Thunderstorm over the Central Valley, CA, USA

Thunderstorm over the Central Valley, California. I blended a series of frames, taken over the course of about 40 minutes, to create this image. Each frame was 20 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 400, and the focal length was 50mm.

Last Wednesday subtropical moisture pushed up from Mexico into California, triggering thunderstorms in parts of the state that rarely see them.

I kept my eye on these storms, but more out of curiosity than with any particular photographic ambitions. That night, as Claudia and I got into the hot tub on our deck (a nightly ritual), we could see an almost continuous series of distant lightning flashes to the southwest. This got me thinking about where I could find a view of this thunderstorm. We got out of the tub, and I took a close look at radar images. One thunderstorm south of Merced looked to be dissipating. But another cluster of cells over Fresno and Madera seemed to be strengthening and moving north, towards us.

I hemmed and hawed a bit. Did I really want to go out in the middle of the night chasing thunderstorms? What if they dissipated before I could photograph them?

Eventually I decided to go for it, and headed toward a hillside that I thought would provide a view to the southwest. During the drive I could still see lots of flashes in the distance, but no distinct bolts, which made me wonder if the thunderstorms were only producing cloud-to-cloud lightning, rather than the more photogenic cloud-to-ground strikes. But when I got to my chosen location I had a clear view toward one of the thunderstorms, and noticed some cloud-to-ground bolts almost right away.

I set up my camera, deciding to compose a semi-wide view with a 50mm lens. I wanted to include some sky, and also leave enough room to capture a series of lightning bolts as the storm rolled across the Central Valley.

The camera stayed locked on a tripod as I captured a continuous series of 20-second exposures. In most of those frames nothing much happened. But some of those exposures captured lightning bolts. Later I blended the frames that had lightning bolts in Photoshop (using the Lighten blending mode), to create the composite image shown here. The final image is a blend of 13 frames, taken over a period of about 40 minutes, as the thunderstorm moved from left to right (south to north) through the frame.

In that sense it’s not a traditional photograph that captures one moment of time. I’m a big believer in the power of traditional photography that does show one moment in time – a moment that really happened – in a realistic way. The vast majority of my photographs are like that.

In this case, however, I wanted to make a single image that tried to convey what it was like to watch an event (a thunderstorm) unfold over a period of time. I could have used one long time exposure, but that has some practical disadvantages, including increased noise, plus the clouds would have blurred into an amorphous blob with no definition. By blending a series of shorter exposures I could create an image that more accurately conveyed what this scene looked like, and felt like, as I stood and watched this thunderstorm move across the valley. And since the camera wasn’t moved, everything in the final image appeared exactly as shown – just not all at the same time.

The thunderstorm gradually dissipated as I watched. At first, cloud-to-ground strikes were fairly frequent. They became less frequent, and after about 15 minutes stopped altogether, leaving only sporadic cloud-to-cloud lightning. Since the storm was moving from my left to right (south to north), I had composed the scene so that the initial lightning strikes were on the left side of the frame, anticipating that as the storm moved to the right more bolts would fill in the right side. Once the cloud-to-ground strikes stopped, I was a bit concerned that the final photograph would be unbalanced. But luckily some of the cloud-to-cloud bolts were vivid, and formed interesting designs to boot, filling in the space on the right side quite well.

I’m glad I overcame my inertia and headed out into the night. I ended up making a photo I like, which is always nice, but better yet, I got to see a spectacular light show. Watching lightning from a safe distance rivals any fireworks display.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Lightning Storm at Mono Lake; Lightning Over the Central Valley

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.