Ridiculously awesome photo and time lapse of a stormcloud at twilight

By Phil Plait | June 29, 2012 3:17 pm

I’ve been following photographer Jeffrey Sullivan on Google+ for a while now — it’s a great place to see the work of talented people, and that’s where I found his lunar eclipse sequence I posted here last year.

Jeff is really good, and gets amazing shots of the sky. But today he posted the best shot I’ve seen from him: this jaw-dropping composite photo of a cumulonimbus cloud spawning lightning below and with star trails above:

Holy. Haleakala.

He shot this during spring 2012 near the California/Nevada border. The mountain getting electrocuted is Bald Mountain, which is southeast of Lake Tahoe. This is actually a combination of a sequence of pictures that were part of a time lapse video he was shooting, which is how he got the star trails as well. In fact, if you’ve scraped your jaw off the floor by now, time to let it freefall once again while you watch the video:

You can see why he was the Royal Museums of Greenwich Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2011 for the People and Space category. He tells me he’s working on a book on how to shoot landscape photography in California, and that’ll be out around the end of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing that!

Image credit: Jeffrey Sullivan, used by permission. Tip o’ the lens cap to Russel Bateman on Twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (21)

  1. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    After looking at the pic, I expected the audio track of the video to say, “Arthur, king of the Britons…”

  2. Thanks Phil for your kind words!

    I was actually in the area on April 21 for an entirely different astronomical event: to shoot a timelapse video of the Milky Way rising over the horizon during the Lyrid Meteor shower.

    As the sun lowered in the sky, I went to a hilltop across the valley from this storm to shoot the added bonus of clouds and their small rain shower turning color at sunset, so the first minute of the timelapse video, constructed from the first 1400 images or so, is mainly just clouds moving as the sun sets. Then the lightning started.

    I set up a second camera so I could capture the event at two focal lengths, and so I’d still have one going when the battery or storage space ran out on the first one. I built a fire, cooked a dinner of steak and corn on the cob over it. Shooting in Manual mode, I revisited the cameras periodically to adjust the exposures as evening gave way to night.

    I used an intervalometer to take each shot separated by no more than one second, and I extended exposure length by starting out at a low ISO, high f-stop. Many of the early shots were only 4 to 8 seconds long, but they quickly progressed to 20 to 30 second shots at wider apertures as night fell, so each image had a decent shot at capturing a lightning strike. At the beginning of this sequence I was shooting at 70mm, f/8, 13 seconds at ISO 200. I believe I had a polarizer on to lengthen the exposures 4X in time. My goal was to have a shutter speed which enabled roughly one lightning strike per frame (and minimize the one second between shots when I might miss one).

    I used a Canon 5D mark II for this sequence, but fired up a 5D mark III as well so I could easily crank up the ISO on the f/4 lenses I was using (24-105mm and 70-200mm). I ended up at ISO6400 at f/4, a full stop less than I’d normally use on a moonless sky, but the tradeoff was that I was trying not to blow out the cloud when the lightning lit it up.

    For post-processing I used the free VirtualDub app to create the timelapse video, and the free StarStaX app on a 79 image subset of the images to create the star trails image. Both techniques are described in more detail over on my blog: http://www.MyPhotoGuides.com:

    Creating Star Trails Images

    Create a Timelapse Video on your Digital Camera:

    Cheers, Jeff

  3. Doug

    Incredible. Makes me appreciate “Night on Bald Mountain” a bit more. Of course, that song doesn’t reference any one mountain in particular, but close enough!

  4. Yep, you were right. RIDICULOUSLY AWESOME.

  5. Larry M

    @1 Amos
    “Help! Help! I’m being impressed!

  6. Thank you not only for the amazing work, but the detailed description. Being able to put yourself there adds another dimension. Most of all, as an occasional tinkerer with time lapse, it’s invaluable to get some practical pointers.

  7. Janel

    Wow, I was just standing on top of that mountain on Monday looking at rare plants. I’m glad the weather was less intense. Awesome job combining those shots!

  8. Liath

    Thank you Jeff and thank you Phil.

  9. Righto

    That picture is awesome. I can’t help but say that it also looks like Zeus is defecating some good old lightning out of his ass.

  10. DrFlimmer

    Oh my…… The video starts a bit boring, building up the tension only slowly (quite literally). However, the finish is, indeed, ridiculously awesome!

