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2020.05.26 On Thunderstorms and Parenthood

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Photography is a time-consuming passion. In order to get the best images, it requires patience, perseverance, and most of all an uncompromising drive to go out and get the shot no matter the time, weather, or circumstance. However, since the birth of my son this drive to photograph the unique and rare moments around me has been in direct conflict with my equally powerful drive to take care of my family. More often than not I just watch opportunities go by as I focus on paternal obligations. On this night though, a wonderful confluence of optimal circumstances occurred, and I finally forced myself to grab my camera and head out into a stormy night for my first impromptu photoshoot in what feels like an eternity.

I have completely lost count of how many photographic opportunities I have forced myself to ignore since my son was born. Either I don’t have my camera on me because I’m already holding too much gear for the kid, or the shot is off in a direction that is either too dangerous or too impractical to access with a child who is likely hungry, tired, or in need of a change. In the end, I just grit my teeth, stare longingly at the opportunity for a moment, and then move on with a strange, inescapable ache in my chest.

In keeping with this domestic acquiescence, on this particular night in mid-May I tried to continue working indoors on the nightly chore of washing the day’s dishes (which seem endless since Covid19 took over our lives as we are home every day for every meal), but brilliant flashes of electrostatic light stretched across my living room, chiding me to abandon my domestic burdens. I ignored this temptation long enough to finish my work, and then stood by the back window staring longingly into the looming darkness at the churning monolith slowly traversing the Houston bay. After an incredible spike of lightning split the sky and stabbed a forked tongue into the stratosphere, I finally gave in and prepared my equipment for a quick shoot in my backyard. A thick gust of warm, humid air hit my face as I abandoned the comfort of my home and walked out into the darkness of night with my ever-vigilant dog at my side. Both my wife and son were asleep, so now I only had the dog to worry about beyond the scope of my viewfinder.

I tried to appease my interest with a few shots of the largely obscured storm and a few of the stars momentarily visible between the shifting layers of clouds above my head. However, the suffocating pillars of undulating suburban roofs led to largely unsatisfactory images. To make matters worse, a swarm of mosquitos attacked me incessantly until I was forced to retreat back indoors.

I returned to my position behind the glass of my back windows, frustrated and itching from my unsuccessful attempt to experience the storm. I started to debate jumping in the car and heading to the nearby coast of the Houston Bay, but there was no telling how difficult the access would be and taking photos after midnight in random locations with expensive equipment can be dangerous and equally likely to get me in trouble with local police (given my previous experiences). Certainly, there was a better location that I could access without too much effort and risk. I mulled over the options until I finally decided to rapidly pack a few items into my camera bag, strap my tripod to the back, and head out on foot (mosquitos and the late hour notwithstanding) towards what seemed like the perfect lightning storm. After looking at the storm’s path on the Weather Channel’s Storm Radar app (my current favorite phone app for tracking Houston’s frequent storms), I surmised that I would have a decent view of the storm from a small bridge that spans one of the lakes in our area.

Click the arrows in the top right to enlarge image

Fortunately, given that it was nearly 1:00am, the area was largely devoid of other people and far fewer cars raced through the surrounding roads. I looked around the lake for a good place to sit and avoid the numerous points of light that threatened to overpower the shot. In the end, I decided to set up on the bank of grass along the side of the bridge which had a good view to the Southwest (roughly in the direction of the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Bay) where the storm currently raged.

The sound of the water splashing against the side of the bridge was calming, with the occasional spike of the fish feeding below. At first, I started with my old Nikkor manual focus (MF) 28mm f2.8 lens that I had previously used back at the house. When possible, I prefer my old MF lenses for night photography because they still have a hard stop at infinity. Too many AF lenses waste valuable time hunting for focus due to a lack of light (and therefore contrast which the AF system uses to determine focus). Most AF lenses still have a manual focus ring, but they don’t stop at infinity so finding focus manually can be extremely difficult which leads to poorly focused images and wasted opportunities.

Losing Infinity - I have discussed this issue somewhat on previous blog posts, but after further investigation it seems that the reason why modern lenses have lost the hard stop at infinity is not an artifact of the AF system alone, but other properties of modern lenses may also contribute. Modern lenses have incorporated fluorite elements to correct chromatic aberration (the result of a failure to focus all wavelengths of light to the same point) and reduce weight, but these elements are more susceptible to thermal expansion which requires more play in the AF range to compensate. In rare cases, lenses used primarily in scientific pursuits may also require a lens to focus beyond infinity to compensate for longer wavelengths in the infrared, but it’s not clear how many lenses (if any) in Nikon’s commercially available stock are modified for this reason.

I appreciated the breadth of the 28mm focal length that brought in the detail of the stars above the storm, and the rippled water below, but I didn’t feel that it was focused enough on the incredible lightning that was concentrated most often towards the center of the storm. Fortunately, I had packed one of my favorite lenses, the always amazing Nikkor 50mm f1.4. The 50mm prime is a modern AF lens, but the 1.4 aperture is fast enough, the front element large enough, and the lens barrel short enough, that sufficient light can reach the sensor to focus in many difficult lighting conditions where other lenses (particularly zoom lenses) would fail. I was much happier with the 50mm focal length and I proceeded to use it for the rest of the night.

A series of bolts from within provided a clear view of the sheer size of this massive storm

I began by extending the shutter speed to 20 seconds to give me more time between exposures to capture the lightning strikes that were still intermittent across a largely black sky. While this provided brighter images with more strikes per shot, it caused ghosting in the ripples of the cloud where subsequent strikes illuminated the interior of the cloud with enough delay to make movement obvious. The cloud formation was actually moving and circulating rather quickly even though it seemed largely stagnant to the naked eye. I decided to drop the exposure to 10 seconds, and modified the aperture and ISO accordingly to still get the exposure I was looking for. As usual for night photography, I used manual mode so I could have maximum control. While shutter and aperture priority modes are great for normal conditions, manual mode is always superior in difficult conditions where the exposure must be anticipated without a reference for the camera's internal exposure/light meter.

