Waking up from a dream

Arizona Monsoon Lightning Sedona


(click to see larger with a nice, dark border. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 85mm 1.8, f/5.6, ISO 200, 30 sec)

I rarely post a blog without a picture and even though this one is meant to be a recap of sorts of the events of last week, I had to include an image of a lightning strike I captured Sunday night. Actually, as I’m writing this in the wee hours of Monday morning, the strike happened less than an hour ago.

We’re on vacation in Sedona, back on Tuesday early morning, late last night I saw a storm popping up on radar, I could see flashes from our condo, so I blasted west on 89A and had a field day.

Where to Begin?

Because of the events of last week, not only was my website slammed with traffic and unusable for me, I was also so busy that I had no time to even think about what was happening. I almost see the website being down as a blessing in disguise, because now I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it all meant to me.

But if you know me well enough, you’ll remember that I love to write, I love to blog, so not being able to do so has been killing me. So let’s get down to business.

For those that don’t know, my video of the Phoenix Haboob/Dust Storm from last Tuesday night went viral in a matter of hours (along with my cohort Scott Wood’s video). From that moment until the weekend, my life became some kind of weird surreal dream that almost feels like never happened to me.

I don’t want to write lengthy dissertation here, but I do want to kind of recount what happened, answer some questions and generally share my feelings on all of it.

The Storm

As with most things that go viral, it’s all about being in the right place, at the right time and getting lucky. I was already shooting a sunset timelapse downtown when someone sent me a Twitpic of the duststorm hitting the East Valley. I’ve been wanting to capture a dust storm or lightning over downtown Phoenix from my favorite spot on 7th ST. and I-10, so I packed everything up and drove down there.

It was after I setup that I realized this dust storm was something different. I didn’t have enough tools to capture it correctly. I wanted a wider lens. A second HD video camera. Another camera with a fisheye. I knew what I was seeing was absolutely amazing.

I even thought to myself…”This might even make it on The Weather Channel if I do it right.

I’d like to clear up one thing though, for those that care. I’ve gotten a teeny bit of slack out there from people in the comments on blogs, etc., about not capturing the dust actually HITTING me, but instead bailing a few seconds early. In reality, the dust cloud was a lot closer to me off camera to the left than it was in front. After I took the last shot, it was literally five seconds before I was enveloped in complete darkness.

Here is an Instagram shot I took from the inside of the car right after it hit:

If I had stayed in that cloud of dust, opening and closing my shutter, it might have wrecked my Canon 5D Mark II. That’s the reason I bailed early. I use the camera for weddings, portraits, events…and it’s not that cheap to replace it *grin*

The Aftermath

I went home afterwards and put together the timelapse. Scott had already posted his before mine and had already gone viral on his own. The @BreakingNews Twitter account that has 2.7 million followers and RT-ed his video. Wow. Then Gizmodo picked it up. Went nuts.

I got mine up a bit after he did. I posted on Vimeo and embedded it in a blog which turned out awesome (and bad). A SEO lesson to everyone out there…if a major event happens, the most obvious title in the world is going to work best. I called the post “Phoenix Haboob of July 5th, 2011.” Guess what everyone was searching for that night? I had Google search results in a matter of minutes. In fact, before midnight I had around 1,000 unique visitors looking for ANYTHING about the dust storm.

Then Gizmodo picked it up. I had posted the video on Vimeo and suddenly it was getting thousands of hits. A friend of mine in Seattle sent me a DM on Twitter saying he saw my name and video on his local news. Wow.

A good guy named Keith over at the Phoenix National Weather Service told me to get my video in the hands of the networks because I should be making money off of it. He helped search for things for me on where to post it. So as I watched Scott’s on TWC, gritting my teeth, I submitted the video to CNN, TWC and emailed some contacts at MSNBC. It was 3am when I finally laid down on the couch to catch some sleep.

I decided not to sleep in the bedroom because I thought if the phone rang, I didn’t want to wake up the wife.

Sure enough, CNN called at 5:15am.

July 6th

I honestly don’t know if I will ever have a moment quite like that again. Just over two hours of sleep. My phone never rings that early. I did the thing we all do when woken up with a phone and tried to pretend I was wide awake. I failed miserably.

But it was CNN. CN freaking N. Calling me. I honestly couldn’t believe it. All I did was submit it to their iReport website. I had been pretty doubtful they’d even notice it.

They did though. And that phone call was amazing. A guy interviewed me quickly about it and said it would be on in about an hour.

Then MSNBC.com called. An hour later my video was on their frontpage next to Casey Anthony.

