an interview with mike mezeul II
by Megan Dill
Your portfolio is quite diverse, ranging from weddings to live concerts to the primary subject of this interview, the skies above us. What is it about the weather that excites you?
I was always the little kid in elementary school lying on the picnic table during recess staring up at the clouds. I don’t know what it was back then, but I was just fascinated with the clouds and the sky above us. There is so much chaos going on in our lives right in front of us that we often forget to just look up. The sky is a miraculous place and it is always changing. Whether it is a severe thunderstorm, a hurricane, a blizzard, a sunset or a sunrise, each day the sky is different. The weather is so powerful and so beautiful at the same time, it’s always amazing to see what Mother Nature brings to the table.
What came first: your zeal for ominous weather, or photography?
Ironically, they both came around the same time. I honestly think that my parents forgot my 15th birthday (Sorry Mom and Dad!), so they came out from their room later evening with this old, worn down leather camera bag. Inside of it was a 1975 Yashica MG-1 with a 45mm lens and a cable release. I never once expressed an interest in photography to that day, but when they gave me the camera, there was something magical about it. It was slick, had this nice chrome look to it, and smelled…well, just old haha. I was intrigued by it. Plus, the fact that my father and I have always been really competitive with one another, once he said that he had no idea how to work it, I knew I had to learn how to. I have never once taken a photography class in my life. I’ve been completely self-taught. As I learned (on that thing called film), I wrote down my settings and the conditions in which I was shooting in for each frame, then saved my allowance to get the film developed. As I went through my images, I noted what I could have done better for each image and how my settings needed to be adjusted. It was a bunch of trial and error and 14 years later, think I may finally have it down. Now at the same time, I was of course very interested in the sky and wanted to attend Oklahoma University to get my degree in meteorology. So naturally, most of my subject material for my camera was indeed the sky. I didn’t have my license, so whenever storms rolled through the area, I would climb out on the roof of my parent’s house, set up my camera, and hope the lightning didn’t get too close. If it did, I would move inside where I had already strategically removed all the west side facing windows screens so I could open the window and shoot out of it. To this day, all the window screens are still MIA. Once I got my license, it was a whole new ballgame, I began traveling all over the central plains photographing storms.
Photographing severe weather is a dangerous profession, even for seasoned veterans. Have you ever had any close calls while photographing a threatening weather event? What steps do you take to maintain your safety when chasing supercell thunderstorms?
You know, one of the great things about standing beneath a violently rotating storm, spitting out baseball sized hail and lightning, is that it makes you feel extremely…extremely tiny. I think that’s something every storm photographer needs to remember and appreciate. You’re looking at something that can kill you, and no matter how much knowledge you think you have about the storm, you are not in control. I’ve had a handful of incidents where I wasn’t quite sure if I would make it out in one piece. Probably the most terrifying was on May 24, 2011. My chase partner, Jared Leighton and I, were performing research for Project HailSTONE and had a half mile wide tornado to our east. We had great visibility on it until the tornado became wrapped in rain and hail, making it virtually impossible to see. The tornado was moving northeast in direction and so were we, until the road we were on took a pretty good turn east, putting us almost into the path of the tornado. Once again, we couldn’t see the tornado, but we could hear it and had debris falling from the sky at our location. It was pretty intense as the tornado ended up passing about 1/3 of a mile in front of us.
As far as safety goes, I always try my best to have an escape route planned. That would be a route that would allow me to move opposite the tornadoes direction as quickly as possible. This isn’t necessarily always available, so in situations like that, I make sure to not get as close. I always also travel with a spare tire, first aid kit, fix-a-flat, etc.
What is your go-to gear for photographing both Mother Nature’s fury and calm?
I’m a big advocate of Nikon gear…it’s never let me down in those chaotic conditions. I shoot with a Nikon D800 as a main body, and a Nikon D3 body as my backup. The 36mp resolution and dynamic range of the D800 is just absolutely incredible. I shoot mainly with a 24-70mm lens, but sometimes in close range situations, I will pull out the 14-24mm lens as well. I find the 24-70mm though to be a great focal range for where I normally position myself relative to the storm. I also utilize a Lee .9 grad filter to help expose for both my sky and foreground at times. One of these days I’d love to test out the Nikon D4, but that may be down the line until I can save the pennies.
Your weather photo stream on Flickr is breathtaking, and also rather true-to-life. Many times I come across sky photography that is beautiful, but obviously processed to the extreme. What is your philosophy when it comes to editing dramatic and turbulent skies?
You know, to each their own, but I really strive to create an image that represents what I see with my own eyes out in the field. The storms are already incredible enough, why overdue it with extreme post processing? I’ve seen some storm photography that is HDR’d so much that the storm looks like it is radioactive, in my opinion, you’re destroying Mother Natures work at that point. Keep it simple, keep it real, let the storms speak for themselves.
I really loved the photograph below. Your incorporation of the solitary tree effectively communicates the scale and grandeur of the supercell thunderstorm traversing the lush field below it. How do you typically approach composition in the sprawling landscapes that you photograph?
