Shocking truths about lightning

Lightning and Rainbow, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Color and Light, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
ISO 100
24-105 f4L lens

While working on an upcoming “Outdoor Photographer” magazine article on photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon, I’ve been revisiting the images from my August workshop with Don Smith. While I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with the trip’s lighting images, it’s clear that at least half of my captures came on that amazing final morning, when we witness two hours of virtually nonstop lightning punctuated by a vivid section of rainbow balanced atop Powell Point. The first image I posted from that morning included the rainbow sharing the rim a trio of simultaneous, parallel strikes. The difficulty I’m having now is choosing which of the other pretty spectacular images to feature (FYI, this is a great problem to have).

Fortunately, I varied my compositions enough that many of my favorite captures are different from each other. Here, a single strike lands just east of the rainbow, close enough that they somehow seem related. This image is an example of why I’m constantly preaching to my workshop participants to switch between horizontal and vertical, even (especially) when one orientation seems more obvious than the other. Fortunately, I practiced what I preached (not always a sure thing) throughout the morning—instead of having one great capture of lighting with that morning’s rainbow, I now have two (and counting) that are different enough from each other to share.

Another byproduct of my magazine article is the research I’ve been doing on lightning. I’ve always been something of a weather geek, but it seems each time I revisit a topic, I learn something new. So, while I doubt you’ll find this stuff quite as fascinating as I do, here are some cool lightning facts I just can’t resist sharing:

  • Earth is struck by lightning eight million times each day.
  • While lightning is still not completely understood, scientists know that the rapid upward and downward motion of raindrops in a thunderstorm creates extreme electrical polarity—a negative/positive imbalance within a cloud, between clouds, or between a cloud and the ground. Nature abhors any imbalance and will remedy the problem as efficiently as possible: Lightning.
  • The visible portion of a lightning strike originates on the ground and travels up to the cloud.
  • In a lifespan measured milliseconds, a lightning bolt can release 200 million volts and heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees. More than enough to fry a photographer.
  • Most of us know that lightning and thunder occur simultaneously. What many don’t know is that you can’t have one without the other—it’s the lightning that causes the thunder, and if you see lightning but hear no thunder, you’re just too far away. This even applies to what is often called “heat lightning,” which still generates thunder you’d hear if you were close enough.
  • The fact that lightning and thunder occur simultaneously, but light travels much faster than sound, allows us to roughly establish the distance of the lightning. For all intents and purposes, we see the lightning the instant it happens, while the thunder pokes along at the speed of sound, a pedestrian 1,100 feet per second. That works out to about five seconds to travel one mile. So, if you start counting as soon as you see lightning (one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, …), dividing by five the number you’re at when the thunder arrives gives you the approximate distance in miles.
  • Let’s say you get all the way to fifty before the thunder arrives—that would be ten miles. You’re safe, right? Wrong. Lightning bolts exceeding one hundred miles in length have been documented, as have bolts with no rain and even with blue skies overhead. That’s why we’re warned to stay inside whenever you can see lightning or hear thunder. (It’s also why I say do as I say, not as I do.)
  • A car is not a magic lightning sanctuary, and the safety a car does offer is because of its metal frame, not its rubber tires. (Don’t believe me? Go stand on a couple of rubber tires in the next lightning storm and have your next of kin report back to me.) Even when you’re inside a car, you need to keep the windows up and don’t touch anything metal. And stay away from convertibles.

Here are a couple of lightning safety websites:

Are you interested in risking your life to photograph lightning? Join me in a Grand Canyon photo workshop.

A Lightning Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

8 Comments on “Shocking truths about lightning

  1. Good article. I do a lot of lightning photography too, and it’s as exhilarating as it is frightening. I’ve almost been hit by lightning twice, and it’s no fun being that close to an untimely end.

    As you state, it’s the cars double wall construction that keeps you safe, but some internal parts of a car come in contact with the outer wall of a car. So during a storm don’t touch anything that is in contact with the outside of your car, like the door handles or window mechanism.

    Have Fun,

  2. I am curious, I have seen mechanisms that trigger a camera to capture lightening strikes. I live in Cheyenne Wyoming and my land backs up to a vast open space where I will have ample opportunities to capture strikes. Do these devices work? If so what do you recommend?

    Thank you, Lisa

    • I can only speak for the one I use, the Lightning Trigger by Stepping Stone. I think my images prove that it works pretty well. It certainly isn’t perfect——lots of clicks without lightning, but many of those are due to strikes it detected outside my frame, and also strikes my camera wasn’t fast enough to capture. On the other hand, even though it doesn’t capture every bolt, there rarely is a bolt that doesn’t at least initiate a click. I recommended the Lightning Trigger to my August workshop participants, but I think two people had other brands——their success rate was much lower.

  3. Hi Gary…Another amazing article here..I want to re-read it but I took away one thng that “struck” me (pardon THAT rediculous pun). That was in your second bullet regarding the fact that nature abhors imbalance…I can really relate with that concept..its a cosmic thing, I truly believe. Lightining is, in every sense of the word, a Release! A release of energy, bad karma, pressure vs temperature, water vs’s nature’s release…I LOVE your words…All the best 🙂 ..DJ

  4. I have to say that having an umbrella, aka lightning rod, probably isn’t the best “tool” to have along when shooting lightning. However, throwing a rag of some sort over your lightning trigger is much safer and will definitely fend off enough moisture that the trigger will survive. You sir, may not, if you are holding onto a lightning rod. 😉

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