  11. SkyGazer

    Semi on topic. It´s a time lapse. And we all love timelapse.
    YouTube user nothinghereok documented his overhaul of a Triumph Spitfire engine. Watch this enchanting stop-motion animated presentation of the engine disassembling, cleaning and reassembling itself…followed by a terrifying conclusion.


  12. I forgot to mention… the next morning I was standing in my primitive campsite with a cup of coffee in my hand, then BOOM there was a loud explosion which sounded close. I went through a quick inventory of what it might be, perhaps a dynamite blast at an active gold mine nearby or a sonic boom from a passing F-18 from Fallon Naval Air Station.

    It turned out to be the meteorite which exploded over California just before 8am that Sunday morning, believed to be about the size of a minivan before it mostly disintegrated. Apparently it passed nearby; fragments were allegedly found on the other side of the Sierra Nevada. I was very surprised to hear its explosion credited with being way over there, about 75-100 miles away. It sounded like it was no more than 8-10 miles away, over or on the other side of the valley I was looking at. I guess that was simply an underestimation of the energy in the explosion, but given that premise, I’m surprised that it didn’t flatten trees or houses closer to where it did explode!

    Too bad it didn’t race through the sky overhead about 12 hours earlier; I might have caught it in the timelapse!

    It just goes to show you that the most important factor in running across cool stuff outdoors is to actually be outdoors. I should go pursue all the weaker meteor showers… no telling what might come up!

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow. Jaw-droppping. Cheers. 😀

    Love these time lapses and the natural fireworks of lightning and thunderstorms. :-)

    Reckon we almost need a way of putting the lighting flashes in slow motion vision though! 😉

  14. @3. Doug :

    Incredible. Makes me appreciate “Night on Bald Mountain” a bit more. Of course, that song doesn’t reference any one mountain in particular, but close enough!

    See : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0h6H_vcSKc



    Whilst this classical piece :


    is another that seems to have potential as accompanying music here. Then there’s the rock anthemn by ACDC Thunderstruck which could also work quite. (Linked to my name.) All these best played *loud*! 8)

    BTW. Off topic but Wikipedia notes on its front page that today in :

    1770 – Lexell’s Comet passed closer to the Earth than any other comet in recorded history, approaching to a distance of 0.015 AU.

    Lexell’s comet has since gone missing possibly ejected by Jupiter from our solar system. Just a neat anniversary of sorts albeit an odd 242 years ago.

  15. MattTheTubaGuy

    nice, very impressive!
    here is one of my own, NOT a time lapse!

    also, does anyone know why the night sky is brighter than the ground?
    While flying over the ocean, the ocean was completely black apart from the occasional boat, but the sky was fairly bright. is this due to air-glow or something? I was flying near the equator, so it definitely wasn’t twilight or aurora.

  16. SkyGazer

    The night sky is actually very very bright.
    At least when you are at a dark site. I remember the nights at Formentera as a child, a 19km by at its smallest 1 km island of the Balearics. In those days (the 60´s) there was no electricity, everybody used oil lamps. And it was DARK there. However, you could easyly walk around at night, no moon needed. Or lamps. Well ok, only when it was clouded. That was the only time you needed some kind of light. But on clear nights it was bright as ehm, I don´t have comparisons. But it was very lit up. Just from starlight. Around 1970 the dark went out to never return again.
    And that´s sad. Since then I always have been looking up and never seen skies like that again. Never. Were ever I go there is light poluttion.
    But I remember the milkyway in it´s glory, that big big band of stars blazing away and so many things I could clearly see then with unaided eyes and were pointed out to me. And now that I have a telescope it´s all washed out or unfindable.
    Anyway, the real sky IS bright and it is indescribable how much light stars give off. You nowadays see a star. Singular in the city. But in the real dark you don´t just see more stars, you´ll see the whole *bleeping* universe!!! And you bath in their light.
    And also you won´t believe how utter bright a full moon is in a dark surrounding.

  17. STEVE

    Not Zeus, but Hercules.

    There is no constellation “Zeus”, but there is one named “Hercules”
    and that’s the constellation in the background.

  18. Nigel Depledge

    Wow, that looks unreal.

  19. Chris A.

    Technically, the mountain isn’t being electrocuted unless the lightning is causing its death. So, it’s really just being shocked. :)


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