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Interview: Photographer Jim Reed on Hurricane Irene and Storm Chasing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Over the next few days Hurricane Irene will unleash a watery fury on the U.S. east coast. In turn, the media will unleash a torrent of images depicting Irene’s impact. Some of the most memorable photographs will be taken by this man:

Jim Reed heads for the action

I caught up with weather photographer Jim Reed this morning as he was in New York City preparing to shoot Irene’s impact on the region.


Q: You are en route to photograph Irene. What preparations are involved in this sort of assignment?

I’m photographing what I describe as “Before” images. In case hurricane Irene comes through this area, I’d like to have images shot within 48 hours that I can put side by side. Here’s Irene on Thursday. Here’s Irene on Saturday. People are moved by images relatively close in time but that look very, very different.

I have to arrange at least 3-4 installments. Most obvious is photographic equipment to record the hurricane visually with stills and HD video. There’s also audio equipment.

Another installment is preparation for riding out the hurricane. I have what I need water-wise and for food. I need to prepare for being a minimum of three days without. I remember for [hurricane] Katrina I packed water for two weeks and food for a week in the back of the Explorer. It looked crazy, like I was delivering food instead of packing for a hurricane.

Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi, 2005

Another installment is the gear we use for communicating, because that’s one of the most critical components. I need to be able to receive updates, and I need to be able to share information. As you might imagine, communication is important as the hurricane is approaching and making landfall. At some point communication is cut off so that we focus on documenting the experience of the beginning, middle, and end of the hurricane. Afterward, it helps to be able to communicate with the outside world to say “hey, we’re ok, this is what we saw.” To also transmit images, and in this day and age, video clips.

The types of gear we pack shows just how fast technology is changing.  My last hurricane was Ike in Sept of 2008. Now I’m using an iPad.

Q: I imagine much of your work is time-sensitive. Could you describe your workflow in quickly turning around raw images from your camera to send to the news media?

It depends on who I’m working with. I tend to have multiple clients that are aware of each other. I always chose the groups so that there is no competition or conflict. That can be tricky, as you might imagine. I might be working for a magazine, also a newspaper, or a stock agency, a morning TV show, a group of scientists, the national weather service. That’s one of the things I love about my job. I get to work with so many different, fascinating people.

Tornado researcher Tim Samaras monitors atmospheric conditions in Kansas.

In some assignments I might beam files to Corbis as fast as possible, and they beam it to their clients. I use a Verizon broadband card. As long as I have a signal I can transmit accordingly.

I also have learned how to shoot very quickly and then retreat to a base camp that has a generator & a server and do it that way.

For me, it’s not so much about the instant sharing of what I have, as it is the collecting of accurate and rare images. Views of a hurricane and sounds of a hurricane that even the media may not experience because they just don’t get as close as we do.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Q: If you were constrained to a single lens for your current Irene project, which would it be?

I would have to say the Nikkor 24-70 mm f/2.8. That’s a reeaaally versatile lens for a hurricane. I mean, for anything. If you made me take one, it’d be that one.

Q: Would you choose the same single lens for tornado work?

I… you know… that’s a good one. Now I’m going to start to wiggle more. I really like the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8, because I do tend to get so close.

I work with many meteorologists, scientists and other people who are as much into storm structure as they are “Oh wow, look at the tornado”. They love it when I get right up underneath the supercell thunderstorm. They get to see the top of the storm that’s actually producing the tornado beneath.

If you have a telephoto it is tempting to just zoom in on the tornado. That’s an amazing shot as well, but more for calendars or postcards.

Landspout tornado, Kansas. May 8, 2008. 1/320 sec, f/22, ISO 200, 14-24 mm f/2.8

Q. Do you ever revisit photos to give them a more thorough edit than was possible in the heat of reporting a weather event?

That’s a great question. Not as often as I’d like. The weather has become so active it’s all I can do just to cover it. One of the things on project board list is to go back and look at captions on a variety of stock photos.

I strive, and the people who work with me strive, to produce captions that are as up to date and accurate as possible. I’m very detailed, I like it that way, and you guys [at SciAm] are partly responsible. I did a story for Scientific American back in 1999 about Hurricane Floyd. At first it was an assignment to write about a big hurricane incapacitating an American city. That quickly turned into a story about mass evacuation. They had 4-5 states all trying to get away from the coast at the same time and it was gridlock.

My point is, that experience was extraordinary- the fact-checking, the law of accuracy- and it stuck with me all these years. I go out of my way now to make sure that captions are as detailed as possible and as vetted as possible.

Q. The first photo on your home page shows an angry wall of water breaking over the seawall during 2008′s Hurricane Ike. Taken from below. Please tell me that was a remotely operated camera, and not you standing out in the open. Do you use remote equipment? And, how do you judge a shot to be too risky?

Um… I got drenched.

Galveston has a 17 foot seawall. By the time we got there, the swells were so big they would hit and shoot straight up.

Hurricane Ike, Galveston Texas, September 2008

I took a couple test shots, and then I just sort of watched to try to get the rhythm of it. I watched the locals who got too close and were knocked off their feet. I wanted to get a really dramatic shot, so my assistant and I just kept watching. We didn’t mind getting wet. We had raincoats. We just timed it. You know, in all honesty, it was probably a little closer than I thought that one was going to be. But at that point the key is hitting that shutter button. [laughs]

Q: Do you ever use remote equipment?

The answer is yes, especially in the last couple of years. I just did a piece for Nikon’s Learn and Explore page on lightning. I’ve done a lot of lightning, and that’s where I’ll use a remote. A storm producing a lot of dangerous lightning.

