A charcoal gray monster with lightning for teeth is about to swallow Three Points, and Lauren Bailey can’t seem to get close enough.
The Rio Rico photographer rumbles down unfamiliar dirt roads, watching the advancing storm as she guns her “soccer mom ride” — a well-traveled Honda Pilot with TSTORM2 license plates and “Arizona pin-striping” down the sides from all the bushes she drives through.
With each flash from the clouds, Bailey exclaims, “Oh, baby.”
She skids to a stop when she finds what she’s looking for: a two-track ranch trail leading south into a small clearing in the cholla and scrub mesquite.
There, she sets up her tripod and tilts her wide-angle lens toward the sky as the first drops of rain begin to fall.
A few minutes later, a long bolt forks down in front of her.
She jumps into the air with a triumphant whoop as the thunder rolls.
”It doesn’t pay the bills”
This is Bailey’s fourth summer stalking monsoon storms across Southern Arizona.
She is part of a growing army of photographers and weather enthusiasts who fan out across the region when the dark clouds build.
Bailey moderates a Facebook group for Tucson storm chasers that now has more than 400 members. In June, she helped organize a storm chasing event called Monsoon Con at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum that drew about 150 people.
Though a handful of top photographers have managed to make a living out of it, storm chasing remains just a hobby for most.
“It doesn’t pay the bills. You might sell a print or two,” Bailey says. “When you’re chasing, you’ve got to do it for yourself.”
The timing of monsoon season actually works out pretty well for her. She makes her money shooting weddings and family portraits, but business slows down during the hot summer months. The lull allows her to leave her wife and daughter at home and go chase storms up to five times a week, depending on the weather.
Sometimes she goes out with a “chasing buddy.” Often she pursues storms alone or with her dogs, Lilly the Norwegian elkhound and Kara the German shepherd, providing security and company from the backseat.
Bailey also serves as a storm spotter for the National Weather Service in Southern Arizona, relaying ground-level descriptions of what meteorologists in Tucson are tracking on their radar screens.
She says the free training she got through the weather service’s SKYWARN program has helped her to better understand and predict the storms she chases.
Now she’s trying to share what she’s learned — and pay some of her expenses — by hosting occasional weather photography workshops.
She was scheduled to take her first group of aspiring chasers into the field over the weekend.
Chasing storms can be “an adrenaline rush”
Bailey says a good monsoon makes everything else drop away.
“Even if I don’t have my gear with me, if I’m able to just go outside and take a look at that beautiful storm as the sun’s going down and the bolts are lighting up and the sky’s turning all these shades of violet and orange and gold, you just find yourself in amazement and wonder,” she says. “At least for a little while, you forget all your worries and your fears and your troubles, and you finally feel a connection to something that’s greater than yourself.”
Chasing them is also an adrenaline rush — addicting, but “better than using drugs,” she says.
On this Tuesday, her chase begins at about 2 p.m. at the southwestern edge of the valley. The weather report points her toward Madera Canyon, where she sets up to shoot a storm building above the Santa Ritas, only to spot a more promising cell charging up from the south.
A short time later, at a highway exit south of Green Valley, she bumps into David Robinson and John “Flano” Flanagan, two fellow chasers who have stopped to admire the same menacing clouds.
“Look at the green,” she says to the men. “Oh my God, it’s beautiful.”
After a brief strategy session, they climb back into their vehicles and head off in the same general direction, trying to stay in front of the storm as it moves north past Green Valley.
Bailey will meet two other weather photographers she knows, also men, later in the day, but she insists storm chasing is more of a brotherhood than a boy’s club.
“There’s a lot of women doing this now. I’ve seen a lot more women over the past three years really jump into the pool,” she says.
Learning from other expert storm chasers
Bailey has always been fascinated by weather. As a high school student in her native El Paso, Texas, she considered enrolling at Texas Tech University at the southern edge of Tornado Alley just so she could chase storms.
Then “life happened,” Bailey says, and her dreams of becoming a famous weather photographer sat on the shelf for about 20 years.
When she picked it back up in her 40s, she admits she didn’t really know what she was doing. She would hold down the trigger on her old Canon Rebel digital camera and fire away at the clouds in hopes of catching a bolt.
“I was shooting 3,000 photos a day to get five or six with lightning in them,” she says. It was wearing out her camera shutter and draining her patience, especially when she sat down to edit all those wasted frames.
She says she gradually learned the tricks of the trade from other, more experienced chasers, including such accomplished local photographers as Mike Olbinski and “Tucson Greg” McCown.
Today she captures storms using the same high-end cameras she uses for her portrait business, only with special infrared sensors attached that can see lightning through the clouds and trigger the shutter faster than a human can.
As her technique and equipment have improved, so has her success rate. She says she now gets 30-40 “keepers” out of every 300 pictures or so.
Nearby bolts and other close calls
Bailey says she does what she can to keep herself safe, but there is some inherent risk involved in photographing thunderstorms.
“I want to make it home at the end of the day and do it all again,” she says. “But I tell people if you want to be 100% safe, stay indoors and look at other people’s pictures.”
She’s had a few close calls.
Last August, she found herself stranded near Arivaca, when a flash flood cut off her escape route, forcing her to wait about four hours for the water to recede.
And on Monday, a bolt of lightning struck the ground about 100 yards away from where she was set up to photograph a storm in Nogales.
“I had that sick, post-adrenaline feeling for about three hours after that,” she says.
Later that day, though, she captured her favorite photo of the season so far — a bolt of lightning lancing down from pastel-colored clouds at sunset just a few miles from her home in Rio Rico.
Bailey says she can cover up to 500 miles in a single day, so car accidents are probably the biggest hazard she faces. It’s not unusual for her to range from Sasabe to Willcox and into New Mexico in pursuit of the perfect shot. “That’s a day’s chase,” she says.
As she drives, a cellphone and a tablet mounted to her dash flash with up-to-the-minute radar images and other information.
She tracks the volatile weather with an app called RadarScope, which also shows the locations of other chasers who are logged into the program.
Periodically she taps the screen of her phone with a manicured nail as boxy blobs of red and orange flare on the map, marking the development of powerful cells.
Zooming in on one of the blood-red blobs, she says excitedly, “That one is going to go severe warn,” chaser-speak for severe storm warning. “We’re going to toy with this beast.”
Disappointing end at scenic spot
Bailey compares chasing monsoons to a game of “whack-a-mole,” with promising storms flaring and fading in scattered locations across Southern Arizona. She might spend two hours driving to shoot one intense cell, only to have it break apart as new thunderheads explode somewhere else, maybe back where she came from.
Tuesday’s chase ends in disappointment where Marsh Station Road crosses I-10 just east of Vail. With its sweeping views of the Rincons and the surrounding hills, the overpass is a popular spot with weather photographers.
At first, Bailey is excited by the dark shelf of clouds that loom in the sky as she sets up her cameras, but the system blows north away from her and gets snared by the mountains without “dropping bolts” the way she had hoped.
“All you’re going to get is rained on,” she says to another photographer as she packs her gear.
Back in the Pilot, Bailey can only shrug. She has driven almost 190 miles over the course of five hours, and she only came away with a handful of worthwhile shots.
“The disappointing ‘non-soon’ strikes again,” she says.
Then she smiles. She’s already looking at the forecast for tomorrow. It calls for storms.