Catching Lightning With Photography

How photographers took the first pictures of lightning.
Emilie Lorditch, Staff Writer

An Interview with Terry Nathan at the University of California, Davis.

“The history of photographing lightning really starts with the history of photography. The invention of photography was announced in 1839 in Paris; the photograph that was produced was called the Daguerreotype, named after Louis Daguerre. It was several years later before the first lightning photograph was made, and several decades would pass before there was the first, I guess, successful efforts to photograph lightning for the purpose of science. 

“Lightning takes on many different flavors, in a sense, but the one that’s most often talked about is the cloud to ground. And for the cloud to ground lightning, it starts as a stepped leader. This is where the lightning is trying to make the connection. So, if you look at a time-resolved photograph of lightning, you’ll see these branches starting to come down, poking down, eventually until the connection is made with the surface. And all that positive charge rushes up, and that’s the return stroke.

“The Beckman and Whitley camera was developed mid-20th century [and] can resolve very fast types of phenomena like nuclear explosions, combustion and of course, lightning. So, from the time of the late 19th century, just trying to catalog lightning to present day, the relationship, what I call the symbiotic relationship between photography and lightning, has been really very strong. But still at that time there were still challenges with photography and its ability to resolve these very quick flashes. So, the challenge was to try and resolve a component of a lightning flash, because it just occurs so quickly, beyond the unaided eye -- we can’t see what’s going on.”

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Emilie Lorditch is the former Assistant News Director at AIP.