Feb 2020

Meet Weather Photographer Mike Olbinski

Mike Olbinski, who took the stunning photo that is the cover of our 2020 catalog, was destined to be a weather buff from a young age. When he added photography to his list of interests, the world got a treasure.

“I grew up watching thunderstorms with my dad on our back patio,” Mike told us, “and vividly remember a time when a bolt hit just a few hundred feet behind our house. It's no wonder that what first drew me to photography over 10 years ago now inspired my desire to learn how to shoot lightning.”

Mike is based in Phoenix, Arizona where he’s lived his entire life, honing his passion for photographing lightning by watching the wild skies there light up. He picked a great place to do that -- during the monsoon season, the average number of strikes across Arizona is a whopping 421,000. The image on our cover has no lightning, but Mike’s skill in capturing the sun light over the Grand Canyon is on full display.

"Power and Fury:" A positive lightning strike exits the top of a severe thunderstorm near I-10 and Salome Highway, by Mike Olbinski, used with permission.

Mike’s passion for shooting lightning morphed into a desire to do time-lapse photography. Here’s how he describes his eventful first attempt:

“My first ever attempt at it was July 4, 2011, but it was the following day that would change everything for me. A friend texted me about a big dust storm coming into southeast Phoenix and so I packed up my gear and headed to a spot only a quarter mile away from my house that I had scouted weeks before. I knew if I could capture a time-lapse of a dust storm hitting downtown Phoenix, it would show people everywhere how big these things are and how they can dwarf an entire city.

“Little did I know, it would be a historic dust storm, measuring over a mile high and 100 miles wide. When I arrived at the parking garage and looked at it rolling over South Mountain, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It truly looked like the end of the world; a scene out of Independence Day when the ships roll over New York and cities around the world. I thought to myself, if I time-lapse this and do it well, I might finally end up with something the Weather Channel might enjoy.

“And so I raced home, put the time-lapse together, posted it online, and within an hour my life was going nuts. The video went viral almost immediately and was being shown on late night news shows across the country. At 5 A.M., CNN called, the Today Show called and yes, The Weather Channel called! It was insane. The enjoyable part was the fact I called the video ‘Massive Haboob Hits Phoenix,' which is a real meteorological weather term, and by that next night, it was being said all over national news.”

"Doom:" A dense wall of dust rides Interstate 8 southwest towards Yuma on July 9th, 2018, by Mike Olbinski, used with permission.

That experience taught Mike that good weather footage was valuable.

"People wanted that video for various projects, from A/C commercials to Al Gore using it for climate change talks. The crazy thing was, I'd do this for free. Yet people would pay for this footage? It sent me down the path where I am today. I set out to time-lapse as much as possible, from Arizona to the central US and it's been a blast of a journey.”

But he hasn’t limited himself to lightning and dust storms. He'll chase a supercell too!

“In early June of 2013,” Mike remembers, “my buddy Andy and I flew out to Denver for a short, three-day chase trip. We raced around, not being really great yet at chasing supercells and finally made a correct decision which took us south into the Texas Panhandle late in the evening. And once we came out of the rain, there it was, off to the west: a stunning, amazing supercell, looking like the motherships I've seen in photos. I had been out three previous years and had seen nothing good at all. So this was mind-blowing.

"Denver City II:" One of the best supercells I've ever seen in person, this was my last view of it before I had to run as quarter-sized hail began to fall, by Mike Olbinski, used with permission.

“A week later, I posted the time-lapse and was not expecting a second video to go viral, but I was wrong. It went even more crazy than the haboob video, becoming the number one video on Vimeo for all of 2013.

“Most important of all, though, it was an affirmation that I had finally found, after over 30 years of living, what I was meant to do. The licensing deals flooded in and it's still one of my most popular videos to-date.

“From that day forward, I kicked it into high gear and made longer trips out to the plains and started making short films every spring and summer. My films have appeared in tons of film festivals, won awards, and have been seen around the world. I won an Emmy in 2016 along with a local news station in Phoenix. My work has been licensed by clients such as Netflix, National Geographic, BBC, Lamorghini, Mastasi, Marvel Studios, and Pearl Jam, just to name a few.

For a real treat, check out Mike’s series of “Monsoon” videos. You can find Monsoon I through Monsoon V   on You Tube. We guarantee you will be eagerly awaiting the release of Monsoon VI .

But for all his success, Mike is really driven by his love for what he does. “While the success and accolades have been amazing and allowed me to do this as a full-time business for over five years now," Mike said,  "I don't lie when I say I'd do this for free. It's in my blood. It's what I love. It's almost an addiction. And I can't wait until the next storm!”

(Everybody here knows the feeling, Mike.)

And Mike is still a Weather Nerd at heart. He’s had a Vantage Vue on the roof of the house he shares with his wife Jina and three fantastic kids, for five years. (Yes, Jina and the kids have been along on many of his chase adventures!)

“I love getting to work with Davis Instruments as my Vantage Vue has never once failed. Even in the blistering, 118+ °F [48°C] degree heat, it works perfectly!”

After you’ve studied some of these gorgeous images (view the full gallery here) all Mike has let us use, look out your own door. Weather is out there.

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