Photographer Ryan McGinnis admits he made a serious mistake May 29, 2008, by underestimating the risk while chasing a storm that spawned several Kearney, Neb., tornadoes.
He wanted to get in front of the supercell he’d followed from Lexington to Kearney, so he decided to drive under it on Interstate 80.
“I could see the actual rain curtains circling around. You don’t want to be in that circle, but I was,” he said.
Once in front of the tightly twisted bruise-colored cloud, McGinnis stopped at the Gibbon exit, took photos and watched the storm for several minutes.
“I was very concerned because it had the appearance (like) the whole thing was turning and was about ready to drop,” he said.
The Kearney Hub reports that McGinnis has been fascinated by storms since he watched a public TV program about storm chasers as a child. His plan to be a meteorologist faded in college, but not his dream to be a storm photographer, which he did full time for a few years.
McGinnis learned about photo technology, composition, framing and precision while working for five years in the Lincoln Journal Star pre-press department. He studied images taken by Journal Star and Associated Press photographers.
“Digital changed everything. Now you can get an idea instantly of what you did wrong,” McGinnis said, adding that he learns more from failures than successes.
He and his wife Jasmin met in Lincoln and moved to Kearney where their parents lived.
McGinnis is an information technology specialist at Platte Valley Communications of Kearney and part-time storm photographer. Jasmin owns the Barista’s coffee shops in Kearney.
McGinnis sells images through photo agencies.
“It’s not really selling prints,” he explained, but selling specific uses of photos mostly to ad agencies and textbook publishers.
When possible, he follows storm researchers.
“There are a lot of people taking really cool pictures of storms these days, but not a lot of pictures of the scientists studying storms,” McGinnis said about finding a niche.
His focus region is Nebraska and neighboring states within a few hours’ drive of Kearney.
“We live in this crazy intersection of weather here,” he said about why Nebraska is an excellent place for a storm photographer.
Plus, it’s less likely to be overrun by storm chasers during severe weather season.
“You end up literally with these traffic jams out on rural roads in Oklahoma,” McGinnis said.
An open landscape is important for photos and safety.
He said the region where Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas meet has many big storms, but it is forested. “If you can’t see a storm, it’s not safe,” McGinnis said. “I’m not really a thrill-seeker. I just want to take photos.”
The statistical U.S. peak for tornadoes is May 15 because outbreaks start by March in the Southeast, he added, but mid-June is peak time for Nebraska and other areas in the northern Plains.
McGinnis never forgets the danger.
“You’re more hyperaware when you’re taking photos and, sometimes, you have to look away (from the camera),” he said. “With storms, you have to have your head on a swivel.”
Like rural people who seem to have a sixth sense about weather, he’s learned to understand patterns.
“I’m a better photographer than a storm chaser and I have to work real hard to get into the vicinity,” McGinnis said, acknowledging that notable storm chasers aren’t necessarily talented photographers.
He said serious storm chasers – those who understand weather systems and study data from the National Weather Service and other digital tracking services – might see six to 10 tornadoes a year. McGinnis added that technology never is 100 percent and a storm’s track often isn’t clear until it is a few hours away.
He looks for places forecast to have high probabilities for severe weather that are close enough to Kearney to leave home early in the morning or the night before and arrive by 1 p.m.
McGinnis once used detailed paper maps to identify roads to his target areas and also exit routes. He now downloads maps on his tablet and laptop in case he loses cell phone and internet reception while on a chase.
“You’re not just finding a storm. You’d better get in your mind where you’re going,” he advised.
McGinnis looks for supercell storms that make good photos on their own and also may produce tornadoes. His camera of choice usually is a Canon SLR with a wide angle lens.
“I like to be right in the spot where if you stay long enough the tornado will run over you,” he said, acknowledging that a storm’s wind and rain can block the view of an existing tornado. “… Photos of just a tornado have become pretty common. Usually the storm is much more interesting than just the tornado.”
McGinnis travels alone now, but past chase partners have included his father-in-law.
“It’s easier with a partner because there is so much information coming at you,” he said. “But being alone helps me hone my craft because I make all the decisions.”
McGinnis drives 10,000-15,000 miles in the few weeks during a typical spring. The 2006 Volkswagen Passat he’s owned for three years had 130,000 miles on the odometer before the 2018 storm chasing season started.
An earlier Honda Civic was a victim of being owned by a young storm photographer still learning to read the sky.
McGinnis said that car was “pummeled” in a 2002 Kearney hailstorm while he was knocking on a stranger’s door to ask for refuge in the garage.
“The most dangerous part of storm chasing isn’t the tornadoes, it’s driving in bad weather . and with other people,” he added.
His scariest moment was two years ago near Dodge City, Kansas, while traveling with the Vortex2 group headed by engineer-atmospheric science specialist Tim Marshall of Flower Mound, Texas.
“It was a Ferris wheel of tornadoes for about an hour and a half,” McGinnis recalled. He photographed the researchers as they laid data collection probes in the tornadoes’ paths and retrieved them after the funnels had passed.
“I was having a hard time keeping up with him (Marshall),” McGinnis said. When he did catch up, McGinnis saw wispy tornadoes dancing in a field 100 yards away.
McGinnis estimated that one in four – or fewer – chases yields photos he likes.
“It can be six to eight hours of the most monotonous driving followed by, if you’re lucky, 10 minutes of amazing things,” he said, whether it’s tornadoes or a thunderstorm squall line “like a giant wave crashing over the sky.”
His perfect storms go through empty fields because imperfect ones cause destruction or even death.
“My fascination with storms is not the chaos,” McGinnis said. “To me, it gives a sense of scale. They are so large compared to me. It makes me feel like an ant, so small. I like that perspective.”
He knows his work fulfills the main goal of photography: To show something people can’t see on their own.
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