So many sinners

That must be the explanation for all the electrical storms we’ve been having recently. And you thought the reversal of Roe v Wade would have been greeted with approval…

The trick remains, however, in getting a good image from it (we’re back to talking about lightning now.) It started on the 29th, when I collected Mr Bugg and went down to Jordan Lake for a storm cell that looked to be lining up on the southern end of the lake. This was not the case, and what little lightning arrived in the immediate vicinity was shrouded by the rain.

A bit over a day later, another storm slipped in very early in the morning on the 31st. For that, I traipsed over to the neighborhood pond, but all that showed for that were lights in the sky – all bolts were obscured by the low cloud cover. I even drove over to a local landmark, a modern glass office tower that it’s been my goal to get a lightning strike near (or directly on,) because it looked like the storm might line up nicely, but achieved the same results there.

Then another in the early evening of the 31st, and again, the lack of warning left the pond as the best choice. This time, it looked more promising.

clouds lit from within by lightning
The nice bit about the pond is, it has a great view to the west, which is where 90% of the storms roll in from, and of course that I can get to it within five minutes or so. With the amount of trees and the lack of tall hills/mountains in the area, there aren’t too many long perspectives where you can see a storm coming in the distance – the maximum here is perhaps 10 kilometers of so. I really should seek out a nice spot out west a bit more, since there are a lot of storms that pass through a band out there that never reach here. But for now this is what we got, and occasionally it works out.

lightning over trees
This is a tighter crop of a bolt that was still fairly distant. But as the storm drew closer, a layer of low clouds separate from the thundercells developed overhead, illuminated by the nearby city, leaving only a thin gap to see anything through.

lightning under very low cloud cover
Remember that time exposures don’t give an accurate impression of the sky; I could vaguely make out the low clouds, only a fraction brighter than the open gap on the horizon, while the definition from the illuminating lightning is too brief to tell much. But seeing this on the LCD, I zoomed in a little. It didn’t help with the advancing clouds.

lightning almost totally obscured by finger of clouds
Do you see it? It’s right smack behind that cloud finger poking down. Here’s a closer look:

close crop of hidden lightning
At that point, I gave it up for the evening, knowing that the cloud cover wasn’t going to move on. Plus it had started to pour, which doesn’t bother me (I have a camera rain cover and a disposable poncho for me in the camera bag at all times, because this is a frequent pursuit – you can’t call yourself a nature photographer if you aren’t ready for conditions.) It does, however, make photography difficult when the raindrops are spotting the front of the lens.

Another storm on the 2nd was much the same, just throwing some sky glow without anything distinct, and all that my photos show from that evening is the advancing rain column, which I thought I might be seeing in the LCD of the camera but wasn’t sure at that resolution. It soon became apparent though, the horrendous downpour giving the barest warning before it hit, not even giving me time to stow the camera – I would have had to expose the interior of the bag to the deluge, so I simply carried the camera back in my hand, safely protected by the rain cover (with the bag over my shoulder covered by my poncho.) Still wary of residual humidity, they all got aired out in front of fans on my return.

But then there was this evening. I could see the lightning as I was driving home from errands, and had time only to visit the pond again, so same perspective as before. The clouds weren’t an obscuring ceiling this time, but mountains and passes revealed only in the time exposures.

[I have to remark that the camera lens, kept in the bag in the air-conditioned house, immediately fogged up in the hot and humid outdoor conditions, but it wiped away easily enough. The AC here isn’t set that low, but the conditions outside right now are, ‘rainforest.’]

peek of lightning high up on thunderhead
This thunderhead, or ‘these’ perhaps, were enormously active, though most of what I saw was related to what you see here: cloud-to-cloud activity blocked by other clouds. I waited it out, knowing it was drawing closer and hoping it would be lined up with my location.

clouds illuminated by hidden lightning
Hopefully this gives an impression of how it was stretching way up into the sky, especially because I knew it was still pretty distant. But in time, the bolts began making an appearance, down low again.

lightning peeking in at edge of frame
I try not to re-aim the camera to chase visible strikes, because they can be all over the place and make you regret such efforts by immediately striking right where you had been aiming previously. This time, however, I felt better about the close strikes coming from a different cell, or section thereof (in such a mess, there’s really no way to tell how many thunderheads are up there.) It worked out.

lightning emerging from bottom of cloud
Cropped a bit closer from a horizontal frame for this one, not only is the reflection captured (one of the reasons I like the pond,) you can also see where the lightning emerges from the cloud base, illuminating it hazily. This began a brief session of visible bolts in the one region, and I tried making an animated gif (pronounced, “GIG-it-ee”) from five successive frames, but gif color standards made them look terrible, so I just joined them up instead.

five sequential frames all showing distinct lightning bolts
This was one of the few times that I thought I could capture multiple bolts in one exposure, based on how active the storm was, and succeeded with the first and fifth frames. There’s still a limit, based on the ambient light from the sky/clouds – too long an exposure will wash out the strikes that occur, and most times in this area, the strikes are too far apart in time. I could reduce the ISO and/or close the aperture down, but that also reduces the brightness (and thus the impact) of the bolts themselves.

I like that last frame and think it deserves a closer look:

crop of frame with multiple lightning bolts
There was enough wind that the pond wasn’t remaining perfectly smooth, unfortunately, but I do like the different color of the bolts. The streetlamp is the old-style mercury lights, blue to our eyes yet the spectrum plays havoc with photography. Right underneath it is the culvert that the beavers were using.

The electrical activity of this storm became intense, flickering constantly and even multiple times a second, but soon after this point it seemed to be solely within clouds with few visible bolts at all. I’d been hoping for a brilliant tall strike aligned with the pond, but it was not to be this night. Only occasionally would I get a glimpse of a bolt now.

lightning fork almost obscured within clouds
This was high in the sky where the activity seemed to have shifted, and again, I liked the differing coloration, which I suspect is due to how deep within the cloud/humidity the branches are. I boosted saturation for this one just to make it stand out better at blog resolution.

But after several minutes without a visible bolt, and the rain finally starting up and getting stronger, I wrapped it up. Facing west also means facing into the prevailing winds and getting raindrops on the lens, which doesn’t help those nice clear bolt shots. I packed up and came back home to unload the memory card.

And then, even as I was curating the night’s haul, I realized the thunder was getting more distinct and closer; all through the shooting session, it had been muted and slow in coming, evidence of both the upper-cloud activity and the distance of the storm. But now it seemed a lot closer, so I went out on the front porch to have a look – then went back and got the camera and tripod again. It was pouring now, but the roof overhang kept the lens dry and, aiming up almost 45°, there was a lot of activity right in front of the house. In time, I got a few bolts, though I think I missed the strongest activity by only minutes.

lightning branches seen thinly through clouds
This full frame at 22mm, so it stretches across a significant portion of the sky – not bright, but nicely framed at least, and a little bonus from a very active storm. In the past four days I probably doubled my lightning photos for the year, and while I’m still chasing the really dynamic frames, I’m good with this.