July 31, 2006 Local Lightning

I was sitting at home working on a few more wallpaper images when I hear a low pitched noise that sounded like it just might have been thunder. I then hear more of it so I pull up radar and see the extremely tiny returns in the area. I looked out the window and couldn't see a single flash. I tried to blow them off but their constant rumblings got the better of me.

I grabbed the cam and flew out the door. Not long into the drive I get into some sprinkles..."yay". I decide to try the river scene again. Right when I get down there a close bolt hits to my south. Then the sprinkles quickly turn to rain. Determined to get a close bolt with the bridge in the shot I figure out a way to shoot from inside the car and not get the cam all wet. All I ever use is my window clamp mount, but that does no good in any sprinkles, let alone rain. I grab my tripod and extend two of the legs. One I put in the tray in the bottom of the driver's side door. The other I put back behind the seat a bit. The third, shorter one would sit on the seat with me. Well the problem was there was a strong southerly wind all day and it was still going strong. The shot was to the south so this wasn't working as well as I hoped, but it was close enough. So I sit there and get wet, on and on. It wasn't working out. One problem was during the heavier rain(it was never really heavy, but it was rain) the splashing on my window frame was getting on my lens(which just added to the occasional ones I was getting with the stronger gusts of wind). So I figure out if I lay my arm right there they won't splash as much, and they didn't. I still managed no bolts during a good 30 minutes of trying and getting wet for it.

Frustrated with the south option I go for the north one. I could see a much more active area to the wnw, but it was just too far away yet and not moving much. So after giving it a some time to move into the shot, and it not doing so, I drive to the other side of town.

This is the water tower on the northwest side of Blair. One day I should actually read those things and learn what all that stuff up there is about. I think the name of the park is Black Elk-Neihardt Park. Here is what I found with a brief search, "Located in the Black Elk-Neihardt Park, the 44-foot tower stands as a living memorial to John G. Neihardt, Poet Laureate of Nebraska."

Anyway, while driving up the hill to get there I remember thinking to myself, this is not going to be one of those persistence pays off nights. I actually laughed about it for some reason and really did not expect much. There was a good deal of flashes off to the west and northwest but for whatever reason I didn't think I'd manage much from any of it since the dome and trees block off the view so much. I liked the very clear skies and stars along with the lower clouds that were being slightly lit up from Omaha lights. I figured the scene would look cool in a longer exposure and sure enough. My hopes of getting something were now shooting upward as the storms would only add to the scene once they moved a bit more east.

Off to the right side of the above image you can see some illumination from lightning within an updraft over there. There is one green parking lot light up there, well to the east of this grassy area. Still, with the longer exposures this grass area would really stand out. In reality this grass area almost looks as dark as the shadow area on the left side. The trees are rather blurry from the longer exposure as well. And finally, the clouds are colored from the city lights to the south(Omaha). The night sky can be fun to shoot around larger cities for this reason. They were a more red color further to the west, not so much over Omaha. Right over they city they would show up largely yellow. Lightning in clouds can of course change this appearance some.

Not only does the longer exposure brighten things up and saturate the night sky, it also shows the motion. The thing on the left is a tree. The brighter white on the horizon near those trees is coming from another storm to the west.

I really need to get back up here on a cold stary night and do some very long exposures for star trails. I only wonder if I'll be able to keep that dome and cross area in check. I'll probably have to do several shorter exposures and stack them. Something tells me that after a 30+ minute exposure the whole shot will be blown out thanks to that parking lot light.

My western storm is slowly getting closer. These storms this night were pathetic on radar. It is often these pathetic storms that provide the best night photography. They tend to not have so much anvil blow off, leaving you a much more interesting sky. This was almost a 4 minute exposure. If you shoot the stars much you can almost guess just by their length. The shot before this one was 2 minutes and you can see they've trailed a fair amount, while these are twice as long.

