Ten years ago, I set out on an effort to photograph thunderstorms in Washington, D.C. At the time, I didn’t understand photography and I didn’t know many of the locations of Washington’s scenic views. Still, I wasn’t too concerned. I thought my task would be simple. I was wrong.
My initial motivation to photograph thunderstorms was to gain content for the weather books that I was publishing at the time. Licensing photos for my books was quite expensive and I wanted to supplement the book’s photos with my own work, to save a little money.
After my first year of trying to photograph storms, the results were poor-to-non-existent. I only knew the auto-mode of my camera, and I aborted all of my nighttime storm chases - venturing outside into the darkness with lightning flashing in the sky and thunder growing louder by the minute just didn’t feel right.
Keep reading for the rest of the story and to see more storm photos.
I remembered the advice my high school cross country coach gave me when I joined the team. He said, “The toughest part of each run is taking the first step out the front door. If you can just get yourself out the front door, you’ll be fine.”
When I first started running, it didn’t feel right. Later, running became comfortable and fun. I hoped that the same would happen with thunderstorm photography. I needed a plan to get out the front door for a storm chase.
I started by rehearsing storm chases, literally going on dry runs into Washington. I practiced where to drive, where to park, and where to shoot. I also practiced taking photographs of the monuments at night, and in the process, I learned how to use my camera’s manual settings for timed exposures.
During the next summer, when the first thunderstorm developed, the plan was automatic, it was routine. It still felt uncomfortable driving out into the darkness with lightning in the sky, but I knew what to do.
The first two chases that summer were busts. I followed my plan but the thunderstorms did not cooperate. The storms fizzled or changed directions before reaching Washington. That happens a lot with thunderstorms in our area, it’s the D.C. split.
On my third chase, I scored. I photographed lightning with the Washington Monument. I was parked on Constitution Avenue, the lightning strike occurred to the south, and I captured it on my camera, aligned nicely to the west of the monument. It was exciting, like catching a big fish. Storm chasing has always reminded me of fishing. You wait for the strike and then hope you can capture it.
Over time, I realized that I needed a pretty big head start if I wanted to photograph storms in Washington. I live in western Fairfax County and the traffic into D.C. can be quite slow. Thunderstorms often move between 30 to 50 mph and I needed at least a 30 minute head start. Watching the weather radar loops and reading Capital Weather Gang helps me plan my photo trips.
With each year of storm chasing, my photography improved and I grew more comfortable and confident in my pursuit. Within several years, photography became my primary passion and publishing books took a distant second. It became routine to hit the road to pursue a storm.
Looking back over the years, I have had some really good chases and many more bad chases, even a few nightmarish chases. On the good days, I was treated to a beautiful light show in the sky, better than the finest fireworks display on the Mall.
There were times when thunderstorm clouds glowed red and yellow at sunset, filling the sky with vibrant colors above Washington. On the bad days, however, I was soaked by rain, pounded by hail, and delayed in traffic on flooded roads, often without a single photograph to show for my effort. I never knew what to expect on any given storm chase. Working with a storm as a subject can be quite tricky and unpredictable.
Ultimately, I persevered and 10 years, I have put together a unique collection of Washington images with thunderstorms, rainbows and lightning. I can’t include all of my favorite photos in this post, but below are some examples from the past 10 years of storm chasing in Washington, accompanied with a few storm stories.
It has been a wild ride. I hope the next 10 years will be as fun and rewarding.
The Jefferson Memorial is my favorite Washington landmark for photography. I had already started to write this article when I captured the above photo. It was a nice way to conclude 10 years of thunderstorm photography in Washington.
I don’t often try to photograph lightning with both the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool because it requires that I’m out in the open with an approaching thunderstorm. It’s a judgment call when to run for cover. I do take lightning safety very seriously, despite the appearance of some of these photos. There is a section on lightning safety below in this article.
Lightning has 360 degrees of horizon to strike and to photograph a set of lightning bolts aligned with the monuments, like a Fourth of July fireworks display, takes a bit of luck. This particular storm gave me 34 lightning photos in one evening. With 34 lightning strikes, the odds that a set of bolts will align with the monuments greatly improves. A photo showing all of the lightning bolts stacked in one image is displayed below in this article.
I never saw the lightning bolt strike the Washington Monument. I was looking away at that moment, talking to some tourists, but the associated light flash and instantaneous thunder were quite startling to everyone in the Jefferson Memorial. Before the strike, the lightning and thunder had been very distant, over Maryland and well north of Washington.
