What I learned from 20 years photographing lightning in D.C.
- Storm stories and striking images from nearly 100 thunderstorm photo shoots in Washington and Rosslyn
- How not to get struck by lightning
- Where to photograph lightning
- When lightning strikes the Washington Monument
- embrace failure
- The different colors of lightning
- Photography lessons during a thunderstorm
- apparitional figures
- Cherry blossom storm chase
- Slammed by a derecho
- The early days
- Two decades late
- A few photography tips
Storm stories and striking images from nearly 100 thunderstorm photo shoots in Washington and Rosslyn
A collage of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes photographed with the Washington Monument over the past 20 years. (Kevin Ambrose for The Washington Post) Over 20 years, I ’ ve made 94 trips to photograph lightning over Washington D.C. ’ sulfur monuments and memorials — never skipping a thunderstorm season. Some years, I photographed dozens of lightning flashes ; in one year, I snapped none, even after multiple tries. With lightning photography, I ’ ve learned it ’ s feast or dearth.
My goal from the get down was to photograph a lightning fall to the Washington Monument, but I learned that ’ s not an comfortable goal. In 20 years, I ’ ve alone photographed a direct strike to the Washington Monument twice — 2005 and 2021. After two decades, these are some of my favored D.C. lightning photograph, a few unusual storm stories, photographing strategies and a bit of advice for staying safe while capturing a storm .
How not to get struck by lightning
“ When thunder roars, go indoors ! ” I ’ ve heard that message for years and echoed it in my articles. That ’ s the cause the majority of my lightning photos are shot from inside the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials, where there ’ s a big ceiling viewgraph. When thunderstorms are distant, that ’ s when it ’ second safe to speculation outside to the edge of the Reflecting Pool, Tidal Basin or Potomac River to photograph lightning. In Rosslyn, I walk to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial or the Netherlands Carillon to shoot photos of distant lightning. ad My biggest concern while photographing storms is that a thunderstorm may form directly disk overhead, undetected, and unleash a sudden, unexpected lightning bolt. In 2020, I was shooting a storm moving away from Rosslyn when a bolt struck 200 yards away from one that redeveloped overhead. I was away in the capable, and it was a rough know. In 2016, a similar scenario happened : I was shooting a departing storm near the Reflecting Pool when a thunderstorm exploded over the District and launched a barrage of cloud-to-ground strikes nearby. I immediately retreated inside the Lincoln Memorial. The example : Always have a promptly exit strategy during storms .
Where to photograph lightning
I rarely chase behind D.C. thunderstorms because locomotion constraints mean I much miss them. I live west of Oakton, Va., and the drive to D.C. takes up to an hour, depending on traffic. rather, I try to arrive ahead of the storms to establish my place. I prefer to shoot storms with water in the foreground to reflect lightning flashes, and my favored views for shooting lightning include the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Marine Corps War Memorial and Netherlands Carillon. The Tidal Basin and Reflecting Pool are my favorite bodies of water to capture lightning reflections. When thunderstorms are distant, I ’ ll walk around the Tidal Basin .
When lightning strikes the Washington Monument
While I enjoy photographing fireworks in D.C. every fourth of July, lightning strikes — specially over the Washington Monument — are explosions on another horizontal surface. The lightning flash spans the stallion flip, and the thunder is louder than a boom from a firework shell burst. Most thunderstorms over D.C. don ’ triiodothyronine produce a strike to the Washington Monument. An analysis of lightning strikes over the past ten shows that, on average, lightning strikes the dagger between twice a year and once every five years. To photograph one requires skill and fortune. ad As shown above, the first time I photographed a lightning strike to the Washington Monument was on July 1, 2005. The lightning bolt struck the side of the monument, which is strange because most strikes are to its lean. The second prison term was on June 14, 2021. Unlike the first, lightning struck the memorial ’ s tap. I was inside the Jefferson Memorial shooting behind the column for guard reasons, capturing the mint with two cameras .
Out of 94 storm chases over 20 years, I only produced lightning photos about 60 percentage of the clock time. I ’ ve learned to embrace failure as contribution of the process, much turning failed storm shoots into sunset shoots, night skyline shoots or just an even walk around the Tidal Basin. I besides know from experience, the next shoot may produce dozens of striking photos. Putting in the time ensures achiever. I remember sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial on the evening of July 23, 2020, realizing I had made another fail trip to D.C. to shoot lightning. I called my wife to tell her the storms had fizzled before reaching D.C., and I had no photograph to show for my clock and feat. After deciding to wait and enjoy the evening, a new occupation of thunderstorms developed over Fairfax and Montgomery counties. I was in the right place to photograph a line of strengthening thunderstorms moving into the city. It turned into my best storm photograph shoot of the year .