Thanks! The storms alone are a great subject to photograph but I always enjoy incorporating in some sort of natural or human element into the foreground along with the storm. I feel that this truly gives a sense of scale and power to the storm. Sometimes I can’t find a subject with the storm that works well for scale, so I’ll see if I can find something that at least brings contrast to the image. But then at times, you’re stuck in the middle of a wheat field and you just have to settle for the storm itself haha.
What is your favorite atmospheric or celestial phenomenon to photograph? Do you have any ‘bucket list’ natural wonders that you long to capture?
Oh that is a dangerous question! I absolutely love photographing supercell thunderstorms. There is nothing better than standing a mile away from the base, feeling the wind blowing 30, 40, 50 mph at your back, pulling you into the storm as you try to set up your frame. It’s an adrenaline rush for sure. Then, if you’re lucky enough to see a tornado, that’s the icing on the cake. Just capturing the formation of such a powerful creation of Mother Nature, it’s mind blowing. Besides severe weather, I adore the night sky. The Milky Way is just astounding. I love escaping to west Texas and spending hours photographing it as it moves across the sky. I actually hold astrophotography workshops, and it’s so amazing seeing the student’s faces light up as they capture the Milky Way for the first time. We all become like little kids in a candy store. As for the bucket list, the aurora borealis holds the number one spot. I’ve been dying to get to Iceland or Sweden to photograph the lights, maybe one of these days I will be fortunate enough to. I just hope I don’t forget to click the shutter as my jaw is on the ground.
Your star trail photographs are astounding. Can you please give us some quick tips on how to achieve this effect?
It’s pretty simple actually. You really just need a clear sky away from any major areas of light pollution. Typically, I like to try and get at least 30 miles from the nearest area of light. Then, you just need a sturdy tripod, a cable release or intervalometer, a lens that is decent in low light (f2.8-4), and finally…patience. You will want to shoot at a decently high ISO, somewhere between 1000-2500 is great, set your f-stop as low as it can go, and shoot a 30” exposure. You will then take your final images and stack them together. I use the program StarStaX (mac) or Startrails (PC). Also, make sure you don’t have a full moon that night, new moons are the best as they provide the darkest of skies.
What is your most memorable weather event—dangerous or not—that you have photographed?
May 29, 2004 by far takes the cake. This was a day were all the ingredients for a tornado outbreak came together over a pretty rural area in southwest Kansas. We documented 13 tornadoes that day, and the road conditions and storm motions all worked together so perfect as to where we were able to drive up reasonably close to some larger tornadoes with the opportunity to escape quickly if we needed to. Also, since the storm was pretty isolated for most of the day, many of the tornadoes were backlit and had blue skies next to them. That’s the perfect chase day right there. Photogenic tornadoes, a slow moving storm, no chaser traffic, and most importantly, no injuries (that we know of).
What meteorological sources do you rely on when (1) determining where to chase storms and (2) during the chase itself?
Fortunately, through years of experience, I’ve been able to come up with much of my forecasting by using forecast data obtained by the National Weather Service and particular forecast models known as the GFS and NAM. These tools allow me to come up with an idea of where severe weather may form within the coming days. When it comes to game time though, I use mobile Internet to obtain live radar, mesonet readings, visible satellite, and so on to pin point my storm. The best tool though while you are actually in the storm is simply your eyes. It almost becomes a hazard to rely on radar while you are in the storm as much of the time you lose your data signal and could be looking at old data without realizing it, and therefore you could very easily, unintentionally put yourself in a very dangerous place.
Your portfolio also contains some rather sobering images taken in the aftermath of violent weather. In particular, the EF-5 tornado that ravaged the town of Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011. What goes through your mind when photographing the devastation left in the wake of these storms?
It’s extremely difficult to say the least. You’re trying your best to not put a camera in someone’s face, but at the same time, you need to capture the image. Joplin, Missouri was definitely one of those instances where you needed to be extremely sensitive to the situation. The town took a major blow, there were people dead, people with limbs missing, people looking for their children, it was a nightmare, the last thing you wanted to do was stand 3’ in front of someone and snap their photo. I primarily shot with my 70-200mm and distanced myself. Even with that focal length, there were a few situations in which I was asked, kindly and not-so-kindly, by victims to stop taking photos. It’s all about finding that fine line where you respect the pain that these people are going through yet telling the story. This situation is of course the last thing any storm photographer wants to see happen with a storm. It’s all great and dandy when you see a tornado in an open field, but it becomes a gut wrenching feeling once you see people’s lives and property being directly affected. You almost want to scream at the thing you so desperately wished to see, to vanish.
What are you most looking forward to during the 2014 storm season?
Storms? Haha. Just being back on the open road and watching Mother Nature put on her show. Every storm is so different, so it’s always amazing to see how each chase will present its self. I plan on doing a bit more storm structure photography this year, which will require me to distance myself from the area where a tornado may occur, so that may be a bit of a challenge to myself to see if I can commit to staying further away, rather than racing up to the beast.
Thank you Mike for spending some time with us today and sharing your incredible work and thoughts with us!