Dec. 28, 2007 -- For more than 20 years, professional extreme weather photographer Jim Reed has seen just about every kind of storm -- tornadoes, hurricanes, hailstorms, blizzards and more.
When others are running away from dangerous storms, he heads right in, risking his life to bring the world haunting images of nature's fury. It's dangerous work, inspiring legions of amateurs who want to experience the thrill of chasing a deadly storm.
Reed's fascination with severe weather began as a child, when he and his mother were caught in Hurricane Camille during a car trip in 1969. "It was just the two of us in this car with these demonic winds shaking the vehicle and this incredible roar that I had never heard before. It was very memorable," he said.
Reed went on to graduate from the University of Southern California, pursuing a career in filmmaking. After reading an article about severe weather photographers, sometimes called "storm chasers," Reed wanted to learn more. "I packed up my car and went to Kansas for a couple of weeks. I was almost struck by lightning," he said. "I knew I had to come back." Although he had intended only to write about storm chasers, "somewhere in there, without looking, I became one," he said. "It was a great merging of my love for photography, my love for writing, and the weather."
Since then, Reed has followed more than 300 storms and traveled 500,000 miles in pursuit of severe storms. Although he's seen enough to last a lifetime, for him, every storm has something to teach. "Hurricane Charley was so violent, it took away the beauty of what I enjoy about photographing our changing climate," he said of the 2004 storm. "It was a very brutal reminder that weather can also be deadly."
The dangerous nature of Reed's work hasn't kept others from trying to imitate him. Reed recommends that amateur storm chasers learn as much as they can about weather and safety before venturing into storms. Amateur storm chasers put themselves and others at risk, he says, when they don't have the knowledge they need to stay safe. "Go to your local National Weather Service bureau," he says. "They have programs where you can go for free and learn about how to watch the sky, and where to watch it from, and how to do it safely -- and actually help the National Weather Service in the process."
Reed says over the years, he has "learned a lot about reading a sky and the elements as they are approaching -- from surfers, from Indians, from farmers … people that are familiar with the elements and can interpret what's happening right over their heads."
Such expertise in dealing with extreme weather has brought Reed full circle: from Hollywood to Kansas and back again. "I got a call back in 2002, from the makers of the movie 'The Day After Tomorrow,'" Reed said. "They wanted me to take a three-person special effects crew into as many hurricanes that year as possible. I'm happy to say we got two hurricanes, nobody got hurt and it was considered a success."
While the beauty of Reed's photos is sometimes surreal, they were captured during very real and dangerous storms. In fact, experiencing hurricanes firsthand has taken a toll on him. "I ignorantly went into the hurricanes not realizing that there was a price to pay as a photographer. I began dreaming about them, and having nightmares."
Reed offers this advice to amateurs who want to follow in his footsteps: "If you are one of these people who is thinking right now, 'Man, this looks exciting, this looks adventurous, I want to get out there, I want to do this,' remember, it has a price."