Beach Lightning: Thunderstorm Over the Water at Night

A dramatic summer thunderstorm at night flashes lightning over water off the beach in Venice, Florida.

© Scott Holstein - All rights reserved.

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Summer Thunderstorms at the Beach

I was in Venice, Florida for a few days during the summer. If you aren’t familiar with Venice, it is south of Sarasota on the west coast of Florida.

One evening, I was on the beach photographing the sunset out over the gulf (sunsets out over the water are a benefit the west coast of Florida enjoys). There had been some cloud activity and several layers of various clouds had entertained me and graced my sunset images. The cloud conditions continued to worsen after sunset.

Summer thunderstorms at the beach are common. In fact, you could almost set your watch to the near daily thunderstorms in Florida during the summertime. However, they usually come through in the afternoon; it’s a bit less common for the storms to brew at night, as these were.

All Around Me Were Thunderstorms at Night 

I stuck around on the beach to see what happened as the last bit of light left the sky and soon all around me were thunderstorms at night. There were a total of three thunderstorms nearby and all three storms systems began producing lightning. I was ready with my camera.

The storm behind me, inland, was of no visual interest to me from my perspective on the beach. Nor was the storm to the north of me, toward Sarasota.

However, from the south came an active thunderstorm off the coast that kept lighting up the dark skies, its lightning reflecting in the water as it moved north, past the Venice Fishing Pier.

Thankfully, there was no rain falling on me, as the storms surrounding me kept their distance while bellowing pronouncements in nearly every direction.

I tracked the off-shore storm with my camera, my only light to see to attempt to compose a shot was from the lightning itself, which was challenging.

In addition to the struggle of attempting to compose in my camera a moving storm in the dark, calculating the exposure presented its own challenges.

I was leaving the shutter open for the extended period of time of around 30 seconds each shot to allow me to catch the lightning strikes without having to guess when they would occur moment-by-moment. My aperture, then, had the task of properly exposing the scene by properly exposing whatever lightning occurred in each frame.

Photographing the Lightning Over Water

The challenge of photographing the lightning over water was that some lightning bolts broke free of the rumbling, gliding cloud bank and kissed the ocean - creating very bright flashes of light that were doubled by their reflections on the water, illuminating the world around me - whereas other lightning bolts resigned themselves to remaining inside the comfort of their clouds, keeping their brilliant might constrained within, and giving off just a glow of outward light.

This means I had a large spectrum of proper exposures, from one extreme to the other, never knowing which extreme would present itself next. Some moments were very bright and others were dark, making the task of creating a proper exposure to be difficult. All the while the subject was ever changing and moving and I never knew exactly where a lighting strike may occur.

I knew I needed to catch an exposed bolt to give the image a subject - a visible bolt of lightning over the water.

I tracked the storm for an hour, from my sandy perch on the beach shore in Venice, as the storm moved from my left to directly in front of me. I was constantly exposing images, attempting to compose the ever-changing storm clouds, guessing at what the next strikes may reveal and guessing at the necessary exposure.

The Resulting Image - Beach Lightning - Thunderstorm Over the Water at Night

For my efforts, I captured the Beach Lightning image you see above of the thunderstorm over the water at night. View more Florida landscape photography

In the image, a bolt reaches down from the low-hanging cloud formation to caress the surface of the Gulf of Mexico on the horizon. Its powerful light is reflected in the water leading towards the viewer.

Other strikes cracked with brilliance during the same period while the camera’s shutter was open, but remained inside the clouds above the single visible bolt, lighting various areas of the storm and giving the clouds texture and form that would otherwise be hidden in darkness.

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