On the evening of August 25, 2007, I photographed 20 lightning bolts over the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument. By stacking all 20 photographs into a single exposure, the storm’s lightning output and distribution can be viewed (left panel). The right panel shows some of the individual lightning photographs that went into building the lightning stack. The brightest pixels from each lightning photo are used to form a single composite image. The resulting image is usually brighter and more vibrant than any of the contributing photos.
Stacking lightning photos is becoming a popular technique for lightning and storm photographers. Lightning stacks can be easily created with Adobe Photoshop and other imaging software, provided that the camera’s zoom ratio and the tripod position remains fixed during the lightning photo shoot.
Each individual lightning photo becomes a layer within a lightning stack and the brightest pixels from each layer are moved to the top of the stack. This process forms a composite image of the storm that includes all of the lightning bolts and the brightest areas of the sky. The resulting image is usually brighter and more vibrant than any of the contributing photos. Some blending is often necessary to smooth out any sharp edges or bubbles of bright pixels.
Read below for more explanation and to see more photos.
This view of the Washington skyline was created by stacking 34 lightning photos which contained 42 lightning bolts into a single image. I photographed the storm from Rossyln on the evening of July 11, 2011. The composite thunderstorm view represents 48 minutes of lightning strikes, from 9:13 to 10:01 p.m.
I’ve seen lightning stacks on the Internet for the past few years, often from storms in the western U.S., but I never tried to do a lightning stack with my own lightning photos of Washington. Part of the reason I never attempted lightning stacking was that I did not know the process. It looked complex.
Several weeks ago I Googled lightning stacking and read the various explanations and tutorials. I learned that stacking lightning is quite easy with Photoshop. Each lightning photo becomes a layer within a Photoshop stack of images. Each layer of the stack has the “lighten” menu option selected. Instantly, within Photoshop, an image appears with all the lighting bolts displayed.
OK, it’s easy if you know how to use Photoshop, but regardless, it’s not a lot of work.
I was quite pleased with the results. The lightning stacks not only look cool and surreal, they also show the lightning output and lightning distribution of the thunderstorm. It tells the story of the storm in one image.
The photos in this post can be viewed in a larger size at this gallery.
This lightning panorama of the Tidal Basin was created with seven lightning photographs, stacked and stitched into a single image. The panorama represents 14 minutes of lightning strikes on the evening of September 28, 2011, from 8:53 to 9:07 PM. The top four photos were the major contributors to this panorama. Panoramas can be created with Adobe Photoshop and other imaging software, provided that the photos are overlapped and the zoom ratio and the tripod position remain fixed during the photo shoot.
Notice how this panorama differs from the first panorama above. It’s the same storm that occurred on September 28, 2011. Very bright lightning bolts tend to wash out the more distant, dimmer lightning bolts when stacking. By leaving out the brightest lightning bolts, the stacked panorama has a different appearance and color, and the more distant lightning bolts can be displayed in the panorama. This image of the Tidal Basin was created with eight lightning photographs. The top four photos were the major contributors to this panorama.
On August 27, 2003, I captured 15 lightning photographs of the Washington Monument. The first five lightning strikes were very close and very bright. If I were to create a single stack, you would only see 5 of the 15 bolts in the stacked image because they were so bright. I split the stackinto two to show the storm’s first five lightning bolts (left) and the storm’s last 10 lightning bolts (right). The photos along the top are six of the 15 photos that were used to build both lightning stacks.
Here is a collage of lightning photos from my past ten years of storm chasing Washington. This is a stack of lightning bolts the old fashioned way, photos side-by-side. Note, the photo in the upper right corner of the collage was my first ever lightning photo of Washington, taken ten summers ago from Constitution Avenue.