What I learned from 20 years photographing lightning in D.C.
Storm stories and striking images from nearly 100 thunderstorm photo shoots in Washington and Rosslyn
Perspective by Kevin Ambrose
July 13, 2022 at 8:26 a.m. EDT
Over 20 years, I’ve made 94 trips to photograph lightning over Washington D.C.’s monuments and memorials — never skipping a thunderstorm season. Some years, I photographed dozens of lightning flashes; in one year, I snapped none, even after multiple tries. With lightning photography, I’ve learned it’s feast or famine.
My goal from the beginning was to photograph a lightning strike to the Washington Monument, but I learned that’s not an easy goal. In 20 years, I’ve only photographed a direct strike to the Washington Monument twice — 2005 and 2021.
After two decades, these are some of my favorite D.C. lightning photos, a few unusual storm stories, photographing strategies and a bit of advice for staying safe while capturing a storm.
How not to get struck by lightning
“When thunder roars, go indoors!” I’ve heard that message for years and echoed it in my articles. That’s the reason the majority of my lightning photos are shot from inside the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials, where there’s a big roof overhead.
When thunderstorms are distant, that’s when it’s safe to venture outside to the edge of the Reflecting Pool, Tidal Basin or Potomac River to photograph lightning. InRosslyn, I walk to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial or the Netherlands Carillon to shoot photos of distant lightning.
My biggest concern while photographing storms is that a thunderstorm may form directly overhead, undetected, and unleash a sudden, unexpected lightning bolt.
In 2020, I was shooting a storm moving away from Rosslyn when a bolt struck 200 yards away from onethat redeveloped overhead. I was out in the open, and it was a jolting experience.In 2016, a similar scenario happened: I was shooting a departing storm near the Reflecting Pool when a thunderstorm exploded over the District and launched a barrage of cloud-to-ground strikes nearby. I immediately retreated inside the Lincoln Memorial. The lesson: Always have a quick exit strategy during storms.
Where to photograph lightning
I rarely chase behind D.C. thunderstorms because travel constraints mean I often miss them. I live west of Oakton, Va., and the drive to D.C. takes up to an hour, depending on traffic. Instead, I try to arrive ahead of the storms to establish my position.
I prefer to shoot storms with water in the foreground to reflect lightning flashes, and my favorite views for shooting lightning include the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Marine Corps War Memorial and Netherlands Carillon. The Tidal Basin and Reflecting Pool are my favorite bodies of water to capture lightning reflections. When thunderstorms are distant, I’ll walk around the Tidal Basin.
When lightning strikes the Washington Monument
While I enjoy photographing fireworks in D.C. every Fourth of July, lightning strikes — especially over the Washington Monument — are explosions on another level. The lightning flash spans the entire sky, and the thunder is louder than aboom from a fireworks shell burst.
Most thunderstorms over D.C. don’t produce a strike to the Washington Monument. An analysis of lightning strikes over the past decade shows that, on average, lightning strikes the obeliskbetween twice a year and once every five years. To photograph one requires skill and luck.
As shown above, the first time I photographed a lightning strike to the Washington Monument was on July 1, 2005. The lightning bolt struck the side of the monument, which is unusual because most strikes are to itstip.
The second time was on June 14, 2021. Unlike the first, lightning struck the monument’s tip. I was inside the Jefferson Memorial shooting behind the columns for safety reasons, capturing the strike with two cameras.
Out of 94 storm chases over 20 years, Ionly produced lightning photos about 60 percentof the time. I’ve learned to embrace failure as part of the process, often turning failed storm shoots into sunset shoots, nighttime skyline shoots or just an evening walk around the Tidal Basin. I also know from experience, the next shoot may produce dozens of striking photos. Putting in the timeensures success.
I remember sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial on the evening of July 23, 2020, realizing I had made another failed trip to D.C. to shoot lightning. I called my wife to tell her the storms had fizzled before reaching D.C., and I had no photos to show for my time and effort.
After decidingto wait and enjoy the evening, a new line of thunderstorms developed over Fairfax and Montgomery counties. I was in the right place to photograph a line of strengthening thunderstorms moving into the city. It turned into my best storm photo shoot of the year.
The different colors of lightning
Though many factors determine lightning colors, such as dust particles in the atmosphere, sunlight, city lights or the intensity of falling rain, I’ve come to a few conclusions over many storm chases.
Red lightning occurs when lightning strikes a great distance away. Over long distances, dust and pollution particles in the air scatter shorter wavelengths of light (blues and violets) and the longer wavelengths (reds and yellows) are what remain to be seen and photographed.
