It happened with a brilliant flash of light that spanned the entire eastern sky over D.C. A massive bolt of lightning streaked from south to north, spanning many miles as it traveled along a line of departing thunderstorms.
It was one of several flashes that lit up the sky over D.C. on Friday night in a display of lightning that made the city’s world-famous fireworks show look puny by comparison.
This type of lightning is called an “anvil crawler.” The lightning moves along the underside of a thunderstorm’s anvil cloud top.
But the lightning Friday night was not crawling. Its movement across the sky was actually quite fast. But the bolts from south to north were still perceptible to the eye, unlike other types of lightning where the flashes instantly appear and do not move.
A few seconds after the biggest lightning flash of the night occurred, a tourist standing next to me asked if I had photographed it. I answered yes without even checking my cameras. I was fairly certain I had captured it because I’ve worked out a simple method of photography that never misses a lightning flash in the field of view.
My method works by running two cameras on tripods with eight- to 10-second shutter speeds that are out of sync by a few seconds. That way, if lightning strikes when one camera is between photos, storing its image to memory, the other camera is shooting a photo. And vice versa. Lightning is always photographed.
I lock down the shutter release cable buttons on both cameras so they shoot automatically while I stand back and watch the storm. It’s quite enjoyable, and it’s less work than shooting a sunrise.
I photographed Friday night from inside the Lincoln Memorial. Because school has started for most areas, I noticed an absence of kids on field trips and family vacations. A group of older tourists was with me watching the storm and waiting for the rain to end.
During the shoot, I chatted briefly with a group of visitors from Liverpool, England, who wished me luck with my lightning photography. I loved their accents and even told them so.
A woman from Chicago traveling with her 18-year-old daughter commented that watching the storm from the Lincoln Memorial was the highlight of their trip to D.C. Her daughter, a photographer who didn’t pack a tripod, complained that all of her lightning photos were blurry.
Then there was the guy who said that he started the #WalkAway movement. The title was on his T-shirt, so it seemed plausible. He didn’t ask me about my photography and I didn’t ask him about his movement, so the conversation was quite brief.
Earlier that evening, I was not planning to go on a storm chase to D.C. I noticed on radar that there was a weak, dissipating thunderstorm over the city at 7 p.m. but there was not much other thunderstorm activity in the immediate area. I figured I would stay home and watch a movie. Maybe have a beer or two.
But around 7:30 p.m., isolated showers rapidly formed in eastern Fairfax County and they appeared to be developing into small thunderstorms. I decided to pack my camera gear and head out for Washington.
After the recent dreadful drive through thunderstorms on Interstate 66, I decided to take Metro for this storm chase.
I always think it’s funny when I take Metro for a storm chase. I’m probably one of the only subway storm chasers in the nation. Other storm chasers are driving 85 mph through Kansas, tracking down supercells, and I’m on a Metro train with my camera gear, taking a nap between Vienna and Metro Center, destined for the Smithsonian stop.
When I exited Metro at Smithsonian, after my short nap, lightning was flashing in the western sky but rain was not falling. It appeared as though thunderstorms were developing in Fairfax County, as I thought, and I had timed my chase well. I walked quickly toward the Lincoln Memorial.
But by the time I approached the World War II Memorial, the sky suddenly opened up into a deluge. Rain poured straight down with intensity and my shoes quickly became soaked in the puddles that formed. At least there was no wind yet.
I opened my umbrella and started to walk faster. Then a bolt of lightning hit just behind the Lincoln Memorial, less than half a mile away. The thunder was explosive.
I hate being out in the middle of a thunderstorm without shelter, so I started to jog. Apparently, I had not timed my storm chase perfectly.
I quickly walked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shook the rain off my backpack and umbrella after I was safely under cover of its roof. I set up my camera gear and started shooting photos immediately.
For a few moments, the rain fell so heavily that the Washington Monument was barely recognizable through the swirl of water and wind. A moment later, a bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning struck near the Mall, less than a mile away. That photo is included in this post and you’ll notice the background of the photo is dark and blurred from heavy rain.
After that nearby cloud-to-ground strike, it became a waiting game to photograph more lightning. Most of the lightning during the storm was concealed by rain and clouds, and there wasn’t much to shoot.
When the thunderstorms finally moved away, about 45 minutes later, the anvil crawlers finally became visible in the eastern sky.
For 30 minutes, anvil crawlers appeared at intervals of a minute or two between flashes. I’ve included my favorite crawler photos in this post.
Before Friday, this year had not been great for my D.C. storm chases. There have been a lot of rain events but not many photogenic thunderstorms. Thus, this storm chase ranks No. 1 for me in 2018.
There may be a few more storm chances later this week, but I won’t chase Hurricane Florence if it comes near. I’ll sit that one out and hope we don’t lose power and trees like we did with Isabel.