The different colors of lightning
Though many factors determine lightning colors, such as dust particles in the standard atmosphere, sunlight, city lights or the intensity of falling rain, I ’ ve come to a few conclusions over many storm chases. red lightning occurs when lightning strikes a great distance away. Over long distances, debris and pollution particles in the air break up shorter wavelengths of lightly ( blues and violets ) and the longer wavelengths ( reds and yellows ) are what remain to be seen and photographed. ad When lightning strikes at sunset, it can besides appear crimson from the light of the set sun. In addition, city lights in D.C. cast a bolshevik glow on low clouds at night, which can fill the photograph. loss lightning can besides occur when abstemious rain is falling — though not normally during heavy rain. Blue lightning occurs when there are nearby strikes and no rain. Over short circuit distances, when the tune is free from rain and dust particles, the light from lightning doesn ’ thyroxine scatter much and frequently appears blasphemous. Blue lightning besides occurs when lightning strikes during the blue hour, a short time following sunset. Purple, magenta or violet lightning occurs during moderate to heavy rain, and when the lightning flash is not besides distant. haste in the publicize frequently scatters the light from lightning, which produces a purple color. Cloud-to-cloud lightning is much magenta. White is the most common lightning color, occurring when a lightning flash is concealed inside a overcast. It ’ s called intra-cloud lightning or sheet lightning. besides, when lightning strikes extremely close, it may appear as a blinding white flash. green lightning is rare to observe and photograph. Weather Geeks, a web site for weather enthusiasts, says park lightning may occur when oxygen molecules are supercharged by the energy from a lightning brassy, then discharge. I once photographed a turquoise-green lightning flare on July 19, 2016 .
Photography lessons during a thunderstorm
Schoolchildren on field trips have often gathered around my television camera while I photograph lightning from the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials. Our conversations much became lessons in photography — including lessons on the concept of time exposures — and have been some of my favored D.C. storm-chase moments. frequently, the kids would cheer when lightning flashed across the sky, cheering again when seconds late, lightning appeared on my television camera ’ randomness LCD. During one moral in 2006, I was having awful luck. I missed photographing about every lightning flash because the flashes occurred between exposures, or the bolts were good outside the television camera ’ s field of view. After a while, the kids started booing every time I missed a lightning news bulletin. When the thunderstorm was over and the kids were departing, a daughter from the class walked over to me. apparently sad that her classmates had booed me, she said, “ Sir, I in truth hope your fortune improves. ”
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In a long-exposure photograph — when the camera shutter is open for at least several seconds — an individual can show up well-defined if they remained inactive. otherwise, people are normally inconspicuous if they walk through during a hanker exposure. But if there ’ s a lightning flash when people are walking, their silhouettes are captured. That ’ south because lightning acts like a massive flash, which illuminates the background. If they continue walking after the lightning flash and while the camera shutter is even open, their silhouettes become translucent, apparitional, because the setting continues to expose. In the photograph above, a grotesque human body photobombed one of my 2018 shots during a storm furrow, making an otherwise unimpressive lightning flash very interest. During the flash, a tourist walked in front of my television camera, just a few feet away. In the photograph, he looks like a elephantine Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man looming over the city, at least for those of us old enough to remember the movie “ Ghostbusters. ”
Cherry blossom storm chase
Every class, Washington ’ s world-famous cherry trees bloom around the Tidal Basin in late March or early April. During flower flower, I ’ ve observed that snow occurs more often than thunderstorms, making photographing lightning with red blossoms a rare juncture. I ’ ve observed a line of strong thunderstorms move through D.C. during vertex bloom precisely once in two decades. ad On April 3, 2006, the thunderstorms were more like storms we get in late jump or summer. The storms had a chiseled shelf cloud, strong winds and frequent lightning. The storm chase was particularly memorable because it arrived with a defile of swirling cherry bloom petals when the gust front, the storm ’ mho leading edge of hard winds, shoot. As I rushed for cover, I was blasted by petals blowing through the air. It looked like a wall of rain approach, but the petals were voiced. There were thousands of tourists in the sphere when the thunderstorms hit, and I was disquieted my common shelter location at the Jefferson Memorial would be swamped — though it wasn ’ t excessively crowded when I arrived. When I arrived family by and by that evening, I found a cherry flower petal lodge in my ear, no doubt blown there by the storm .
Slammed by a derecho
Video taken inwardly the Jefferson Memorial during the Derecho of June 29, 2012. ( Kevin Ambrose ) The expression “ silent as a sculpt ” describes how a derecho — a violent, fast-moving storm complex — approached Washington during the deep even of June 29, 2012. There were no rumbles of thunder, no visible lightning. The tip was dead composure. I was standing on the eastern side of the Tidal Basin with companion capital Weather Gang writer Ian Livingston, fix to photograph distant lightning, when suddenly transformers in Arlington began to explode. The gust movement was a few miles away and approaching flying, and Ian and I were caught out in the open. We tried to rush to the Jefferson Memorial for brood, but we were excessively far away to make it inside before the storm reach. We were slammed by 70-plus miles per hour winds, flying debris and blind rain. The cherry trees around us shook violently and appeared as if they could break at any moment. We finally made it into the Jefferson Memorial, but we were soaking wet. unfortunately, I lost a camera because of the rain, and Ian lost a lens in his run to the memorial. Later, I shot a television inside the Jefferson Memorial ( above ) and a cloud-to-ground lightning strike as the storm moved to the east ( above ). In my 20 years of shooting storms in D.C., I ’ ve never seen a thunderstorm american samoa intense as that derecho .