When lightning strikes at sunset, itcan also appearred from the light of the setting sun. In addition, city lights in D.C. cast a red glow on low clouds at night, which can fill the photo. Red lightning can also occur when light rain is falling — though not usually during heavy rainfall.
Blue lightning occurs when there are nearby strikes and no rainfall. Over short distances, when the air is free from rain and dust particles, the light from lightning doesn’t scatter much and often appears blue. Blue lightning also occurs when lightning strikes during the blue hour, a short time following sunset.
Purple, magenta or violet lightning occurs duringmoderate to heavy rainfall, and when the lightning flash is not too distant. Precipitation in the air often scatters the light from lightning, which produces a purple color. Cloud-to-cloud lightning is often magenta.
White is the most common lightning color, occurring when a lightning flash is concealed inside a cloud. It’s called intra-cloud lightning or sheet lightning. Also, when lightning strikes extremely close, it may appear as a blinding white flash.
Green lightning is rare to observe and photograph. Weather Geeks, a website for weather enthusiasts, says green lightning may occur when oxygen molecules are supercharged by the energy from a lightning flash, then discharge. I once photographed a turquoise-green lightning flash on July 19, 2016.
Photography lessons during a thunderstorm
Schoolchildren on field trips have often gathered around my camera while I photograph lightning from the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials. Our conversations often became lessons in photography — including lessons on the concept of timed exposures — and have been some of my favorite D.C. storm-chase moments.
Often, the kids would cheer when lightning flashed across the sky, cheering again when seconds later, lightning appeared on my camera’s LCD.
During one lesson in 2006, I was having terrible luck. I missed photographing almost every lightning flash because the flashes occurred between exposures, or the bolts were just outside the camera’s field of view. After a while, the kids started booing every time I missed a lightning flash.
When the thunderstorm was over and the kids were departing, a girl from the class walked over to me. Seemingly sad that her classmates had booed me, she said, “Sir, I really hope your luck improves.”
In a long-exposure photograph — when the camera shutter is open for at least several seconds — an individual can show up well-defined if they remained motionless. Otherwise, people are usually invisible if they walk through during a long exposure.
But if there’s a lightning flash when people are walking, their silhouettes are captured. That’s because lightning acts like a massive flashbulb, which illuminates the background. If they continue walking after the lightning flash and while the camera shutter is still open, their silhouettes become translucent, ghostlike, because the background continues to expose.
In the photo above, a monstrous figure photobombed one of my 2018 shots during a storm chase, making an otherwise unimpressive lightning flash very interesting. During the flash, a tourist walked in front of my camera, just a few feet away. In the photo, he looks like a giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man looming over the city, at least for those of us old enough to remember the movie “Ghostbusters.”
Cherry blossom storm chase
Every year, Washington’s world-famous cherry trees bloom around the Tidal Basin in late March or early April. During peak bloom, I’ve observed that snow occurs more often than thunderstorms, making photographing lightning with cherry blossoms a rare occasion.
I’ve observed a line of strong thunderstorms move through D.C. during peak bloom just once in two decades.
OnApril 3, 2006, the thunderstorms were more like storms we get in late spring or summer. The storms had a well-defined shelf cloud, strong winds and frequent lightning. The storm chase was particularly memorable because it arrived with a cloud of swirling cherry blossom petals when the gust front, the storm’s leading edge of strong winds, hit. As I rushed for cover, I was blasted by petals blowing through the air. It looked like a wall of rain approaching, but the petals were soft.
There were thousands of tourists in the area when the thunderstorms hit, and I was worried my usual shelter location at the Jefferson Memorial would be swamped — though it wasn’t too crowded when I arrived. When I arrived home later that evening, I found a cherry blossom petal stuck in my ear, no doubt blown there by the storm.
Slammed by a derecho
Video taken inside the Jefferson Memorial during the Derecho of June 29, 2012. (Kevin Ambrose)
The expression “silent as a grave” describes how a derecho — a violent, fast-moving storm complex — approached Washington during the late evening of June 29, 2012. There were no rumbles of thunder, no visible lightning. The wind was dead calm.
I was standing on the eastern side of the Tidal Basin with fellow Capital Weather Gang writer Ian Livingston, ready to photograph distant lightning, when suddenly transformers in Arlington began to explode. The gust front was a few miles away and approaching fast, and Ian and I were caught out in the open.
We tried to rush to the Jefferson Memorial for cover, but we were too far away to make it inside before the storm hit. We were slammed by 70-plus mph winds, flying debris and blinding rain. The cherry trees around us shook violently and appeared as if they could break at any moment.
