All images for this article are from the July edition of National Geographic magazine. Cover image courtesy of National Geographic.
Three years ago, landscape photographer Mitch Dobrower decided to challenge himself beyond his usual scenes. To take a break from the fine art photography he was accustomed to, still scenes in beautiful weather, he wanted to experiment with shooting volatile storms.
It started with just an interest in stormy weather and a lot of research, which, along with several recommendations, led him to Roger Hill, a renowned storm chaser, who agreed to work with Dobrower for the series.
The project was supposed to just be an experiment, a way to take a break from what he was already doing. But that quickly changed once he got started.
"I never realized how surreal it is out there, standing in front of these storm systems," Dobrower said.
Lordsburg, New Mexico Resembling a mushroom cloud, a monsoon thunderstorm drops a deluge on the desert. The base of this cloud may hang some two miles above the ground. Photo © Mitch Dobrower.
The first up-close encounter Dobrower had with severe weather was an electrical storm in Wyoming. It was in this first experience that he realized, "this is way beyond anything I've done before. As a photographer, it's like the ultimate landscape."
It was a storm he calls "Mesocyclone", however, that really pulled him in to photographing severe weather. The pair started in Sturgis, S.D., then chased the storm for 500 miles. After driving some 9 to 11 hours, they ended up in Valentine, Neb., standing in front of a cyclone 65,000 feet high. On the radar, the storm seemed to be hardly moving. They were able to stand there for 45 minutes, 40-50 mph winds whipping around them, observing and photographing a magnificent storm.
"It was very electrical," Dobrower recalls. "Just an unbelievable site for me. It was like standing in front of a large vacuum, viewing something from another planet."
Regan, North Dakota. A dying tornado like this one is said to be in the "roping out" phase. Photo © Mitch Dobrower.
He appreciated the alien-like look to the landscape, the thrill of chasing it down, the awe of being in the presence of something so magnificent. That storm changed things for him. His goal was to try something different, grow as a photographer, and he certainly achieved both of those objectives. It was after "Mesocyclone" that he realized this project would go on for the rest of his life.
Now in their fourth year of the series, Dobrower expresses over and over his respect for Hill's work, giving him credit for much of the success of this project. Hill was in charge of finding storms, getting to them, following the radar, keeping the two of them safe. Dobrower insists on his extreme confidence in Hill. When asked how he stays safe while storm chasing, he just replies, "Roger focuses on safety," which allows Dobrower's only task to be photographing the storms.
"I'm not a storm chaser," Dobrower said, "all though I probably could be at this point with all that I've done." But while out there, following after storms, it's Hill who is chasing and always making sure they have an exit route. Dobrower explains that it's their ability to turn and leave at a moment's notice that best ensures their safety.
For this reason, Dobrower urges amateur storm chasers to be conscious of safety while out following storms. The only time he has ever not felt safe at a storm, he said, is when groups of severe-weather enthusiasts crowd in the same area and block exit paths. But when it comes to standing in front of these monster forces of nature, does Dobrower ever feel uneasy?
"It's too awe-inspiring to be scared," he said.
Near Guymon, Oklahoma. Most storms move fast. This one crept over a farming community for more than an hour, bristling with electricity.
Dobrower's work is all done in black and white, using two digital Cannon 5D cameras. The final products of his works are prints used in gallery, books and magazines. To see more photographer from his series, visit NationalGeographic.com.