Rolling thunder, spinning tornados and howling winds would scare many men away, especially when battling those conditions in the name of Art. James Smart is not one of those men. He jumps at the chance to get in, get up and get close to some seriously hairy twisters, and the art really is breathtaking.
Born in Melbourne, the photographer picked up his first Canon camera in 2012 and hasn’t put it down since. He’s been published in several well-known publications, like National Geographic, Capture and Red Bull, and has branched his talents out to documentary work and film. The ever-changing sky is the limit for this talented artist. M2 chat to Smith about the weather, his experiences as a photographer and the shots he strives to take.
How did you get started in photography?
I was travelling over in Italy when I first started in photography, capturing images in Venice, Florence & Siena. It was fairly random, dad had a camera and I just began snapping away and haven’t looked back since.
What was it like catching a shot of a twister for the first time?
Pretty wild. It is pretty hectic, as we are trying to position ourselves to get a good angle, whether it’s the stunning structure of the storm or a potential tornado. However, the first time I actually captured one was in Canadian, Texas in the panhandle. We saw it developing as we were making our way in to town. There were multiple touchdowns on the day as we were able to capture it and take some time to admire mother nature’s work, it was amazing.
What motivated you to to start capturing photos of storms and weather?
Twister, the movie. I remember going to the cinema on the day it was released. Between Twister & watching Storm Chasers on Discovery Channel, it made us want to head over and chase severe weather.
What’s your must-have toolkit when you’re chasing a storm?
Wide angle lens. This is one essential bit of a kit. Some of the storm structure can be absolutely breath taking & enormous. To capture it all, a wide angle lens is a must in my book.
Do you normally run with a crew, or do you go solo?
We go as a team. Our American mates are Meteorologists and my brother is a cameraman.
What’s been your most hair raising experience so far?
Out in Nebraska, we were on a tornado warned storm. There was quite a bit of precipitation which was obscuring our view of the tornado. This is when the tornado began to be rain wrapped; rain-wrapped tornadoes are twisters that are cloaked by heavy rains and thunderstorms. In other words, you can’t see them.
As we pull over, we felt the car being pushed off the side of the road as we were in the outer circulation, and all you could see was a wall of green and rain. It was pretty hairy at the time.
What other sorts of images do you like capturing?
I have always loved photographing landscapes and seascapes. This year I have begun getting into the water and photographing marine life which has been amazing. From the turtles on Lady Elliot Island, to the humpback whales off the coast of Hervey Bay.
What do you think makes a memorable image?
Something that gets a reaction from people, that can tell a story in a single image.
Weather photos are a good example of that, for sure.
What photographers inspire you?
Aussie Sean Scott is great and Jason Pionek from Germany produces some really nice stuff too.
Is there a moment that really defined your career?
Most likely being awarded National Geographic Photo of the Year.
It was pretty awesome, plus being given the chance to head to Washington D.C. to visit the Nat Geo Society was great and meeting some of the Nat Geo photographers was quite a unique experience.
How do storm chaser documentaries compare to the real thing?
The movies & shows aren’t showing the whole picture. It is a waiting game, it’s not like you show up and there are storms. Patience is a big part of storm chasing.
You really do have to be there to believe it, it’s mother nature putting on her best show.
What do you have planned for the future?
Heading to Hawaii next April, then on to the US mainland to chase more storms is planned. Over the next 6 months, hopefully travel to Western Australia and capture some epic landscapes, aerials & marine life.
If you have unlimited funds, abilities and photographic mediums, what’s one shot that you would love to take?
Oh this is a tough one… I would love to have the chance to photograph a volcano eruption, that would near the top of the list. Or head to Palau and explore the islands around there both above and underwater.
But would love to be able to stay for 3 months storm chasing each year, that would be amazing.