Luckily, I had started a timed exposure with my camera a few seconds before the lightning strike occurred. I was pleasantly surprised when the image above appeared on my camera’s LCD display. The tourists around me were equally surprised to see the photo displayed on my camera, and it was the topic of conversation for a few minutes.
Within 10 minutes, the thunderstorm moved into Washington, accompanied by heavy rain and several more close lightning strikes. The bolt that hit the monument had jumped ahead of the thunderstorm, which is always a worry when photographing storms.
Note, I often crop out the guy, in the lower foreground, who is trying to duck under my camera. The top of his bald head is reflecting the lightning flash. I included the uncropped version of the photo in this article to show the entire scene. By the way, this may be the only photograph ever taken of lightning striking an object while reflecting off of someone’s bald head. I suppose that makes it a unique photo.
Check out how three lightning bolts in the sky converge into a single bolt before striking the ground. Lightning usually forks in the opposite direction. The storm that generated this lighting bolt was many miles away, over Prince George’s County. The bolt traveled across the sky, over Washington, and struck the ground north of the city.
I believe that this is positive lightning, which travels many miles from the top of a thunderstorm cloud and carries a much higher charge than the more common negative lightning. Positive lightning makes up less than 5% of all lightning strikes. Compared to negative lighting, positive lightning has a much longer flash duration and its voltage can be 10 times greater, as much as 1 billion volts!
Washington’s most famous lightning rod, the Washington Monument, is missed by lightning strikes far more often than it is struck. The lightning bolt in the upper left photo of the photo collage struck just behind the Washington Monument, several hundred yards away, and the thunder was absolutely explosive. I photographed the lightning from inside of a truck to stay safe. The storm occurred on August 27, 2003.
During the same storm, a photographer from the Washington Post pulled up in a van and parked not far from my truck. He arrived late in the storm and missed the close lightning strikes. He did take at least one lightning photo and his storm shot appeared in the Washington Post the following day. Here’s a link to the photo.
This view of Washington was created by stacking 34 lightning photos which contained 42 lightning bolts into a single image. I photographed the storm from Rosslyn and this image represents 48 minutes of lightning strikes, from 9:13 to 10:01 p.m.
I spent four years trying to photograph cloud-to-ground lightning at this vantage point at the Netherlands Carillon. This particular storm gave me 34 lightning photos in one evening. The old expression, feast or famine, definitely applies to storm chasing and storm photography.
Everything worked out perfectly on the evening of August 25, 2007. There was no traffic, I found a parking spot next to the Lincoln Memorial, and the lightning show was terrific. What made this storm chase especially cool was that I was surrounded by a large group of people at the Lincoln Memorial who cheered loudly after each lightning strike. The crowd’s energy level was high. Everyone knew they were getting treated to a beautiful and unscheduled fireworks display over the Mall and they definitely appreciated the show.
On a couple of other storm chases, I was surrounded by kids on field trips while I photographed thunderstorms from inside the Jefferson Memorial. My typical photo shoot became a classroom-type lecture on both weather and photography, their teachers allowing the kids to watch and listen while they waited for the storm to pass.
The kids would cheer if I photographed a lightning bolt and they would crowd around the tripod to check out the lightning bolt on the camera’s display. The kids would also boo or laugh if I missed photographing a lightning bolt. Their questions were non-stop. I didn’t get an exceptional photo during those two photo shoots with the kids, but it was the experience of the shoot, not the results, that makes these storm chases memorable.
I’ve had so many bad storm chases it’s hard to pick the worst. One chase this past summer comes to mind when I spent over three hours in traffic, mostly caused by a combination of road closures and road construction. I never once touched the camera that evening and I arrived home exhausted.
Overall, the bad storm chases fall into two main categories: 1) Stuck in traffic, often with heavy rain; and 2) Standing at the Tidal Basin, getting bitten by mosquitoes, looking up at a clear sky wondering what happened to the storm. I’m not quite sure which scenario is worse.
Thunderstorms often stall, fizzle, or just turn into heavy rain producers, usually after I’ve committed to a storm chase. There are few guarantees that a beautiful bolt of lighting or a majestic storm cloud will present itself next to a monument while I’m out photographing. The easy storm photograph usually doesn’t happen which makes the times that I do capture “the shot” especially rewarding.
