Plus or minus

clouds lit by electrical storm and city lights
The weather here has been rather oppressive, since we’ve been having temperatures into the thirties (or the nineties if you’re still using Fahrenheit) with no rain for over a week, and the plants are struggling, to say nothing of humans doing anything outside. Last night, we finally got the conditions for a thunderstorm, and I unceremoniously dumped a phone call with a friend to trot down to the pond to do some more photos – yeah, they’re used to it; storms are rare. While there was a decent breeze, I was still sweating while out there, standing almost motionless alongside the tripod.

Above, the layers of clouds become evident with the mixed lighting, the purple-white flashes of lightning contrasted against the amber of the sodium city lights, lending a lot of depth to the sky – the light in front of the house saved the foreground from being just a flat cutout against it.

commercial flight in front of active thunderstorm
My little trick of counting off the seconds between flashes to get a rough idea of when to open the shutter was completely trashed by the storm, at least in the first twenty minutes or so – I would have needed a stopwatch that provided time in hundredths of a second. Seriously, the flashes were nearly constant, with two primary areas of activity in the sky. Above, a straight line at far left denotes a commercial flight into Raleigh-Durham airport that was skirting the thunderheads on approach, which must have been a hell of a view. Though also quite possibly bumpy, and I imagine if you didn’t like flying the view wasn’t reassuring. I was hoping that the lightning flash would have silhouetted the plane against the clouds in that moment, but I suspect the city lights against the clouds washed out any evidence of that.

helicopter flying towards storm
There was also a pair of helicopters that passed low overhead and were headed right towards the thunderheads, which also should have been a great view.

helicopter flying towards storm
I’m reasonably certain they were Air National Guard flights since nothing else flies together around here like that, and also judging from the sound – probably AH-64 Apaches. Sure, the pics make it look bright, but these are time exposures, and all I could make out were anti-collision lights.

anticipated lightning flashAs the storm started to settle down a bit, I could start using the timing trick; lightning seems to follow a rough pattern, with a certain amount of time between strikes occurring from the same area of cloud. Count off the seconds between strikes, then lock the shutter open about ten seconds before that time is reached again. Like I said, its rough, and it’s entirely possible that it’s merely my own confirmation bias and the strikes are more random than that – I’d need to keep some pretty specific records to be sure either way. But this image here is a successful attempt, at least. I didn’t want the amber glow from the city lights in the clouds, so the only way to accomplish that is with a short exposure that captures a flash at just the right moment, and this one was a seven-second exposure timed for the reappearance of the flash. I’m pleased.

The breeze was enough that the water was choppy, so no nice reflections of the storm within, but at least I had a little foreground to work with – that’s something that I’ve had a lot of trouble achieving in the past. Too many trees, and ugly things like poles and wires, nearby make it hard to frame the lightning against something useful, and dashing out to another location is very hit-or-miss, mostly miss. The pond nearby is quite handy, and these are all facing in the opposite direction from this session a bit earlier this year.

Lightning over pond
I was switching back and forth between vertical and horizontal shots; the thunderhead on the left side was producing the best vertical bolts, while the area on the right kept showing off these branches that stretched across the sky, visibly extending. This frame is actually a crop from a horizontal. I was wishing I’d been shooting some video because the frequency of the flashes, and the arms shooting across the sky, would have been quite dramatic, but no, I’m using older bodies without video capability and left the cheesy little camcorder sitting on my desk. So you get stills instead, using the pilings exposed by the lowered pond level as a foreground element. Is that rain stretching down out of the clouds? Quite possibly, but not a drop of it fell on us here.

dramatic cloud glow
And that’s what produced my conflicted response to the storm. I’m always pleased to get decent lightning pics, and this past year has been unprecedented in my successes in that area – I’ve gone for several years without any at all. But we really need the rain, so while I’m quite pleased with the opportunity, and the shot above most of all, the storm didn’t accomplish anything else, and I still had to go out afterward to water the plants again.

Worse, the imperturbable Al Bugg has been jonesing for the opportunity to get some lightning pics, but he’s now away being a camp counselor so I couldn’t even call him to come by and get some practice in. One of these days, though…

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