From there things just got wild. A Skype interview with Today.com’s Dara Brown. Then The Weather Channel called to also setup two Skype interviews. Then Channel 3 had me and Scott come down to do an interview.  People were calling about getting permission to use it. NBC and the CBS nightly news.  John King, sitting in for Anderson Cooper, said my name on CNN.

At the same time, because the video being embedded everywhere had my contact information at the end, my email was out of control. New Twitter followers, Facebook friends, comments on my blog, on my fan page.

The website crashed multiple times. The traffic was overwhelming to my little host’s server. We created a single page and moved the website to another host as a temp fix.

I don’t even know how to describe that day. Barely any sleep and I forgot to eat until around 2pm. I was in a perpetual state of nervous energy/excitement all day. I’m a guy with a hefty fear of public speaking, and suddenly I had to do live interviews on TWC.

Every single moment of that day was a blessing to me and something I’ll never be able to forget. Although, in some ways, it was such a blur I’m surprised I remember anything at all.

What Stands Out?

As the week went on, the video spread everywhere, all over the world. People were telling me they saw it in Germany and all their friends over there were talking about. New Zealand. Australia. Japan. And as I said, it was on all these major networks, blogs and TV stations.

But to be completely honest, it was a lot of the little things that stood out to me as being the most impactful.

A teacher in the Philippines emailed me to let me know she had shown it to her class of children and they had watched it with mouths wide open. Wow. I got choked up reading that for some reason.

And my friend Josh said he out eating dinner at a sushi bar and some random girl sitting next to him was watching the video on her phone. That was the one story that made me understand just how many people were actually seeing this thing.

Of course, one little tidbit that wasn’t exactly small, was former Vice President Al Gore’s office emailing me with interest in the video for his presentations. He’d seen it and loved it. That’s insane.

There were a lot of cool opportunities presented last week and so the story isn’t over yet.

Final Thoughts

As I said in the beginning of this post, all of this feels like it happened to someone else. It already seems like it was just a weird blip that took place. News happens fast and within a few days, it’s not a story anymore. I was eager to get back to normal blogging and posting of photos.

But I am eternally thankful to everyone who supported me, who encouraged me to get the video out there, who called, emailed or showed up at my door with a napkin to jokingly ask for an autograph. There were so many of you who had such amazingly kind words to say to me about the video or about my work in general. A lot of new fans discovering stuff we have in common when it comes to photography. New followers on Twitter. New friends on Facebook.

I appreciate and am grateful to all the local networks, websites, blogs and news stations that showed the video and spread the word. A once in a lifetime opportunity. Thank you.

Thanks to Scott and also Blaine Coury (see his own timelapse here) for their support and friendship throughout this. And to Keith for giving me a kick-start.

But mainly to my wife Jina. I was essentially a non-participant in daily duties last week and into the weekend and she’s been amazing throughout the whole thing.  I know I gush about her a lot, but without her, this video would never have happened in the first place…and she knows it…and I know it.

And of all the places my video has appeared, nothing was better than Jina writing about me on the Hey Little Birdie blog she helps run.

If anyone has any questions about anything that happened, you can email me or ask in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer it!

Again, thank you all!


34 replies
  1. Craig
    Craig says:

    Awesome week indeed. Hopefully there is a night or two without storms this week so you can catch up on some sleep.

  2. Jason Hines
    Jason Hines says:

    Great lightning shot man. And thanks for sharing that story, that is out of control crazy. I’m glad it happened for you – its about time you get some recognition for all that storm chasing stuff. Congrats man!

  3. Erin
    Erin says:

    Awesome story, great writing, and stunning lightning capture….and yes, I’m one of the “new” friends on facebook. I am thankful you were receptive to me (and the others) as I will now be able to follow your amazing journey through life, through your lens and writing. Thanks again and here’s to many successes in the future, whatever and however they may come to be. 🙂

  4. Kristi Hines
    Kristi Hines says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience with your viral hit! 🙂 I wonder if they people giving you flack about leaving the scene thought you were inside or something. I totally understand why you had to duck out, but maybe people who don’t own cameras just don’t get it.

    As far as your lightning shot (which is amazing!) how did you keep the exposure open for 30 seconds? I had mine only exposed for 8 with a ISO 100, f 5.6, and some of the lightning in my shots were totally blown out.

  5. Jesse
    Jesse says:

    Talking to and following you during this whole escapade was amazing. I was proud to tell everyone I could that the “dust storm guy” was a friend of mine. I’m so happy for you with all of this and really enjoyed reading this post. You’re on to great things my man.

