Lightning Part 2

All images and text © copyright Gene Moore.

  Horizontal bolt - Criner OK  

A wide lightning bolt covers much of the southern horizon in central Oklahoma. Usually cloud to ground strikes in the rain are seen as sheet lightning, but in this case the storm was only producing light rain from a high cloud base. Old Kodachrome provided a pleasing magenta cast to lightning.


A Close Lightning Strike Momentarily Blinds
The Camera And The Photographer

Blinding Flash at Night   The next frame or scan reveals the bolt

The digital camera frame is wiped out by a close flash. Shooting out the drivers side window I see nothing but white light in the night. I knew the bolt was close but where I could not say, I was temporary blinded by the flash. In this case I only heard a quick crack, but no thunder because the bolt was so close.


Later I did a frame capture on the image shown on the left. Each image can be de-interlaced to odd and even fields. The other field or scan of the frame yielded the fading bolt. There was probably less than 1/100 of a second between the frames or scans of the digital camera. Both caught the bolt, but only one was able to see the decaying channel that hit only 35 feet in front of me.

Multiple Strikes In The Same Frame

strike three   seven hits.....pushing the limit

A tall tower in the image will not guarantee hits. These bolts are just not interested in taking a ride down the tower.

Note the bolt on the left is brighter because it's in the rain not because it's bigger or stronger. The rain tends to spread out the flash. The bolts on the right are on the edge of the rain.


Leaving the camera lens open will net a bunch of bolts on the frame. Problem is, soon an overexposure will result. For more bolts remember to close the shutter down a couple of stops. Here we have seven separate contacts to ground that occurred in about 15-20 seconds. Severe storms that are really "hot" can produce over 60 cloud to ground strikes in a minute. I have observed as high as 320 discharges from one (tornadic) cell per minute; although, not all were cloud to ground hits. The hotter the storm the easier it is to get good lightning images.

A wide bolt with many branches lights up the field to the west. On this night many bolts like this one were hitting all around the vehicle. One of those nights you could cook a hot dog by just hanging it out the car window. If someone wants to stay safe in a situation like this be inside a structure that will offer protection, or stay inside a vehicle. Note this particular bolt hit the ground in at least four places.

In order to stay safe while shooting lightning from inside the storm a couple different approaches are used. Sometimes I set the tripod outside and use a long cable release to trigger the shot. This allows me to stay inside the car. Of course the camera must be protected from the rain while on a tripod. A long lens hood keeps the glass dry. Another way to approach this type of storm is to use a window clamp for the camera. That's what I used for this shot and I only had the lens open for a few seconds before the sky lit up. It works great unless wind rocks the car.

Nearby bolt branches across the sky

Lightning bolts look "incomplete" without a top and bottom so this shot was flipped to the vertical in order to fit the close strike in the frame. One of the hardest parts of taking lightning is keeping the horizon level. In this image the ground is a little tilted to the left. Easy enough to fix with computer software, but I let it go since it was less than one degree. I generally use a bubble level on the tripod, or sight lights on the horizon to keep the ground straight.

  The big leap

A bolt leaps from the top of the storm to the ground. Considering the height of the storm the bolt made a 50,000 foot long hop to it's destination. Note the change in the color of the bolt from white to orange as it neared the ground. This change in color was due to dust in the atmosphere near the ground. The shot was taken near Purcell, Oklahoma.

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