A Bolt from the Blue
A lightning strike takes an unusual path toward from a large thunder cell during the blue hour, Nambé, New Mexico
Blue Hour Lighting Bolt
A late summer thunderstorm formed in the most beautiful way over the Sangre de Cristo mountains by my home in Nambé, New Mexico. Thunderstorms are a regular thing here in the summer, however, there was something special about this one.
What first caught my eye was an enormous thunderhead, isolated with an intricate fine structure as it rose way up into the heavens. I am glad it got my attention initially and gave me pause to stop what I was doing and set up my photography equipment.
The Story Behind the Photograph
Summer afternoons and evenings in Northern New Mexico are a gift to those that look up. The skies light up with stunning colors around sunset. Each afternoon is different from the previous, and yet there is a dramatic theme you will eventually notice. A palette of reds, oranges, blues, and even purples will paint the underside of clouds.Read More
The best colors appear after the sun is below the horizon. As the Earth rotates and the sun drops lower below the horizon, the tops of the tallest clouds can be still bathed in warm light while their bases are overcome by darkness.
I noticed this tower of a thunderhead as it grew taller and taller into the fading light. It was lit inside though by the constant flashing of lightning. I did not see any lightning bolts leave the cloud. The cloud looked like a huge paper lantern towering above the mountains. It was so exciting looking that I quickly set up my tripod in hopes of catching the light transitioning into the night and the glow of the cloud.
As I photographed the cloud, the light changed quickly, as it always seems to do. Out of nowhere, a bright lightning bolt burst out of the side of the cloud horizontally and then arced down to Earth on a ridge in front of me. From my perspective, it looked as if it struck my neighbors, Bill and Jenny’s, home on that ridge.
I was fortunate to capture the lightning strike as I was not set up to concentrate on photographing lightning this time. In cases like this, where the camera shutter is only open, once, for 6 seconds, the odds of catching a lightning bolt in the frame is slim.
The Science Behind the Photograph
What strikes me the most about this photograph is the deep indigo blue color to the sky. It helps to accentuate the warmer colors on the top of the thunderhead and of course the bright lightning bolt.Read More
When the sun rises or sets its elevation angle changes. The result is that the lighting goes through a series of twilights and “magic hours”, defined by the elevation angle.
This photograph was taken during the “blue hour”, which happens over a time frame of minutes, and not a full hour.
Northern New Mexico is a great place to observe the changing color of the sky through the sunset and twilights. This is due to the very clear air we have here. Most people mistakenly think the sunsets here are so colorful due to dust or smoke. The pure air has more Rayleigh scattering, which scatters the shorter wavelengths (blues and purples) more than the warmer colors. When the sunlight traverses a very long path length, like at sunset, there is so much scattering of the cooler colors, that the light we see has a higher proportion of warm colors (reds and oranges).
The “blue hour” occurs near the end of civil twilight, when the sun is between [-4 deg,-6 deg] below the horizon. During this time there is a smooth and gradual transition into the darkness of night. It is one of my favorite times to photograph as it sets a beautiful tone to images and you can see the planets and still the outline of the mountains.
Lightning bolts can strike more than once in the same place, counter the saying “lightning never strikes twice in the same place”. The reality is that on the main channel lighting flows down, it oscillates up and down many times. You can almost see this with your naked eye, or when you zoom way into a photo of lightning you can see the adjacent paths of the many different arcs.
In this photograph, the thick lightning bolt is actually a capture of many sequential bolts of lightning that travel down the same path through the air. They travel down the same path since the first bolt ionizes the air and therefore creates an “electrical channel” with less resistance than the un-electrified air. A smaller lightning bolt that is starting to “reach out” (a “leader”) can be seen on the upper left side of the cloud
The path of the large lightning bolt is amazing as if it has a mind of its own. It reaches out horizontally for a long way then sharply turns down towards the ground at a 90-degree angle. This an example of a “bolt of out the blue sky”, where a lightning strike occurs far from the cloud where it started. The best example I saw of this was lightning bolt start in a cloud over the Sangre de Cristo mountains by Santa Fe and traverse the entire Rio Grande Valley and touch down in the Jemez Mountains by Los Alamos.
Limited Edition Prints
A Bolt from the Blue
(30 x 45 inch print shown here for scale)
“A Bolt from the Blue” (c) Ed MacKerrow / In Light of Nature. ( 5120:3840, 20180826__D3_3514_2 )