An interview with storm chaser Mike Olbinski

If timelapse and storm photography is your jam then you are going to love this exclusive interview with the one and only Mike Olbinski!


Mike Olbinski.

If you've been interested in timelapse photography and storm footage then it's incredibly likely that you've seen Mike's work somewhere over the last decade.

Be it online, on TV shows, in huge ads, or in feature films. Mike first got on my radar almost a decade ago, with one of his epic Haboob captures (more on that later).

The questions for this interview got sent out on the 9th of July 2020, but then life got in the way for both of us.

That being said, two years later, I am very excited to share with you an exclusive interview with storm chaser extraordinaire Mike Olbinski!

To get you hyped before reading, check out Mike's latest stunning timelapse film here:

Howdy Mike, care to introduce yourself real quick for those who don’t know who you are and what you do?

My name is Mike Olbinski, I'm based in Phoenix, Arizona where I was born and raised! Have a wife of 22 years and three lovely kiddos aged 6, 8, and 11. I'm a professional photographer specializing in weddings part of the year, but probably better known as a storm chaser and filmmaker. When I'm not doing the wedding thing, I'm chasing supercells and tornadoes across the central United States during the spring, and when it's back to Arizona for our summer monsoon season full of lightning and haboobs!

Mike Olbinski (right) and a friend with a storm behind them.

How did you get into storm chasing, and how did you get into timelapse photography? Did this happen at the same time?

I started storm chasing back in 2009 or so, with my main goal being to just capture lightning. That's all I cared about at the time. I had a crappy little point-and-shoot camera and on like the third time out, I caught this crazy bolt for me at the time and it blew my mind. I got it on the local news and I was hooked. Sold all our boxed sets of DVDs to raise about $600 to buy my first DSLR. It wasn't until 2011 that I started to time-lapse and my third ever time-lapse was the insane July 5th, 2011 haboob that I captured over Phoenix! Time-lapse was something I had always found fascinating, especially when it came to seeing thunderstorm clouds building. Kinda blew my mind how fluid everything looked and I thought I'd love to see what a dust storm would look like all sped-up like that. So I tried it and the rest is history!

Check out Mike's video from 11 years ago!

What are some of the main challenges of storm time-lapse photography?

Oh man, the challenges are many, but the main one is just finding locations to shoot in a constant run-and-gun situation. Road networks, terrain, trees, powerlines, roads, other chasers…the constant struggle to find a good spot to setup is difficult. At the same time you are also judging the storm itself, what direction is it moving, where do you aim your camera to capture the motion how you want to. And then making sure you are out of the rain because I dislike raindrops on my lens. 

Can you briefly walk us through how you approach setting up a shot for a storm? Say you’ve just pulled off the road and are opening the boot to grab your gear, what’s next? Feel free to go as detailed as possible.

I'm usually flying out of my driver's seat as fast as possible, especially if it's a great storm. I generally leave my camera attached to the tripod when I know I'm stopping every 5-10 miles to shoot the same storm, so it's quick to bust it out and race over to wherever I want to setup. Mostly at that point it's checking focus, making sure I do a lens twist (Canon DSLR trick), and then figure my composition and how I think the storm will move. Once I set the first camera up, if it's a really good storm, I'll set up a second one with a generally closer focal length, like 50mm or 135mm.

Behind the scenes photo of “The epic, 10-day tour group of 2019.”

I always love seeing your post-season stats, can you give us an estimate of the total number of miles you’ve driven throughout your storm-chasing career?

I sadly just retired my 4Runner that I purchased in 2014 brand new. It had nearly 260,000 miles on it. Some of that, of course, is driving around town, to weddings, family trips, etc. But I've also rented vehicles when I chase, so for sure I've chased over 250,000 miles in the past six years, and who knows what before that. I do know things really picked up for me chasing-wise back in 2014-2015, so the miles before that would be less.

What does an average season look like in miles driven, photos taken, gigabytes and hard drives filled, etc?

Oh wow, well, I can do roughly 40-50k miles a year chasing, but I have lowered that a bit by leaving my truck in Denver now and flying back and forth to Phoenix so I don't put so many miles on my truck. So that's probably dropped in the last two years. Tough to gauge the number of photos taken, but I've had times where I've shot 500-700 GB of time-lapse for a single DAY. I do use 50mp cameras, so those images take up a lot of space. I bring 4TB drives with me to mirror and dump them whenever I get home for a few days.

