Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Storm Chasing - Hobby or Profession?

In the years following the end of my university education, I've mostly done my storm chasing in a 2- or 3-week "chase vacation" mode, with only a very few "spot" chases (one noteworthy spot chase was on 03 May 1999!).  This essentially means that I have a fixed window for chasing, and if little or nothing happens during that window, or if I screw up the opportunities (which happens frequently) within that window, then my chase year could be seen as pretty much a dud.  I've gone entire years without seeing a tornado, and even a few years without seeing a good supercell storm!

The chase season for me sometimes boils down to one really dramatic experience, tornadic or non-tornadic, that can last only about 20 min or so. For me, it only takes one such experience to "make" the whole chase season!  Other chasers may set a much higher bar for themselves, of course.  That's their choice, but putting myself under that much pressure to achieve a particular chase experience detracts from my enjoyment of all other aspects of the chase. 

Consider my 1995 storm chase season:  it was a year when my cup ran over with powerful chase experiences.  Among those experiences was 08 June, when my chase partner Alan Moller and I witnessed the tornado in Pampa, TX.  The video I shot during that single event has earned me a great deal of money over the years since, right up to the present. 

But it also has taught me an important lesson.  Be careful when you sign a licensing agreement for the use of your images or video footage.  There are some things you should avoid in any such agreement:

1.  A licensing agreement should never be "in perpetuity" unless they are willing to pay an enormous licensing fee for that privilege.  An acceptable "in perpetuity" license for my Pampa footage should have been $50,000!  What The Weather Channel paid me was a little over $1000!!  The safest way to do this is via "one-time use" contracts for each specific use of the work, rather than long-term contracts.  The user might well prefer a long-term contract, but they should be willing to pay you properly for the value it represents.  At the most, the agreement should be for no more than two years.  Contracts for "in perpetuity" use should always command an extremely high price.  You can never know when (or if) the opportunity for that really dramatic image or video will ever happen again.

2.  The wording in the licensing agreement should never grant the licensee the right to use the footage "to produce, exhibit, perform, transmit, license, sublicense, sell, market, promote, distribute, and exploit in any and all media throughout the universe" (key wording in italics).  This wording makes my registered copyright protection virtually useless for anything The Weather Channel might choose to do with my Pampa footage, including charging a third party for a license to use the footage from The Weather Channel.  A proper licensing fee for such an outrageous freedom to exploit my video should have been $100,000 (in addition to the "in perpetuity" charge)!  Obviously, they would not have paid that price, and my video would never have become theirs to use as they see fit.

Potential customers for the images and video from chasers usually have legal teams who help them to exploit eager, naive chasers hoping to make some income from seeing their images and video on TV.  Read the details of any licensing agreement very carefully, and remember that any contract is negotiable.  If they're not willing to abide by what you believe are reasonable terms, then don't license your work to them!  Don't agree to be exploited!

It's not that the money means so much to me, at this point in my life.  I'm simply embarrassed by how easily I was duped by The Weather Channel to allow them to use my Pampa video with virtually complete freedom.   They're still showing it.  I wonder how many other chasers have been duped similarly.  Be wary of your dealings with The Weather Channel and other media.

It's because of the hope to make large amounts of money that chasers impose pressure on themselves to have multiple "successes" and, for most chasers, success is that "money shot" - dramatic tornado footage, with debris swirling around the tornado.  That's what sells, but represents only a tiny fraction of the range of chasing experiences.  If your goal is to be supported by earnings from your chasing, then you'll put a lot of pressure on yourself, and may become a very unhappy, bitter person.  I've seen this very thing happen to former friends of mine, who alienated themselves from the people who knew and liked them in an obsessive effort to turn their hobby into their profession.  This is literally the "dark side" of storm chasing.  You'll be exploited by the media, who are experts in exploitation, and likely wind up alienated and unhappy. 

The market for storm chase images and video was always a niche market.  The opportunity to make good money selling images and video hasn't vanished completely but the market now is flooded with the work of the now-numerous chasers with good quality digital cameras.  Making a life-supporting income from storm chasing is an unrealistic expectation, so I recommend chasers abandon that goal.  It's possible you can earn enough from chasing to pay for your chasing, which therefore is a reasonable objective.  Relax and enjoy the experience ... it should be about the storms, not about you and your financial solvency!


John Huntington said...

Great post! Unless you are employed by a TV station, I think viewing the whole endeavor as a hobby puts everything in the right frame of reference.

Keep up the great work!

Gilbert said...


I would argue that the chances of making money on photography or videos in regards to storm chasing has dwindled even more than you say. But always, ALWAYS look over every contract thoroughly, and if you don't understand *anything* in there, don't sign it until you have a lawyer look it over and explain it to you. Over the years, Martin Lisius has been giving chasers great, free advice and it's information that should be taken seriously.

Storm chasing is what you want it to be, not necessarily the storm. For me it is, but for others, it's a money-making opportunity, a business, where both are done. And to me, that's perfectly fine. However, if you miss the boat that the storm is center stage, no matter why you are out there...you're ordering a salad at a steakhouse. Of course you can do it; but...why?

Also, and the tour companies know this reasonably well or better...storm chasing is only part of the experience. Flyover country my foot! When in Amarillo, I try to get to Caprock Canyons State Park. There's some really beautiful country out there, and there's "old west" abandoned cities or farmsteads that are a photographer's dream. Get off the Interstate, and see what's out there!

Anyway, enough. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Chuck Doswell said...


Read the blog carefully ... I'm well aware that I can't control the reasons other people might have to chase. I'm merely advising against some of them. It's pretty evident out there that many disregard my advice. They're quite free to do so.

No thanks are necessary - I always read comments submitted to my blog. But I reserve the right not to published them. BTW - if you're going to submit comments and hope to see them published, my rule is that if you don't include your FULL name (which the above does NOT!), I won't publish them. I know you're Gilbert Sebenste, so I'll let this one slide ... but not again!

garganwx said...

When I was a poor chaser in the early and mid 90s it was beneficial to sell my videos to TWC and the tornado project to cover some of my cost. I agreed to a one time showing with a few of my tornado videos I sold to TWC but they rebroadcasted and even made a 1996 chase summary video with my video embedded. I was never given any additional compensation when TWC used my video on several other occasions.

During the last 15 years I have not sold any of my videos and I pay for my own chase vacations. A more truly enjoyable hobby when you don't have to worry about selling your videos.

The only thing I worry about now is trying to avoid the chaser hoards but I will not let that deter me during my annual chase vacations.

Bill Gargan