The kindling of my lightning photography obsession – 10 years ago today

A lightning bolt strikes the ground near the Washington Monument, August 27, 2003. (Kevin Ambrose)

A lightning bolt strikes the ground near the Washington Monument, August 27, 2003. (Kevin Ambrose)

It was the evening of August 27, 2003 and a line of severe thunderstorms was approaching Washington, D.C. from the northwest at about 50 mph.  The storms were located west of Leesburg, Virginia and I had less than hour to drive from my home in Oakton, Virginia to downtown D.C., to position myself for a storm photo shoot.

I quickly loaded my F150 pickup with camera gear and a tripod.  Within minutes, I was on I-66 headed east.  Traffic moved at 55 mph as I approached I-495.

I had previously made arrangements with a few officers from the U.S. Park Police to use a reserved parking space next to the Washington Monument for my storm photography.
I had made a dry run two weeks earlier and I had practiced shooting from from inside my truck, out the passenger’s window, with a close-up view of the Washington Monument.

This is a map showing the approximate location where I parked and where lightning struck in the photo above.  (Google)

This is a map showing the approximate location where I parked and where lightning struck in the photo above. (Google)

Traffic on I-66 came to stop west of the Dulles Toll Road, less than mile from where the two highways merge together.  I picked up my cell phone and called one of the officers of the US Park Police to let her know a storm was approaching and I was planning to use the reserved parking spot for a photo shoot.  She said it was OK and that she would stop by after the storm to see if I took any good photos.

Traffic moved extremely slowly on I-66 headed east, even after the toll road.  I could see the storm approaching from the west.  Lightning became visible and thunder was audible.  If the traffic didn’t break soon, the storm would hit while I was still on the highway.

Unfortunately, the traffic didn’t break.  As I crawled east through Arlington frequent lightning was visible just to my north.  Large rain drops began to slap my driver’s side window.  I feared that I would miss photographing the storm because I was stuck in traffic.

Here are a few lightning photos from the thunderstorm of August 27, 2003.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Here are a few lightning photos from the thunderstorm of August 27, 2003. (Kevin Ambrose)

As the traffic inched across the Roosevelt Bridge over the Potomac River, the storm hit in full fury.  My truck swayed back and forth as the wind gusted to near 50 mph.  Rain and pea-sized hail fell in blinding sheets and lightning seemed to strike every few seconds.  Despite the terrible driving conditions, the traffic never stopped moving and in a few minutes I was driving on Constitution Avenue in the heavy storm.

I was very happy that I had made a dry run because I knew exactly where to drive, where to park, and how to set up the tripod inside the truck for the photo shoot.  Even with the blinding storm conditions, I knew my plan should work.

The wind was blowing hard from the northwest and heavy rain was falling when I pulled into the reserved parking spot next to the Washington Monument.  I was facing south so when I rolled down the passenger window for the photo shoot, rain did not fall into the truck and onto my camera gear.

A photographer from the Washington Post parked next to me during the storm and took this photo from his van.  This shot made the paper the following day.  (Washington Post)

A photographer from the Washington Post parked next to me during the storm and took this photo from his van. This lightning shot was printed in the Washington Post newspaper the following day. (Washington Post)

Within a minute of arriving, I was shooting photos out of my passenger’s window.  I was sitting in the driver’s seat and my tripod was balanced on the passenger’s seat.  Lightning was flashing across the sky every few seconds as I recorded the storm scenes with my digital camera.

A dramatic bolt of lightning struck almost directly behind the Washington Monument.  In less than a second, the sound of thunder was absolutely explosive.  I quickly checked my camera and I had successfully captured the image.  Recording that lightning bolt made the frustrating drive into Washington worth the effort.  The lightning photo is displayed at the top of this post.

After the storm, several U.S. Park Police officers stopped by to check out my photos.  The officer that I had called when I was stuck in traffic said she had left here police cruiser during the storm to direct traffic on a flooded stretch of 15th Street.  She said the lightning bolt struck next to her and it was absolutely terrifying.  She said that she wanted a copy of the photo.  I later emailed her the image file.

At Reagan National Airport, the storm produced a wind gust of 47 mph and .56 inches of rain fell during the storm.

The thunderstorm that August day in 2003 helped to fuel my interest in photography and ten years later I’m still driving around D.C. shooting weather and storm scenes.  Unfortunately, the parking lot next to the Washington Monument where the photos in this post were taken does not exist today but I have found many other locations for my storm photography.  Most of my storm and weather photo shoots are now recorded on this blog.

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