Chris Hensel, a TOP reader and wedding photographer from southeastern Pennsylvania, had questions about Olivier Morin's "Lightning Bolt" photograph that we discussed the other day. How, Chris wondered, could there be two separate photos with the same lightning bolt in each? He superimposed small versions of the photos:
Olivier said that he got four photos with the lightning in the sky, all from the same camera, his fifth remote unit. I tried to do some research on the duration of lightning strikes, but didn't come up with much.
To answer the question, I turned to an old friend-I've-never-met, stormchaser and weather photography expert Jim Reed. Jim explains that although lightning strikes are of very short duration, there can be several "restrikes" along the same path, causing the lighting to flicker in the sky:
In my experience, most negative lightning strikes (the most common) last just a matter of milliseconds. Personally I have photographed cloud-to-ground lightning bolts which have featured three or four "re-strikes." In person, you see the same bolt striking several times in the very same spot. A high speed camera wasn't needed. When I edited the photos, I could see the four re-strikes on each successive frame. The re-strikes I've witnessed were between 35 and 50 milliseconds apart.
This is in accordance with my personal observation of lightning—maybe yours too? It most likely explains what Olivier Morin's camera captured in Moscow.
If you're interested in more, Jim has written tips about how to photograph lightning on Nikon's "Learn & Explore" site, where he also talks about the different colors and types of lightning. (Note that stormchasing and lightning photography is potentially very dangerous; please take Jim's precautions seriously.)
And here's Jim's website of photographs of severe and unusual weather.
(Thanks to Chris Hensel and Jim Reed)
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Featured Comments from:
Bert: "If the air isn't moving much, i.e. there are no strong winds to blow away the ionized channel formed by the first strike, the bolt can repeat itself for quite a long time. The interval between strikes depends mostly on the nature of the ground below—the lower the resistance, the faster your flash recycles! (Yes, the clouds and the ground form a huge capacitor, very much like the one in your flash unit.)"
Ed Hawco: "In my limited and unscientific experience, a bolt of lightning can last longer than milliseconds (or perhaps I'm just seeing re-strikes). Case in point: one night my sweetie and I were driving home after dinner during a spectacular lightning storm. We parked the car to watch the show and we each got out our cell phones. We ended up shooting the exact same bolt of lightning. Considering the kind of lag that 2006-era cell phone cameras had, this zap had to last long enough for us both to realize 'OK, there's a bolt of lightning,' then push the button, then the camera had to engage and take the shot. Doesn't seem like something you can do for an event that takes a few milliseconds. You can see the result here. You can see by the pattern that it is, indeed, the same bolt of lightning captured by both cameras. If nothing else, it demonstrates just how spectacularly bad the camera on the Motorola v710 was."
Drew Medlin: "As a lightning photographer myself, I can also confirm it is possible to have the same bolt appear in more than one photo if the lightning has a more than one return stroke, just as Mr. Reed describes."