Storyteller Spotlight: Mike Mezeul II, Pro Storm Chaser
Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background in photography?
I started off in film photography and got my first camera at the age of 15, an old beat up Yashica MG-1 from when my father was in the military. I had absolutely no interest in photography back then, but when he told me that he had no idea how to use it, I was determined to learn it (no, not competitive at all!). I didn’t have a car so I photographed real manly things in my parents garden, ya know, like dead ladybugs and flowers. I took down notes on a little yellow notepad for every frame that I took. What the conditions were, what my settings where even though I had absolutely no idea what they meant, etc. I then mowed lawns and saved up allowance to get my film developed at the very prestigious Eckerd’s drug store, down the road. I’d then look at my photos and compare them to my notes and that’s pretty much how I learned.
I’ve never taken a photography class in my life except for one focused on journalism. It was a ton of trial of error but I grew and as I did, I learned that I may actually have a real interest in photography. Fast forward twenty years now and so many doors have opened and I’ve had so many fantastic opportunities that I’m so incredibly grateful for.
You’ve distinguished yourself by shooting natural disasters and severe weather. What’s the attraction to photographing things that could kill you?
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated by the weather. I used to spend my time at recess laying on the picnic table staring at the clouds instead of playing with the other kids. I know, I was the weird kid. So with that being said, I don’t think I’ve ever really been scared of dying from a storm or volcano. I respect these natural disasters and I think that helps ease any fears that I may have and help keep me a bit safer while I’m out there in regards to how close I position myself.
The attraction is definitely the hidden beauty within these events. There is absolutely nothing we can do to stop them from occurring, so why not admire how beautiful they are? These are events that take place on our planet that are completely 100% not man made but oh so powerful. It’s amazing how quickly they kind of put you in your place and make you feel really insignificant compared to the power of this Earth. With tornadoes and severe storms, it’s amazing to see how the atmosphere above our heads can twist and turn a water molecule and shape it into these phenomenal clouds that can be peaceful and violent at the same time. With volcanoes, honestly, what’s cooler than watching the newest land on Earth being created right in front of your eyes?
Talk a little about the process of shooting severe weather, knowing where and when the storms are going to be and where the right place to shoot them is?
If you’ve ever played chess, documenting storms is a lot like that. I originally went to school for atmospheric science, so my background in meteorology comes from that knowledge and having chased with experienced chasers for about 5 years before I ever really went out by myself. While out there documenting these storms, it’s all about having a vision of what you want to capture before even arriving on the storm. Storms have structure and are quite organized in ways that certain areas provide different visuals. For example, if I’m focusing on wanting to get a sky full of mammatus clouds at sunset, I’ll position myself on the backside of the storm. If I’m looking for a shelf clouds rolling over me and my frame, I’ll put myself in front of the storm. If it’s a tornado I’m after, then I’ll usually approach from the south and parallel the storm until I can understand how the dynamics of it are working. Essentially once I’m on the storm, I don’t rush in. Each storm is so very different from the previous and depending on the environment it’s in, they all behave differently. So it’s all about understanding the storm from a distance, knowing what visuals I want to shoot, then working my way closer and closer.
There are a lot of things to consider while documenting storms besides just the storm itself. Traffic, road networks, escape routes, flooding, where the big hail is, damage paths, etc. are just a few that always keep my mind busy as I’m shooting. With all that being considered, there’s a lot of luck that plays into documenting storms with making sure your frame is in focus and not shaking because of the wind, that your storm initiates before dark and in an area that has decent terrain, and so much more. It can be so stressful, but oh so rewarding.
Any close calls you want to share with us?
Sure thing. Not my finest moments but they do happen, and that’s something you have to be ready for. So back in 2008 I was almost struck by lightning. I was shooting a summertime storm not too far from my home in Texas and after a few minutes of shooting, I felt the hairs on my arm standing on end. I quickly just ran into the car and as I got in, everything went white and I heard just an immediate crack of thunder. It took about a minute or so for me to get to where I could see more than just the outline of the lightning bolt scorched into my eyes, but when I peeked outside the car, the grass was on fire just about thirty feet away. Needless to say, I was done shooting for the day. I also tell people that no matter how much you think you know about these storms, nature is always in control. In 2016, I was watching a tornado warned storm and heard reports of a tornado. The area I was watching known as a “wall cloud” is typically where your tornado would form, and I saw nothing. A few minutes past and I just happened to look out my window to the west and within the rain current I saw a big, white tornado emerge. I had to quickly turn the vehicle around and blast south as quickly as I could. The winds were so incredibly strong that the tree limbs were snapping around me and making it difficult to get south fast, I thought that was it.
What makes a great photograph of a severe weather event?
I think it’s an image that entails just how beautiful these storms are while respecting what they are doing. There are some absolutely incredible shapes to supercellular storms (think Independence Day alien ships) that have wild colors like teals and emeralds that glow through them, I love those kinds of storms. Incorporate in a few lightning bolts and a cool old barn for foreground, that’s a gem. I do love photographing tornadoes but I think I enjoy storm structure a bit more. I like to create images that make you feel as if you are standing right there experiencing the storm. There’s so much power involved within the atmosphere that if there’s a way to convey a sense of the wind blowing at your back and a clap of thunder rumbling through the sky, you’re off to a good start.
Why is the timelapse an effective means of capturing these natural events?
Storms and volcanoes are full of motion and the scenes in which they create change second-to-second. A singular still frame is fantastic for documenting the moment, but time-lapse really brings the audience to the moment. They are able to see just how the storms are rotating through the sky, how the lava is cutting its way through the landscape and finding the path of least resistance. It’s really amazing to time-lapse a storm and see just how in a few miles of movement, the atmosphere river cuts and shapes the clouds. Or with volcanoes, it’s almost mesmerizing to see how fissures rise and lower with pressure releases, something you can’t experience through just a still frame. I think one of the things I was most amazed at from my time-lapse from last year in Tornado Alley was just once again how diverse and unique each storm is. Comparing storms via time-lapse really showed just how each one reacted to each day's different dynamics within the atmosphere, and that was a total nerd moment.