  6. Eje G
    Eje G says:

    Congrats Mike, love your work and you been a inspiration to me and I’m sure many others. Well deserved recognition.
    Kristihines – not saying this is the case on Mike’s pic but I had pretty blown out lightning pics where LR recovery done wonders.

  7. Heidi Anne Morris
    Heidi Anne Morris says:

    You my friend are an amazing person, luck plays it’s part, agreed, but your work shines.

    It was only a matter of time before the world found out. This blog post was wonderful to digest x

    I wish you much luck for the future Mike, x well done

    The hard work is paying off 🙂 congratulations !!

    All my best with admiration, Heidi

  8. Dave DiCello
    Dave DiCello says:

    Mike man, wow, that is impressive. I was kind of hoping that you would give a write up like this, as I had seen it a couple of different places, and was wondering how it all went down! Congrats 1,000 times to you man, really well deserved, that is certainly an amazing capture. You called it too a couple days ago when I commented on your one time lapse, you said you had one that blew it away! Well, you were right! Congrats again Mike!!

  9. Steve Beal
    Steve Beal says:

    Absolutely incredible story, I felt lucky to have been a little bit behind the scenes with you, but knew that you were off the grid for almost 2 days, I couldn’t wait for this blog post that I knew was coming.

  10. Rob Hanson
    Rob Hanson says:

    Fantastic, Mike! I’m so happy that you’ve written this piece to fill in the bits of information for us. What an incredible story.

    I wish you the same good luck for all your future endeavors.

  11. Jan Winther
    Jan Winther says:

    Amazing story Mike, I’m so happy that you and Scott got all the attention and recognition for the hard work. Very well deserved. Moving forward – I guess a couple more camera bodies is in order now, so you can be ready for the next one. 🙂

  12. Adam Olson
    Adam Olson says:

    Awesome job Mike! I saw your time lapse up on weather.com! Great job at catching an amazing moment! Both with the habbo and the daily photo for today.

  13. Toad Hollow Photography
    Toad Hollow Photography says:

    First of all, I am so proud to know you Mike! This is such an amazing story, and I can’t even begin to thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us all. I find this story to be so utterly inspiring it’s not even funny. What a great thing to happen to a great person! I can’t wait to see what shakes out of the tree for you on all this; I have a feeling this is just the very very beginning….

  14. Dave
    Dave says:

    WOW, what a story! Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. Very very happy for you Mike, I’m just sorry I missed it all when it was happening.

  15. Chris DeAngelis
    Chris DeAngelis says:

    Awesome follow-up Mike! That was an insane adventure for sure! Although I only know you through blogging/Facebook, I was proud to tell my friends and familiy that “that video was made by my photog buddy Mike!” Congrats on all the success now and into the future! Killer lightning shot too!

  16. Mike
    Mike says:

    @ Kristi – Well the lightning was off in the distance…I was using my 85mm 1.8. But in reality, I have been using Lightroom A LOT to fix that over-exposed issue. You can lower the exposure, up the clarity and do some things to get it right.

  17. Simon aka Pixel Alchemist
    Simon aka Pixel Alchemist says:

    HI Mike

    Once again huge congrats. I am just thrilled to bits for you. You caught an amazing event in such a stunning way, that allowed people like myself that live half way round the world ( New Zealand as you know) to witness something incredible so thanks for that. I’m just pleased as punch for you and hope this leads to new levels of success for your Photography.

  18. KpAustinWeird
    KpAustinWeird says:


    Great write up on your crazy last few days. Congrats, again. I’ve enjoyed both yours and Scott’s photographs for a while now and was thrilled when I saw the local interview a few weeks back. But going viral doing what you love … priceless! Can’t wait to see what happens next. 😉

  19. Adam Allegro
    Adam Allegro says:

    Absolutely fantastic!! I loved the video and shared it with everyone I know! I am sure you will get tons of offers and press about it well into the future. Great job my friend!

  20. Charlotte
    Charlotte says:

    Incredibly awesome and so many congrats Mike!! I saw your video everywhere and speaking from experience doing interviews all day long the next day as well, I’m so happy to know you locally and SO happy for you for this opportunity. News does happen fast, but EVERYONE I’ve talked to across the country has seen “that video of the timelapse of the dust storm”. And I smile and happily say, “I know that guy!”.

  21. RJ
    RJ says:

    So does this make up for the lackluster tornado chasing?

    I don’t think Reed Timmer has ever been on CNN.

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