During the summer of 2003, I had a really cool arrangement with the Park Police. They let me use a reserved parking space near the Washington Monument so I could photograph lightning from inside my truck. I would call ahead on my cell phone before a thunderstorm and they would check on me during the storm. After the storm, the officers would stop by to look at my photos and we would spend a few minutes chatting about the weather.
On the evening of August 16, I was at the Washington Monument trying to photograph lightning but the storm was staying to my west, behind the view of my camera. A Park Police officer stopped by to check on my photo shoot. I complained that the storm was staying behind me and that I didn’t want to walk across the hill during a thunderstorm to photograph in the opposite direction.
Without hesitation, the officer told me, “Hop in, I’ll take you to the other side of the monument and you can shoot from my back seat.” I jumped in the police car and we sped across the grass to the other side of the Washington Monument. I set up a tripod on the car’s back seat, the officer rolled down the back window, and I aimed the camera upward at the monument. I started taking timed exposures and within a few moments, I photographed cloud-to-cloud lightning. I only got one lightning photo from the police car and it is one of my favorite storm photos, just because of the unusual circumstances of the photo shoot.
I’ve only had one storm chase in Washington where I was surrounded by many other photographers. It was early in the spring, on April 3, 2006, and the cherry blossoms were at peak bloom. A strong line of thunderstorms was rapidly sweeping across Northern Virginia, heading directly toward D.C. I arrived at the Tidal Basin during the late afternoon, not to photograph the cherry blossoms, but to shoot the approaching thunderstorm.
As the shelf cloud from the thunderstorm became visible, and the sunlight dimmed from increasing clouds, most photographers packed up their gear and hustled away.
I think I was the only photographer actively trying to shoot the approaching storm. I photographed the storm until it was close, then I took cover in the Jefferson Memorial. I captured some photographs of the thunderstorm with its shelf cloud and scored two lightning photos. I also took a few blossom photos since I had already made the trip.
One of my biggest regrets over the past 10 years of storm chasing in Washington is that I haven’t photographed the antics and actions of people during the storms. Thunderstorms bring out some interesting behavior in people, and in Washington, you’re always surrounded by people.
The most interesting, and stupid, event during a storm chase happened at the Jefferson Memorial during a thunderstorm. A group of college-aged women ran out into the storm, at its peak fury, and proceeded to do a dance in the pouring rain for everyone to watch. After a minute, they ran back up the steps into the Jefferson, completely soaked, but laughing uncontrollably. The crowd in the Jefferson gave the girls a short round of applause. Unfortunately, I never took my camera off of the sky to photograph the dance in the storm.
Another time, an entire class of kids who were on field trip to Washington were walking around the Tidal Basin with their teachers as a storm approached. Every time that lightning flashed on the horizon the entire class would scream loudly and act up. The teachers were trying to hurry the kids back to their bus but were having a hard time controlling the class. It was mostly just silly behavior, induced by the distant lightning, but it was humorous to watch.
I take lightning safety very seriously and I try not to push my luck. That said, lightning is one of three concerns that I have when photographing thunderstorms in Washington. Below are my top three concerns while on a thunderstorm shoot:
1) Auto accidents - I have seen a number of serious crashes that were most likely storm-related. On my last chase this past September, a small pond of water had collected in the right lane of I-66 and a taxi had hydroplaned into a retaining wall, at a high rate of speed. It looked bad.
2) Assaults - I have never been assaulted, but I have had two incidents over the past 10 years that were worrisome. The first incident occurred when creepy guy emerged from out of the shadows at the Netherlands Carillon and would not leave me alone. He acted very strange and would not answer my questions or acknowledge my commands to back away. I thought it was best to leave. The second incident occurred late in the evening at the Reflecting Pool, when an intoxicated guy relentlessly harassed me while I was trying to photograph distant lightning. In that case, I didn’t leave and he finally tired and wandered away.
3) Lightning - Lightning safety is always a concern, of course. I take cover during storms and I only shoot from a car or a building when lightning is near. After the storm moves away, it’s a judgment call when to emerge to photograph out in the open. A safe rule to follow with lightning is that if you hear thunder, take cover. Also, avoid open areas and standing near tall, isolated trees.
One day, I’d like to put together a book with my thunderstorm photos and stories, possibly including my winter storm photos too. It’s a long-range project, there is nothing in the works yet. For now, I’ll just keep on photographing and adding to the collection.
A gallery of storm photos from this post, plus more, can be viewed at: http://www.washingtonprints.com/TenYears/index.htm.