Close Encounters - A Shocking Experience

The 12th January was a sultry day with all the right atmospheric conditions to trigger the mechanisms which guarantee thunderstorms. The weather bureau had just issued late that afternoon, a severe priority thunderstorm warning. Little did I realise how conservative their forecast was to be. It started just after sunset, with thunder squalls and super cells coming in from every direction and lasted through to dawn.

Twin Strike, Tempest and 10 Billion Volts were taken that evening, approximately 3 hours apart. The storms were the longest lasting and most violent thunderstorms that I’ve ever encountered. Twin Strike was taken at 9.15pm at Ocean Reef, Perth, Western Australia with a 5 minute exposure using an aperture of f4 taken, with a 28mm wide angle lens using Kodachrome 64 film. Tempest was taken at 9.30pm at Ocean Reef, with a 3 minute 30 second exposure using an aperture of f4 taken, with a 28mm wide angle lens using Kodachrome 64 film and 10 Billion Volts was taken at 12.15am at Trigg, Perth, Western Australia with a 30 minute exposure using an aperture of f4 taken with a 28mm wide angle lens using Kodachrome 64 film.

It was quite a surreal, if not a downright dangerous experience photographing the thunderstorms that evening. In situations like this, I have a sturdy water and dust proof covering which I throw over the camera on the tripod when all hell breaks loose and I'm running for shelter.

Carrying a tripod around during a violent thunder squall is like carrying a lightning rod!!

Needless to say, I never got a chance to make it to shelter when these photos were taken. When I took Twin Strike, the lightning was embedded within the clouds and there was nothing to indicate what was to come.

The storm started to intensify and change direction, heading straight for me. I changed my view point for the next image, Tempest. All of a sudden, it was like a switch had been thrown. For three and a half minutes, the lightning was flashing inside the clouds, seen by the streaming effect within the clouds. Then the whole ocean just erupted a couple of kilometres away from me with a cataclysmic explosion which only lasted a couple of seconds.

I barely had enough time to get the protective covering over my camera on the tripod before the heavens opened up. By the time I got to my car, I was like a drowned rat and the thunderstorm was right over the top of me with lightning bolts striking the ground about 50 to 100 metres from where I was parked.

Meanwhile, my camera was sitting out in the middle of this mayhem and I was wondering what the hell was happening to it.

Fortunately, my camera (and I) survived and I thought this experience would take one heck of a lot of beating. Little did I realise that I’d go through the whole experience again, less than 3 hours later and 10 kilometers down the coast at Trigg.

If you are photographing a thunderstorm, and your hair suddenly starts to stand on end, nearby metal objects start crackling and humming and there is an ozone smell in the air, run for your life, because lightning is about to strike very close to you!!!!! That’s precisely what happened to me when I took 10 Billion Volts. I experienced a tingling sensation on my arms and legs together with an overpowering smell of ozone.

Lightning is caused by electrical charges within clouds. It is the interaction between the positive and negative charges and the resulting electric field that causes these strange effects just before a lightning strike.

Once the charge on the cloud is big enough, a small path of negative charge makes its way towards the ground. Once it gets close, a path of positive charge leaves the ground and heads up to meet it.

This is the point where these strange effects take place. When I’m in a situation like this I crouch down as low as possible to the ground where my head is not the highest part of my body and where my head does not touch the ground.

I hardly had time to get far enough away from my tripod and into a crouching position when again the sky erupted and the lightning bolts hit the ocean a couple of hundred metres away from me.

All these lightning bolts struck at the same time and it felt like a bomb had gone of under me. The thunderclap and the lightning flash was simultaneous. I was flash blinded for a few seconds and I’d thought my eardrums had been perforated. I had severe ringing in my ears for a short while afterwards and it took some time for my hearing to return to normal.

After this close encounter, I thought it’s about time to pull up stumps and head for the bunker.

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