
An actual cloud to ground lightening bolt during a heavy blizzard is one. I wouldn't mind photographing a water spout, which is basically just a tornado over water. Those can be spectacular. You have this vortex that's just sucking up water so you have these beautiful translucent blue pillars that, depending where the sun is, can provide some really awesome photo ops.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with your images?
I photograph atmospheric portraits and I have always been working to get weather photography recognized as a genre just like portraiture and landscapes. It requires so much planning and it really deserves the recognition.