“If the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will.” — Robert Hunter —
Nightfall during the monsoon season in New Mexico, United States … though the last light of twilight is still softly glowing to the west, it’s dark. The heat from the relentless sun still hangs in the air. With the exception of a few insects and the occasional howl of far off coyotes, it’s very quiet. There’s a sudden, brilliant flash of light in the distance so bright that the image is burned into my retina for a few moments. There is the sound of my shutter closing and then opening again. Half a minute later, the delicate sound of distant thunder rolls across the desert and into the night. Then, the desert is calm and quiet again … until the next flash of lightning.
While the monsoon storms of the Southwest US may offer me only a few brief months for lightning photography, lightning itself is a surprisingly common occurrence on Earth. Approximately 44 unique occurrences of lightning happen every second of each day. That adds up to 158,400 flashes per day, and over 1.3 billion(!) per year. Of these, only around 25% are cloud-to-ground flashes; the rest stay in the atmosphere. Dynamics within the clouds of a thunderstorm build up excess electrical charge (positive or negative charges). These charge buildups can grow quite large, inducing strong electric fields. A simplified model would have the top of a thunderstorm with excess positive charge, the bottom with excess negative charge, and the surface of the earth with excess positive charge. When the electric potential between two regions of opposite charge grows large enough to break down the dielectric strength of air, lightning can happen, neutralizing the local charge buildups. The average cloud-to-ground strike carries anywhere between ~20,000 to 100,000 amperes of current and lasts 30 – 90 milliseconds. This rapidly heats and ionizes the air in the current path to somewhere around 30,000 degrees C (~54,000 F) and forces the air to expand rapidly, creating a shock wave. We hear this as thunder. This is a pretty simplified explanation, but I’ll leave the technical study of lighting for the reader to find later while I focus on my photography of it here.
Despite the high amount of lightning happening around the world, no two lightning photos will be the same. Each lightning strike takes a unique path. This is fortunate for me because lighting happens more often in some places than others. I can sometimes keep my camera fixed on a particular area and get several shots. The landscape may not change from one photo to the next, but each shot will be different depending on what the storm and lightning do in the frame, imparting differing light and moods to each photo. How I will eventually process each shot will impart very different styles, so I often have some flexibility with the final look. I tend to pick out locations that don’t have many lights, but sometimes I don’t have much choice. I do think lights can work nicely with a composition, so I don’t stop shooting in those cases. Only when very distracting elements are in the field will I not take photos.
One of the things I find intriguing about photography is an ability to show something I wouldn’t see without the camera. I can travel to see dramatic landscapes and events with my own eyes, but the moments are fleeting. The camera lets me capture a scene so that I can study it for as long as I like. I will see things I never noticed when I was there. This is one reason I love black and white photography. By taking colour away, the scene can look drastically different than how our eyes render it. I can focus on light, forms, and textures. Things that wouldn’t stand out do, and vise versa. Rain details or layering in the mountains can stand out more clearly in B&W. The camera also lets me freeze time. The human eye can’t see all the nuances and details of a lightning strike: it happens too fast. Many times the bolt I see appeared to be a simple flash of lightning. Only when I review the photo on my camera’s LCD screen do I see what really happened. More often than not, I’m pleasantly surprised to find my camera has captured a lot more than what I saw. I find it a bit ironic that I use a long exposure to capture something that happens so fast, but I get all of the lightning’s light this way.
Another thing I like about photography is an ability to show the beauty and power of nature. I think lightning, and storms in general, often show both of these. There’s nothing quite like watching the clouds light up in a far off storm or listening to rain hit leaves and moist ground while thunder rumbles through the air every so often. I find watching storms to be quite peaceful. On the other hand, being very close to a storm can be a very violent and exciting experience. An approaching storm brings ever increasing risk. The thunder gets louder and the wind picks up. Close lightning is blindingly bright and the thunder from it can be incredibly loud. I have to weigh the want for one more picture with statistics and the very real danger I’m in (xkcd has a great strip about this). Lightning photography really is an addicting thing for me. I’m always anxious for the next storm: will it be in a nice location; will it produce nice lightning; will I get hit by lightning? That last one sounds funny, but it’s something I think about every time I head out to photograph storms. Lightning can be deadly. Many people are killed every year by lightning, and even more suffer injuries from it.
So much has to come together for the results you see here: my location, the storm’s location, the time of day, weather conditions around me, my preparedness, predicting where the best lightning will be, setting my camera appropriately for the type of lightning and conditions, opening my shutter at the right time to minimize noise and optimize chances of lightning– and closing it so that some random event doesn’t mess up what might be just right. I could go on. Many colourful metaphors have been uttered as I watch a great bolt through my viewfinder as I compose my frame. The challenge is part of my love for it, though. If it were always simple, I’d probably be shooting something else.
I’d like to thank Nathan for inviting me to present my work here. I hope you enjoy it.
Read Drew’s tutorial about lightning photography over at Joel Tjintjelaar’s BWVISION.com.
More Lightning Images
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