Lightning and Mammatus: The beauty of thunderstorms

The North American Monsoon is bringing thunderstorms to the southwest United States including northern Arizona. You would think that with almost daily thunderstorms it would be easy to shoot great images of lightning and thunderstorms. Well, not always…

One of the characteristics of the rainy season in the higher elevations of northern Arizona is that as the storms develop in the late morning or early afternoon it quickly becomes overcast so that it is difficult to see the individual storms. It is equally difficult to photograph lightning because it is often raining over large areas obscuring the view of the lightning.

Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.
Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.

So I was particularly pleased when we had two days in a row in which I was able to photograph lightning and actually see the thunderstorms. The lightning was photographed in Sunset Crater National MonumentĀ overlooking the Bonito Lava Flow;Ā the mountain that it is striking is O’Leary Peak. There is a fire lookout station at the summit of the peak and I’m certain they get their fair share of close bolts.

Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.
Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.

The following day proved equally photogenic. This thunderstorm was photographed in late afternoon and is quite dramatic with mammatus clouds visible from the anvil region of the storm.

If only everyday was as photogenic as these two.

Lightning across the landscape of northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon (NAM) is in full swing across the southwestern states and the daily showers and thunderstorms present many opportunities for dramatic lighting and lightning.

Earlier this week I traveled to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park hoping to get some sunset images with storm clouds hanging over the canyon. Well, there certainly were clouds — and there wasn’t much of a sunset. The backup plan was to photograph lightning. On this count, the storms didn’t disappoint. There was a storm to the west and I was able to point the camera across the lines of cliffs and rock faces that were already falling into deep shadow in the late twilight. And off in the distance was a great flash of lightning.

 

Lightning over the Grand Canyon.
Lightning over the Grand Canyon.

A few days later I tried once again to capture twilight lightning — this time at Sunset Crater National Monument. A storm developed in early evening and moved to the northeast over the lower terrain of the Painted Desert in the Little Colorado River Valley.

 

Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.
Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.

 

In the foreground can be seen the Ponderosa Pine trees at the higher elevations in the Monument; in the middle distance are some of the many cinder cones that are a part of theĀ San Francisco Volcanic Field; in the far distance are the lower elevations of the Painted Desert.

 

 

Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.
Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.

 

With the typical NAM lasting through early September there should be plenty of opportunities for more dramatic lightning photographs.

 

White Sands Reflected in Pools of Water

We recently took a trip to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The weather forecast that day called for increasing clouds and a chance of thunderstorms — some possibly severe — by late afternoon. Normally, this would be a deterrent to those wishing to visit this wonderful place but since I enjoy photographing thunderstorms and severe weather this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Rainbow over White Sands National Monument.
Rainbow over White Sands National Monument.

We arrived at WSNM in mid-afternoon and the clouds were beginning to fill the sky. We were soon rewarded with a rainbow stretching across the parabolic dunes on the edge of the dune fields. As that first storm moved away, other storms began to develop back to the west. I set up the camera to take lightning photographs and was rewarded with a couple of pretty good shots.

Late afternoon cloud-to-ground lightning over White Sands National Monument.
Late afternoon cloud-to-ground lightning over White Sands National Monument.

But the really wonderful part came the next morning. Those afternoon thunderstorms continued through the evening and into the night and produced about one and a half inches of rain across the sands. And in the bright blue sky of the following morning we found shallow lakes of up to a few inches deep scattered across the sands as a result of the heavy rainfall. The reflections of the sand dunes and other vegetation in these ephemeral lakes was simply delightful.

Reflections in the shallow lakes produced by heavy rainfall across White Sands National Monument.
Reflections in the shallow lakes produced by heavy rainfall across White Sands National Monument.

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)Ā 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