The early days
Twenty years ago, I never saw early lightning photographers in the District and felt like the only crazy ridicule with a camera and tripod chase storms on the National Mall. I learned the U.S. Park Police felt the same room. It was July 2003 when I set up a television camera and tripod inside my pickup hand truck to photograph the Washington Monument for a chase. I cursorily drew a modest group of Park Police. After I explained my matter to in photographing lightning from the base hit of my fomite, they thought my finish was cool but odd. They offered their allow police parking location for my photography that summer provided I called ahead. I received the cellular telephone phone number of one of the officers, and I ’ vitamin d call before every chase. The officers would stop by and check on me during my photograph shoot. 9 The craziest moment occurred during an August 2003 ramp shoot when the lightning stayed behind me, not flashing where my television camera was pointed. When an officeholder stopped by and asked if I had any luck, I complained I had the wrong slant. She said to get in the car. I sat in the back of the patrol cruiser, and the officer drove across the grass-covered hill to the early side of the Washington Monument for a better opinion. I set up my tripod inside the car and took an excellent lightning photograph out the back window ( above ). That has always been one of my front-runner storm pursuit memories. In 2004, the grounds of the Washington Monument were redesigned for increase security, and I lost my individual parking placement .
Two decades late
My high school cross-country coach used to say the most ambitious part of a melt was taking the first footprint out the front door — a opinion I believe applies to storm chasing for lightning photos. On benighted, stormy evenings, I find lots of excuses to stay home, where it ’ mho condom and dry — a reluctance that hasn ’ t changed over two decades. I ’ ve found the best manner to get through the front door for a storm chase is to leave base well ahead of the storms to make the drive to D.C. with fairly weather. I used to only photograph snowstorms and thunderstorms, expanding my efforts in 2004 to include cerise blossoms, fireworks and sunrises/sunsets. Before social media, I used my web site to showcase my photography. It was in 2004 that I was invited to join the Capital Weather Gang blog as a photographer, and four years late began to write deoxyadenosine monophosphate well, discovering that I enjoyed that ampere much as shooting photograph. nowadays, there are many photographers who shoot lightning in D.C., including Dave Dildine, Chris Fukuda and Anupam Anand. And with smartphones, countless people now shoot photos and videos of storms when they ’ ra visiting Washington. With every thunderstorm, there ’ s likely to be lightning photos and videos posted somewhere on social media and on the Capital Weather Gang web log. More than a decade ago, I wrote an article about my beginning 10 years of thunderstorm photography and concluded with the trace, “ I hope the following 10 years will be as fun and rewarding. ” immediately that 10 years have passed, I can say it was just as fun and rewarding, probably more therefore — thanks in part to improving television camera engineering and some dependable luck. And while I plan to continue shooting lightning, I ’ ve slowed toss off. I ’ ve stopped midnight ramp chases, focusing largely on afternoon and early evening photograph shoots. Within the next 10 years, I hope to retire, and I ’ m not certain where I ’ ll hot. But at least for the following few years, I ’ ll continue shooting thunderstorms in D.C. And on those chases, I ’ ll never forget, “ when big h roars, go indoors ! ”
A few photography tips
I shoot thunderstorms with two 42-megapixel cameras — a Sony a7riII and a Sony a99II. For lenses, I have a Sony 24x240mm and a Tamron 28x300mm. I shoot both cameras simultaneously with different aperture settings or f-stops, which control how a lot light passes through the camera, because it ’ s hard to predict the luminosity of a lightning flash. I figure one of the two cameras will adequately expose the lightning. I shoot using a elation sensitivity set of ISO 50 for most lightning photos, except when the lightning is very distant, then I ’ ll move up to ISO 100 or 200. For f-stops, when lightning is striking stopping point to the television camera, I choose f-6 to f-10. however, when lightning moves farther away, I lower the f-stop to f-4 or f-5. ad During the day, I use a lightning detector on my Sony a99II, and I shoot television on my Sony a7rII. At night, I shoot time exposures with both cameras using shutter secrete cables with the buttons locked down for continuous shooting. Both camera ardor at the same time, continuously, while I step back and watch the storm. That ’ mho besides how I capture fireworks. The distance of exposures is determined by the time it takes to properly expose the memorials and monuments in the foreground. At nox, it normally ranges from two to 13 seconds, depending upon the f-stop, luminosity of the sky and ISO. During the day, when I use a lightning trip, I use manual camera settings to shoot a slenderly underexpose shot with the hope that lightning will brighten the scene. Stacking lightning photograph is a popular proficiency for showcasing multiple flashes in a individual image. Each lightning photograph becomes a layer within an image stack and the brightest pixels from each layer are moved to the top of the batch. This process forms a composite picture of the storm that includes all of the lightning bolts and the brightest areas of the sky. The result prototype is normally brighter and more vibrant than any of the contributing photograph. Some shading is often necessary to smooth out any sharp edges or bubbles of bright pixels.
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