Vertical lightning branching up the top third of the storm

During the time I was observing the storm, numerous vertical strikes occurred. Some crawled up from the upper third of the storm to the undulating cap, while others struck out into the air surrounding the storm. While the over-simplified "positive on top, negative on bottom" diagrams for storm clouds are often propagated, large storms can have multiple regions of positive and negative strata. In addition, the air around the storm often holds a charge that can interact with the storm, in this case causing lightning bolts to jut out into the star-filled sky.

When chains of molecules line up to bridge the gap between any of the positive and negative regions (to include the air and the ground), a lightning bolt can occur. This storm had many different forms of lightning to include cloud to ground strikes, cloud to air, and intra-cloud spider lightning. There may have even been a strike over the water that neared that of a Superbolt (a massive release of upwards of a gigajoule of energy during multiple strikes along the same line), but I can't really say for certain. I am working on a video that includes the potential Superbolt, and it is pretty easy to identify which bolt repeatedly struck the same spot.

Intra-cloud branch lightning (click on the arrow for additional photos)

Occasionally, lightning would branch out from the center of the storm and extend across a considerable distance, sometimes from one side of the massive storm to the other covering many miles. It doesn't show up in photos, and is hard to see in the video, but small, almost imperceptible burst of glowing light would precede a branch as it rippled across the cloud.

It's impossible to anticipate lightning. The transition from building conditions to a strike is faster than any person can possibly react (though some people are trying to develop sensors). To circumvent this issue, longer exposure times and multiple exposures are required. With previous cameras, I sat patiently and pressed the shutter release for every shot, but with the advent of affordable intervalometers, I can set up the camera to repeatedly take photographs after I dial in the settings. The internal intervalometer on the D850 is quite good and easy to setup, and the silent mode is really great to limit sound and save wear on the shutter. I had momentarily considered putting together a time lapse this way, but after doing the mental math to calculate the frames required to create a video (usually 60 fps), and the time it would take to get all those frames if each frame took 10 seconds to shoot, it soon became abundantly clear that a time-lapse was unreasonable. While the time-lapse wasn't going to be useful, the individual shots were and I appreciated the efficiency at which the interval setup took each one. After a few minutes, I felt confident that I had enough photos from which to pick the best ones. As I reviewed photos on the back of the camera, the strikes became so frequent that I decided a video would expose different aspects of the storm.

I have dabbled in video work before, but I don't have any real experience with it. I set up the videos with the options that seemed viable at the time, and hoped for the best. Unfortunately this means that I didn't get the best possible source material, and subsequently spent a lot of time in post working on rectifying the footage. In addition, this was my first time using Final Cut Pro, so I had to spend hours just learning about the program. In short, this comparatively small event took me much longer to complete than other, much larger projects so the videos will follow in a subsequent post.

I had just enough battery life for about 9 minutes of video before my battery finally died after hours of shooting. I considered getting another battery out and continuing, but it was well after 2am, and I had plenty of shots to work with (post-processing often being the longer, more arduous part of a shoot). I packed up my gear and began the short walk back to my house. As I headed down the quiet, abandoned streets, the rising moon greeted me in the West as it ascended slowly in the sky.

Incredible intra-cloud lightning traversed the storm down to a massive ground strike

Even with some of the largest and brightest strikes of lightning, I never heard a single sound from this storm. From my position on the West side of the Houston Ship Channel, the storm was easily 12 miles away as it slowly moved East out to sea. While the photons emitted from the brilliant lightning strikes easily traversed the distance to my location, the sound waves from the thunder were slowly absorbed by the air, water, and land over the great distance such that the storm raged as a silent monolith along the Eastern horizon. With or without sound though, even at this great distance, the size of the storm in the sky was a testament to just how large and powerful the storm was.

In the end, I am glad that I finally took the time to get out and shoot again. The storm was well worth the experience alone, but having the chance to capture it as well made the night all the more enjoyable and rewarding. If I had one regret though, I wish I had risked traveling to the shore of the bay to capture the storm over open water. In my favorite shot above, the entire storm was filled with lightning, concluding with a massive bolt striking the Earth. I can only imagine how incredible it must have looked over the undulating reflections of the ocean's surface. Oh well, baby steps I suppose. This is Houston after all, so there will always be more storms to chase.

© 2017-2020 Shaun C Tarpley

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Shaun C Tarpley
Shaun C Tarpley
Jul 31, 2020

Thanks Brian! I agree, I am much happier with the storms I can see from afar, compared to the ones that hit us head on. I’ve gone through a few big storms in passenger aircraft, and that was a wild ride. I can’t imagine trying to fly through or around one in a small aircraft. However, I’ve been on the sea in a few tropical storms with the Coast Guard, and that’s a completely different kind of crazy.


Brian Wells
Brian Wells
Jul 26, 2020

Shaun, these are incredible! I've had to dodge storms like these, and I can tell you, "tis better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than the other way around." Thunderstorms are majestic when looking at them from where you saw them and how you shot them. Definitely not so much if you happen to be up close and personal with them.


Shaun C Tarpley
Shaun C Tarpley
Jul 23, 2020

Thanks for the kind comment Jose! You'll have to tell me more about your job sometime, it sounds very interesting.


Jose Aviles
Jose Aviles
Jul 22, 2020

As a someone who works briefing pilots about weather phenomena, I'm always fascinated with how powerful Thunderstorms are. Silent mass of energy. Great photos and read.

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