Monday, April 13, 2009


Photographing Lightning

Here in the Southwest, on warm sunny afternoons when the humidity starts to rise, there is a possibility that thunder cells will develop over the mountains. As evening descends, if the lightning remains localized, I will be in for a special treat: to photograph one of my favorite scenes. I have always been fascinated by thunderstorms. Throughout my childhood in the southern U.S., I was mesmerized by the brilliant flashes of light and the loud cracking thunder, which was followed by a hard downpour of rain. These days, if conditions are right, I will pack up my camera gear and head outdoors in search of lightning photos.

Of all the scenes that I love to photograph, a lightning storm is potentially the most dangerous. To be as safe as possible, I will wait for lightning to form on the horizon, at least twenty miles away. Lightning can strike within a ten-mile range and a bolt can reach for five to ten miles.

I have been most successful with my lightning photos after nightfall, because with a dark sky, I can leave my shutter open and get several strikes on a frame without over exposing. As night approaches if there is lightning over the mountains, I drive out in the desert to get a closer view. After a level location away from trees is found, I set up my camera equipment close to the car. A car will provide shelter and protection during a thunderstorm; however contact must be avoided with the metal sides.

One disadvantage of night photography during stormy weather is that it’s hard to see the movement of the clouds. Because of this, I am always aware of the wind’s speed and direction. If the wind speed increases and I can feel it blowing on my face, it means the storm is headed in my direction, and I had better seek cover. I would rather not be caught outside, standing behind a large metal tripod and getting zapped by billions of volts of static electricity.

All of my lightning photos were taken with my Nikon film cameras before I made the transition to digital. Since these photos were taken at night, I used a cable release to hold the shutter open on the “bulb” setting. The camera was wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it dry, and then secured to a sturdy Bogan tripod. Most of the time, I used a Nikon 80-200mm 2.8 lens with the aperture set at f5.6 and focused on the distant mountains. I will position myself to frame the mountains in the foreground with the lightning striking over them. From trial and error, I can leave the shutter open and get numerous lightning strikes with out overexposing the frame.

The diameter of a typical lightning bolt isn’t much larger than an inch. The reason it appears so much wider is because the light is so bright. The heat produced by a bolt of lightning can get hotter than the surface of the sun, and can raise the air temperature to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

A lightning flash is usually not a single event. It can have up to 42 strokes, occurring at 0.02-second intervals between strokes, followed by a leader stroke. Lightning can and often does strike in the same place twice.

The length of a lightning bolt can be between 2 to 3 miles long, lasts 1/4th second, and carries a current of 1000 Amps at 100 million Volts.


 In pursuit of my photography, I strive to be as responsible as possible and take all safety precautions. Since the weather plays a significant role in my landscape photography, I always study the weather forecasts before venturing out on a photo shoot. On several occasions, after I wandered a long distance from my vehicle, I began to notice the fair weather cumulus clouds changing into cumulonimbus or thunderclouds. A couple of times the thunder was very loud and seemed to be almost overhead, so I quickly turned around, picked up my pace and did a fast trot back to my car.


 As a rule, thunder can only be heard from a distance of twelve miles. For an estimate on how close the lightning may be, count the seconds between when it flashes and when it thunders. When there is less than 30 seconds, the thunderstorm is within six miles, which puts you in the danger zone. If you are out in the open and cannot find shelter, protect yourself by moving to the lowest elevation. Make yourself as low to the ground as possible by getting in the lightning crouch: with feet held together, squat down; tuck your head to your chest or between your knees; hold your arms tight against your body and place your hands against your ears. This position can offer some protection by allowing the lightning a pathway to flow over your body instead of through your vital organs. Always, if possible, wait for at least 30 minutes after you hear the last clap of thunder before leaving a shelter.

For additional information, please visit
NOAA’S National Weather Service Lightning Safety Web site.

What an exciting and interesting photo-adventure this day has been.  I love it when I am drawn to an area and not knowing what to expect I get treated to new experiences. 

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Photography places me in the moment where I can share that moment in time. It becomes a life story as represented by my interaction with the scene. The happiness and beauty or the sorrow and strife; how I focus leaves a lasting impression that might touch the viewer on a spiritual level.

 "Reflecting Nature's Artistry" 

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