What is your current gear setup? Looking at changing it anytime soon?

My current time-lapse gear is two Canon 5DSRs with a Canon 11-24, 50mm 1.2, 135 f2.0, and a Sigma Art 35mm. I also have a Sony A7R3 for stills that generally has a Sigma Art 14-24mm on it. Not looking to change soon, but I MAY switch out the Sony for the new R5, and possibly if the rumored R5s becomes reality, maybe move to those for time-lapse.

Editors note: As this interview originated over two years ago, I've asked Mike if he's made any changes to his kit. He has since replaced the Sony with the Canon EOS R5.

What’s your relationship with social media like? I see you’re quite active on Facebook and Twitter, are there any other platforms that work well for you? Any platforms you intend on being more active on?

I have been pretty heavy on social media for a long time, that's how I grew my business of course, like most photographers these days. It's changed somewhat though. It used to be my blog and Facebook, but then Instagram became huge, so I spent a lot of time on that. My videos did well on Vimeo, but not the best on YouTube, until about two years or so ago when my subscriber count started going upwards so I focused on that a lot more and now we are near to 60k subs! Twitter has always been there for me and I love it for news and instant updates on what's going on in the world or even storm chasing. I'm also on Patreon now which has been working well.

Could a storm chasing and timelapse video course exist or is it something that people need to experience with a hands-on workshop to really learn from?

That's tough for sure. You could do a video course on time-lapsing and learn all that before you ever chase a storm, but then you get on a storm and are unsure what settings to use, because the light changes so fast, it's dusk, it's blue hour, the lightning blows out your shot, or do you want to shoot the Milky Way, or or or haha. It's a lot. And storm chasing itself is something you can't teach without hands-on experience. I run workshops and do tours that give people a taste of all of it and that usually leads to them doing it on their own if they have the passion for it!

Speaking of workshops, how do you balance commercial photography work with storm chasing?

When it comes to chasing storms out on the plains, which are the supercells and tornadoes, I offer tours which generally are more of a way for people to tag along for the ride and do their own thing. We of course answer questions and do what we can, but it's definitely not a workshop. So I get to chase and time-lapse while also bringing paying customers along to enjoy the adventure.

My workshops in Arizona are more teaching, but I still do my best to kind of lead by example, I yell out settings in the car when we're pulling up, we jump out, I might set up real quick because it takes me about 22 seconds and then I make sure everyone else gets things correct. I also have done a lot of consulting/guiding out there, where I lead other commercial photographers around, like National Geographic, the BBC, IBM, etc. That generally acts like a tour almost, where they are just following and want to shoot the same kind of things I do, so I get to chase but also help filmmakers get their own footage.

Behind the scenes of a Mike Olbinski storm shoot

Is storm timelapse photography lucrative through licensing? Any advice for people wanting to get into stock footage and image/video licensing?

It can be. I plead the fifth 🙂

Any advice for people that want to get into storm-chasing photography?

My advice is that you really have to love it to be good at it. And not just love it, but really have a passion for it. The amount of driving alone is hard for people. It's daunting. I've driven 15 hours to chase a storm in Texas that lasted for about 4-5 hours, then drove 17 hours home to Phoenix. There is so much learning that goes into being able to just position yourself correctly. And then to get good stuff sometimes you chase well into the night when everyone else has given up, gotten dinner and are at a hotel. I've chased until midnight and gotten some of my best stuff when I was the last one chasing. You will have failures that will make you want to quit, and it can be easy to quit, but if you love it as I do, you'll find a way to keep going.

If you want to do it, you just gotta get out and do it.

If you live somewhere without storms, consider jumping on a tour to see how you like it and maybe do it on your own someday!

A big thanks to Mike for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sure we're all looking forward to seeing what sort of stunning film he comes up with next!

To stay up to date make sure to check out Mike's website and social channels:

A brief reminder that there are only 5 days left to enter my latest filmmaker gear raffle!

Buy as many tickets as you want here:

Want to learn how to timelapse? Check out my free e-book below.

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1 year ago

Just a quick test of the new comment section on the website. If you see this say hi!