There are different types of storms, and there are different types of lightning. I’ve learned over the years which ones I can get close to. In some cases, very close.

If it’s that kind of mean-spirited, capricious cloud-to-ground lightning, I will either put the camera on a tripod with a remote attached to the hot shoe that I can control from inside my vehicle, or I will use a window mount and shoot right from the vehicle.

Q. How did you get into weather photography? Were particular events important?

I’ve been fascinated with weather since I was 9 or 10. But since I enjoyed looking through the viewfinder of a camera more, I turned right into photography instead of left into meteorology. I did keep a weather journal- a simple little sketchbook.

As I went into college I’d record weather oddities happening in LA. I was directing a multimedia presentation and we had this unusual three days of rain that made practicing outside just hell. What was going on here? It was the first really prominent el Niño we’d ever had.

When the weather begins interrupting your life on a regular basis I think it’s natural to ask “Why?” I had been directing TV commercials, music videos, and I worked on a movie for HBO.  Every time we have exterior shoots we’d be disrupted by weather. It would rain when it wasn’t supposed to, or we’d have freaky snow. That inspired me to start looking at the bigger patterns. I wish I had something more dazzling, but that’s what happened to me.

I finally wizened up one day, and instead of being irritated & frustrated by all the shoots being postponed, and interrupted, and canceled, why not make the weather and crazy storms what I shoot?

Greensburg, Kansas, 2007

I am not an adrenaline junkie. I just love working, and I love experiencing different storms and taking that information and sharing it, knowing that it is helping others.

As a kid I loved flipping through the pages of an encyclopedia-that shows my age-, going to the “Ts” and looking up tornadoes. A black and white photo of this snake-like tentacle hanging down was completely fascinating.  I wanted to know what made it rain and what made it snow.

It’s so satisfying to know that now it is my images appearing in schoolbooks. There’s probably a kid out there somewhere thinking, “Wow- look at that lightning bolt, “Wow, I wonder how hot that is, I wonder what makes that happen.”

Q. I see from your biography “Storm Chaser” you’ve photographed- I have trouble believing this figure- over 60 tornadoes. That you are still alive seems to suggest that you’re not just lucky, that you have strategies for getting the shots you need while remaining out of harm’s way. Would you care to share a few pointers about how to behave responsibly around a tornado?

I can tell you this. If one of your readers is genuinely interested, the first thing they can do that would be responsible is to find out where their nearest National Weather Service Office is, call or go online, or stop by, and find out when they have storm spotter program training.  These will be early in the year, in spring. This program is free- it teaches what meteorologists look for in the sky, what they teach their NWS-sponsored storm spotters to look for, so that they can call it more accurately.

It’s all about helping the NWS. If the radar may show a developing tornado, if you have somebody out in the field showing the ground truth situation, they can radio in to say “Hey, there’s no tornado on the ground” or, “there is a tornado on the ground”. This helps issue a tornado warning.

That’s a great start.

Yes, this is real.

Do I want to teach people to do what I do? I don’t want a bunch of people going out and getting hurt. I’ve really struggled with that. You get people saying, you know they’re going to do it anyway, you may as well give people tips on who to do it while minimizing their risk.

I just think it’s important for your readers to understand the risks. So, sign up for the NWS-sponsored storm spotter program, look up information online. And hook up with another storm chaser. Never do it alone. You may lose your car to large hail, on your very first effort. Or worse. You could have a traffic accident. This can be a dangerous activity.

Hurricane Frances, Florida, 2004

Q: Can you comment on the state of weather photography as a field?

I’m giving a lot of speeches on the future of photography. It’s tough right now. The photography industry as well as the publishing industry are going through this fairly important- no, crucially important transition. We have more people with cameras than at any other time in the history of man.

Stock photography images have gone down because of the sheer volume. Being out in the field, back in the day, there might have been 5-10 other storm chasers and their vehicles. Now, you’re likely to see 100+. It looks like something out of a Frank Capra movie. Surreal.

Q. I presume you are aware of the recent surge in composite High Dynamic Range photographs, especially for landscape work. Is HDR cheating? A useful tool?

I don’t know what determines this, but I’m more of a purist. My favorite image is one up on the wall that I can show you and say: That’s what it looked like when I was standing there.

I’m not sure HDR does that.

If you have to use the HDR method for recreating what you honestly saw, then go for it. Otherwise, to me, it’s a special effect. And, with my subjects, why do I need to special effect anything?

Q. What’s next for you? Are you exploring new subjects or new outlets for your work?

I’m becoming more specialized. This is my 20th year trying to cover all the major stories. The big storms are becoming so frequent I’m not sure I want to cover them all. So I’m going to specialize on certain phenomena.  I may, for example, say I’m going to Utah for a month to shoot thunderstorms as they come over the canyonlands.

I want to back to my love of art, I want to get back to teaching, I’d really like to get back to my gallery work.

In a year I could expect, if I’m lucky, to be doing my first exhibit in almost 10 years.

Explosive mammatus clouds, north-central Oklahoma, May 19, 2010


More information:

All photos copyright Jim Reed and used with permission.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. MorganJackson 10:09 pm 08/26/2011

    Awesome interview and the photos? Amazing. Good luck with the upcoming hurricane season and Irene!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Petkoi 5:52 pm 08/28/2011

    Looking forward to watching what Reed caught on Irene at NYC! Good interview, Alex.

    Link to this

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