Closer than meteors

… in more ways than one.

On this recent trip, we had one good electrical storm come rolling in with plenty of warning, and being on the open lake meant that we could see it in the distance while approaching. Ah, the perfect opportunity to get lightning that would normally be hidden by ‘the horizon’ of trees, buildings, and basketball players! Except that it was before sundown, so time exposures were out, and video would be required, like the previous trip. So be it.

Unfortunately, what the video shows is largely the sum total of visible strikes, which were not that visible at all, before the encroaching storm meant we had to get the hell off the dock (this time The Girlfriend was out there too, and urging us most urgently to get out of the storm.) We made it back to the Gatsby mansion with only the barest hint of rain hitting us, though the wind was again so fierce that the tripod wasn’t going to be standing on its own.

Having seen how many lightning bolts were hidden by the rain, I wasn’t expecting much as the storm rolled in around us, and by now it was almost fully dark; time exposures were possible, but only from indoors through a window, and I considered it pointless. Then, as we looked out the bedroom window, a brilliant forked bolt like an inverted bare tree split the air right across the cove from us, perfectly framed straight out, and I thought, Well, maybe…

I set up on the landing halfway up the stairs, same view out over the cove but without screens. The place is old and has latticed windows – real ones, none of this plastic insert crap – which would have to be part of the framing within the shot. So would all of the old spiderwebs, because this was a place on the lake and come evening time the bugs were plentiful, not to mention that the window was unreachable from the outside except for a bucket rig. So be it.

As expected, many of the bolts were hidden by the now pouring rain (the same rain that created the fog from the previous post, a day later.) Some, naturally, fell outside of the camera frame, because lightning is perverse and anti-social.

lightning through window of Gatsby mansion
And of course, the moment I moved the camera to a different position because the lightning was showing a definite tendency to be over there, it stopped showing up over there. See above about perverse and anti-social.

lightning through window of Gatsby mansion
The orange glow towards the bottom, by the way, was the downstairs foyer light reflecting from the glass – we could have turned it off but then we wouldn’t have seen what we were doing, because the purple light from the lightning was only a few milliseconds in duration, spread a minute or so apart; it would have made moving around very slow going.

In time, I managed a few okay frames, nothing exciting, just proof of concept really. It would have been far better to have a wider field of view, but no window provided it and we would instead had to have been outside without any adequate overhang.

lightning through window of Gatsby mansion
Yep, that’s the dock we were just on, with the far side of the cove beyond, though as the storm approached we were facing 90° off to the left, which was west.

Below is probably my favorite, cropped down a little to give more of the haunted house vibe.

lightning through window of Gatsby mansion
What would have been ideal (he says long afterward) would have been to have someone standing in a hooded robe down there in the foyer, just off to one side and subtle enough to escape initial attention. I’ll have to remember to pack my monk’s robe for the next trip…

[By the way, some friends met us out there and got a tour of the entire house during normal daylight hours, and told us they got this unshakeable spooky feeling from the whole place, almost foreboding. Neither The Girlfriend or I got the faintest hint of this the entire time, just finding the place historic and rustic, and I’ve slept there alone several times now. But then again, you wouldn’t really expect me to get that kind of feeling.]

The most impressive bolt, however, should have been better.

I was between frames with the remote release in hand, about to open the shutter again, when a massive and blinding bolt lit up the entire sky. Reflexively I jammed the shutter button down, which would often be too late to capture anything, but this was one of those intense bolts that keep flashing in the same spot repeatedly, and I knew I was capturing it in camera. As it faded, it left behind what I am surmising was superheated air or plasma, a dotted line in the same path as if the bolt had dissolved into tatters. We were stunned at the spectacle, and knew it was remarkably close. I quickly closed the shutter, knowing I needed no additional exposure for the foreground or anything, and chimped at the image on the LCD (yup, you missed it again, Buggato.)

enormously bright and bleached out very close lightning strike through window of Gatsby mansion
Son of a bitch…

This was the exact same settings as the other frames, except this was only a four-second exposure while the others are all over twenty. I’ve even slammed the settings over in GIMP to see if any vestige of the bolt can be brought up, but nada – the exposure went way off the scale of the camera.

As another point, you see the details on the inside edges of the window moldings? Yeah, there was no light in there, so all of that came from the light of the bolt itself, reflecting off of the interior of the foyer – which was all dark wood paneling. Some of the longest exposures show a faint orange glow from that downstairs light, but for this one it all came from the bolt itself.

And one more thing to show you.

animated gif comparing two frames to determine how close the lightning wasThis is two consecutive frames taken without moving the camera, cropped in tight to show some particular details. In the bright frame, the arrow points out the bleed from extreme overexposure along the edges of the window frame, giving a strong indication that this was precisely where the bolt crossed the frame. While in the dark frame the arrow is pointing out the lights and horizon line of the opposite side of the cove. Meaning the bolt was down at least to that point, perhaps below it.

That means the bolt hit, at its farthest point, immediately on the point of the cove, but more likely on the water within, closer to us. The cove is a mere 600 meters across, so that’s the maximum distance. I can believe it, from the intensity of the light and the close-following blast of thunder. Had we been outside during that, we probably would have shit ourselves.

But yeah, by all rights I should have a better image than this. I feel cheated.