Weeventually made it into the Jefferson Memorial, but we were soaking wet. Unfortunately, I lost a camera because of the rain, and Ian lost a lens in his run to the memorial. Later, I shot a video inside the Jefferson Memorial (above) and a cloud-to-ground lightning strike as the storm moved to the east (above). In my 20 years of shooting storms in D.C., I’ve never seen a thunderstorm as intense as that derecho.
The early days
Twenty years ago, I never saw other lightning photographers in the District and felt like the only crazy guy with a camera and tripod chasing storms on the National Mall. I learned the U.S. Park Police felt the same way.
It was July 2003 when I set up a camera and tripod inside my pickup truck to photograph the Washington Monument for a chase. I quickly drew a small group of Park Police. After I explained my interest in photographing lightning from the safety of my vehicle, they thought my goal was cool but odd.
They offered their reserved police parking location for my photography that summer provided I called ahead. I received the cellphone number of one of the officers, and I’d call before every chase. The officers would stop by and check on me during my photo shoot.
The craziest moment occurred during an August 2003 storm shoot when the lightning stayed behind me, not flashing where my camera was pointed. When an officer stopped by and asked if I had any luck, I complained I had the wrong angle. She said to get in the car.
I sat in the back of the police cruiser, and the officer drove across the grass-covered hill to the other side of the Washington Monument for a better view. I set up my tripod inside the car and took an excellent lightning photo out the back window (above). That has always been one of my favorite storm chase memories.
In 2004, the grounds of the Washington Monument were redesigned for increased security, and I lost my private parking location.
Two decades later
My high school cross-country coach used to say the most challenging part of a run was taking the first step out the front door — a sentiment I believe applies to storm chasing for lightning photos. On dark, stormy evenings, I find lots of excuses to stay home, where it’s safe and dry — a hesitation that hasn’t changed over two decades.
I’ve found the best way to get through the front door for a storm chase is to leave home well ahead of the storms to make the drive to D.C. with fair weather.
I used to only photograph snowstorms and thunderstorms, expanding my efforts in 2004 to include cherry blossoms, fireworks and sunrises/sunsets. Before social media, I used my website to showcase my photography. It was in 2004 that I was invited to join the Capital Weather Gang blog as a photographer, and four years later began to write as well, discovering that I enjoyed that as much as shooting photos.
More than a decade ago, I wrote an article about my first 10 years of thunderstorm photography and concluded with the line, “I hope the next 10 years will be as fun and rewarding.” Now that 10 years have passed, I can say it was just as fun and rewarding, probably more so — thanks in part to improving camera technology and some good luck.
And while I plan to continue shooting lightning, I’ve slowed down. I’ve stopped midnight storm chases, focusing mostly on afternoon and early evening photo shoots. Within the next 10 years, I hope to retire, and I’m not sure where I’ll live. But at least for the next few years, I’ll continue shooting thunderstorms in D.C. And on those chases, I’ll never forget, “when thunder roars, go indoors!”
A few photography tips
I shoot thunderstorms with two 42-megapixel cameras — a Sony a7riII and a Sony a99II. For lenses, I have a Sony 24x240mm and a Tamron 28x300mm. I shoot both cameras simultaneously with different aperture settings or f-stops, which control how much light passes through the camera, because it’s hard to predict the brightness of a lightning flash. I figure one of the two cameras will adequately expose the lightning.
I shoot using a lightness sensitivity setting of ISO 50 for most lightning photos, except when the lightning is very distant, then I’ll move up to ISO 100 or 200. For f-stops, when lightning is striking close to the camera, I choose f-6 to f-10. However, when lightning moves farther away, I lower the f-stop to f-4 or f-5.
During the day, I use a lightning sensor on my Sony a99II, and I shoot video on my Sony a7rII. At night, I shoot timed exposures with both cameras using shutter release cables with the buttons locked down for continuous shooting. Both cameras fire at the same time, continuously, while I step back and watch the storm. That’s also how I capturefireworks.
The length of exposures is determined by the time it takes to properly expose the memorials and monuments in the foreground. At night, it usually ranges from two to 13 seconds, depending upon the f-stop, brightness of the sky and ISO. During the day, when I use a lightning trigger, I use manual camera settings to shoot a slightly underexposed shot with the hope that lightning will brighten the scene.
Stacking lightning photos is a popular technique for showcasing multiple flashes in a single image. Each lightning photo becomes a layer within an image 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.