Earlier I called Bob Matzen, another chaser from Blair, and got no answer. I decided to try him again as the ops looked worthy of going out and shooting them. I get through and he quickly decides to come up and try some shots as well. The above shot is still up at the park but is now looking south towards Omaha.

The color was largely yellow when pointing directly towards Omaha, but areas with incloud lightning would give off more of a red or purple hue(more red usually when it was off to the right/west where that was the normal sky illumination). The saturation was rather dependant upon exposure length. These longer ones would really show off the night sky, while the later ones really wouldn't. The difference was strictly lightning frequency. Right now I had to leave it open longer to get any bolts. Later it picked up a bit and I wound up with much shorter exposure lengths. For the newbies wanting to shoot lightning, just remember exposing the bolt has nothing to do with shutter length. But, if you get too many in one exposure it can blow out areas. For the most part though shutter length means nothing to lightning. ISO speed and aperture are the only things you need to worry about. If they are very close bolts you'll likely want to stop that aperture down. ISO 100 will usually work in all cases, but there are times even at wide open apertures you might still need to up the ISO.

For the next hour or so we shot this scene. The activity was very spotty at times and could be quite frustrating. I think I let this one go for 4 minutes.

Notice some of the coloring gone from the clouds. I'm sure some of that is due to rain blocking the city lights, but just as much or more of it has to do with the fact this was only 22 seconds now. I've also stopped down from F7.1 to F9.

About this time Bob notes how the bolts are no longer originating within the frame. They are now close enough that they are starting up out of the shot. I think it is safe to say we're both chicken when it comes to lightning--I most certainly am(in regards to standing outside in it at all). Concerns begin to come up around this time, but they were still well off and I was really not too worried. If I'm not worried then no one should be(I'll be the first to be concerned...ask anyone I've chased with).

It was 101 degrees out earlier and it was still quite hot, but we had good southerly winds making it tolerable. Well we're sitting there shooting away when all the sudden our strong winds vanish. It was now dead calm and hot. I couldn't figure out why the hell the winds would stop like that, other than maybe a shower passing in front of them to the south. Perhaps that is why, I'm not sure. About this same time it starts to sprinkle lightly, but all is good as we're under some trees. We had to go over to them as they'd be in the way if we didn't. Not just that but the parking lot lights were lighting up the grass too much behind them.

The light sprinkle slowly increases, but we remain dry under the leaves. I wondered about the tower that was surely above us causing these sprinkles, but said, "I'm sure we're fine as whatever is above us would certainly give us a warning bolt to let us know it was now active."

It wasn't long after this shot when a very bright flash is seen from above. The second I saw this I said, "Yeah maybe we should leave." Then as soon as I finish saying that, BOOOOOOM. The thunder from the bolt was only 1-2 seconds away. I think it's 5 seconds per mile for the speed sound travels, so 1 second would be 1/5 a mile. That was the warning shot from whatever was sprinkling on us. I almost had my camera and tripod in hand before the boom and was in my car in a flash.

After the close cg scare the storm began raining fairly good, so the ops were done--well almost. It was now after 4 a.m. anyway so I figured I may as well try a few more shots if I could(I was ready and willing to stay up till sunrise at this point). I drove back down to the river and did the whole "get wet" thing again. It was raining as well as being pretty inactive again. I again was having no luck at getting a close bolt with the bridge, or even a distant bolt and the bridge. Finally I get this one.

Then I get lucky and get another. When I did the shots in the rain I was actually hoping a bolt would hit the bridge and thought it was possible, but I'd just have to get wet to actually get it. I guess this bolt will work for now.

Several trains went by during the time I was down there and yet not once could I get the train and a bolt.

It is now just about sunrise. You can see the twilight effect to the clouds now. It was quickly becoming harder and harder to get bolts to even show up.

Outside the times I was trying to shoot in the rain this was a very enjoyable outing. It's hard to beat having lightning all around you from storms that are barely moving and having really no anvil precip the whole time--for several hours. I went out around midnight, shot lightning till 6 a.m. and never once left town.