Lightning images: Return Strokes and Stepped Leaders

The summer rainy season is now in full swing across the southwest and the skies are cloudy most of the time. I’m no longer able to shoot images of the stars, planets, moon, or other celestial bodies. I’ve turned my attention to the daily thunderstorms that pop up across northern Arizona during this period.

I’ve been trying to capture daytime lighting photos for many years. The old way was to set the camera on a tripod, point it at an active storm, and attach the shutter cable release. Then I would hold the release with my thumb on the trigger and when I saw the first flicker of lighting I would push the release. A fairly crude method but it does work since the duration of a lightning flash, though short, is often long enough if you have fast reflexes.

Nowadays, though, photographers can build or purchase an electronic lightning trigger that does essentially the same thing but is much faster and more reliable. Here’s a photo taken a few days ago in Kendrick Park in northern Arizona as a thunderstorm moved across the cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Taken with a 28-mm wide angle, the image has been cropped to highlight the lightning flash.

Cloud-to-ground lightning over northern Arizona showing the upward return stroke.
Cloud-to-ground lightning over northern Arizona showing the upward return stroke.

The downside of capturing an image in this manner is that the initial stages of the lightning flash are not captured since it is this phase of the lightning sequence that triggers the lightning device. This early stage of a lightning flash is typically where all the branching and filaments occur. The bright part of the flash captured here is a return stroke that is mainly an upward transfer from the ground to cloud along a single channel.

Compare the previous image with this nighttime image (scanned Kodachrome 64 slide) taken many years ago. In this image, I left the shutter open for an extended period of time (typically 10 to 30 seconds) before the flash and then closed the shutter immediately after the flash. This captured the downward traveling stepped leader and the multiple paths before the main upward stroke occured.

Cloud-to-ground lightning over eastern Colorado showing stepped leaders and multiple return strokes.
Cloud-to-ground lightning over eastern Colorado showing stepped leaders and multiple return strokes.

It would be great if the modern lightning trigger devices could react to the first few microseconds of the stepped leader and trigger the camera shutter and capture the multiple paths and stepped leader. Perhaps such a device may one day be available.

Additional images of lightning can be found on my photography web site: DavidBlanchardPhotography.com

Edit: typo in caption