Shooting The Monsoon
How to catch the big summer weather in the Southwest
It was the bolt atop the ridge directly in front of me that finally got my attention. For over an hour, I had been photographing the eastward progress of a dazzling thunderstorm just north of what had been a safe vantage point. Mesmerized by the frequency and intensity of its activity, I had failed to register the storm’s approach until that warning shot landed less than a mile away. Reluctantly, I began packing my gear, still dry, but knowing I was in danger, vaguely resentful of the oft-repeated lightning warning: “If you see it, flee it; if you hear it, clear it.” Stooping for my camera bag, I rationalized that I pass that warning’s threshold every time I photograph a thunderstorm, so surely… Flash-Bang! The simultaneous bolt and boom sent me retreating so fast that it wasn’t until I was safely in the car that I realized I had left my camera in the line of fire.
Lightning photography is as dangerous as it is thrilling. Though photographer and camera survived this adventure, no person outside in an electrical storm is completely safe. And while nature photographers aren’t averse to taking risks to get their shots, neither should they be as foolish as I was.
How To Photograph Lightning
Before setting out to photograph lightning, understand that anyone outside when lightning is visible, or thunder is audible, is at risk. You can roughly compute the lightning’s distance by counting the seconds between the flash and thunder: five seconds for each mile. While 10 miles is often stated as a safe distance, lightning bolts over 100 miles long have been recorded, and lightning can strike when no rain is falling and the sky overhead is blue.
Rather than hearing it from someone who goes out in thunderstorms despite the risks, read what the experts have to say about lightning safety:
While lightning strikes earth over eight million times each day, it isn’t completely understood. We do 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.
Unfortunately, while the most photogenic lightning is cloud-to-ground (CG), it’s also the most dangerous. In a few hundredths of a millisecond or less, a CG lightning strike can expend 200 million volts and heat the surrounding air to 50,000º F—more than enough to detonate a tree or fry a photographer.
After much research, a few close calls and many thorough drenchings, I’ve concluded that lightning is best photographed from a distance. Not only is lightning ridiculously dangerous, it’s also nearly impossible to photograph anything in the kind of downpour that accompanies most thunderstorms. In other words, you want to be outside the thunderstorm looking in.