Dinnertime at the McCown household tends to get interrupted this time of year.
Greg McCown is liable to say “Hey, it looks really good out. Can I go?” his wife, Misty, told me.
Seven years into his obsession, she knows what that means: Storms are blooming, and it’s a good time to head out with his cameras to chase them.
McCown, 42, is one of a growing number of Arizonans who have taken up what used to be a hobby limited mostly to Tornado Alley. They look at the sky, study the radar and hit the road seeking the best possible weather photos or video they can get.
The adrenaline rush of experiencing nature at its most awesome is a side benefit. Or maybe it’s the real goal.
In any case, Misty is pretty accommodating, McCown said, even though they have five kids ages 5 to 19.
“Balancing family with storm chasing is not easy,” he said. “She understands that this time of year is my real passion.”
It’s a good thing, because it allowed McCown to get the shot of a lifetime last weekend, one that has become famous around the world, thanks to social media.
The photo shows a vivid rainbow against dark clouds with a bright and jagged lightning bolt crossing it and hitting the ground as rain falls behind it. In the foreground is a saguaro, and the whole photo is lit from the west by low evening light.
Last week was a whirlwind for the McCowns. After Greg posted the photo on Facebook late last Saturday, the first call from a news organization came from a Norwegian newspaper. Since then he’s heard from The Times of London, NBC News and numerous other organizations.
He’s even made several thousand dollars licensing the photo to be used in a movie and elsewhere.
All of this is a bit strange, considering that about a decade ago, Greg McCown was a mild-mannered Realtor who didn’t care about photography. Misty was the family photographer.
Then they took a 2004 trip to Hawaii, and Greg picked up his wife’s camera.
“The Na Pali coastline is where I realized I was having a lot of fun,” he said. “I took 300 pictures. I don’t think I’d taken 300 picture in my life until then.”
His focus was different than Misty’s, though.
“I shot photos of the kids and family,” she said. “He went the route of taking picture of things that don’t move.” A few months later she bought him his own, nice camera.
“My wife had to buy me a camera to get her camera back,” he said.
From there, the hobby quickly blossomed into a passion.
“It took me a couple of years to get into storms,” he said. “It took me a few years to try to shoot lightning. It was a whole lot of trial and error.”
Now, he said, “lightning is by far my favorite thing to shoot.”
As he got into storm chasing, he gradually made the acquaintance of others, such as Mike Olbin-
ski, a Phoenix-based storm chaser who frequently travels to Southern Arizona where the storms are more dependable.
Chasers began using an app called RadarScope that allows them access to high-quality weather radar and pinpoints their own location on the map with a dot. They check one another’s locations and exchange messages to check out conditions and arrange meetings.
“Over the last few years, the dots are starting to multiply,” Olbinski said.
They’re finding that while Arizona doesn’t have many of the tornadoes and supercell thunderstorms that occur in the Great Plains, our monsoon has storm-chasing advantages of its own.
One is that our storms often have isolated rain shafts, so it’s not hard to stay out of the rain to photograph them. Rain makes most storm photos impossible, so McCown and other try to stay to the side of the storm’s path. Another advantage is the open spaces. And finally, there’s the vivid lightning.
“We have beautiful landscapes and wide-open areas. You can see lightning striking 60-70 miles away,” Olbinski said. “Our lightning out here is what other chasers are envious of.”
While the chasers do compete with each other a bit, they also collaborate, McCown said.
McCown had met up with fellow chasers Bryan Snider and Chris Frailey last Saturday in Marana. They were caught in a microburst of intense rainfall heading up Interstate 10, pulled off and reconnoitered, then went their separate ways. McCown told his friends he was going to go try shoot the rainbow he was seeing to the east with a lightning bolt. It’s a photo he’d been trying to pull off for years.
Photographing lightning is difficult, McCown explained to me. It happens too fast for the brain and fingers to react. So he and others use “lightning triggers,” which sense the lightning and shoot the photo faster than a person can.
That evening, it took McCown a while to find a place without telephone poles and wires. This one also had a handsome saguaro, and there was nice evening light shining from the west toward the rainbow in the east. He set up a tripod with one camera on it and was setting up others when a bright light flashed in his peripheral vision.
He checked the camera with the lightning trigger, and it had caught the iconic image.
“Finally!” he said in a Facebook posting at 11:25 that evening, a posting that quickly traveled around the world. “After years of trying, I finally got my lightning and rainbow picture.”