High-speed camera captures amazing lightning flash

Super-slow-motion footage from recent Florida storm


MELBOURNE, FLA. — Scientists at Florida Institute of Technology used a high-speed camera to capture an amazing lighting flash from a May 20 storm near the university’s Melbourne campus.

The flash was recorded at 7,000 frames per second (FPS). The playback speed seen in the video is 700 FPS.

The video was captured as part of the process of testing the camera for its ultimate use, which will be centered on capturing and studying the dynamics and energetics of the upward electrical discharges from thunderstorms known as starters, jets and gigantic jets.

Principal Investigator Ningyu Liu from the Geospace Physics Laboratory in Florida Tech’s Department of Physics and Space Sciences is available for interviews.

The lightning flash captured here happened during a May 20 storm not far from the Florida Tech campus in Melbourne. It was recorded at 7,000 frames per second using a high-speed camera.

Video courtesy of the Geospace Physics Laboratory, Department of Physics and Space Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology.


111 thoughts on “High-speed camera captures amazing lightning flash

    • Phillip 350 pm : it really is, I “freeze framed” it, there are more than one and are incredibly complex and beautiful. Nice work by the Lab and mr(s?) Liu. and 7000 frames per second that in itself is an amazing feat, how do they manage to get images at those speeds? And it nice to see some good results from research.

      • Depends on the camera, but the really high-speed ones have a drum of imagers facing inwards with a rotating mirror. Otherwise the sensors use big pixels to get enough light, big lenses, and special readout circuitry.

      • I wonder how they started the pics? That 20 seconds used 140,000 frames, so they had to have a method of triggering the camera just when the lightning began.

  1. That is awesome.
    Is it really necessary to explain that the 7000 fps video was shot with a high speed camera? Just nit picking.

  2. So I count 27 frames for the leader to reach the ground. At 7000 frames per sec, and assuming a cloud base of about 500 ft, that’s roughly 130,000 feet per sec coming down. I wager the 500 ft estimate is low, so could be upwards of 200,000 fps going down.
    Very cool. How did they trigger the camera?

    • I doubt they used film… It was probably recorded digitally, and the camera just ran continuously while pointed at the storm. Of course, I could be wrong about that.

      • These cameras are digital, so yes- they record continuously into a circular buffer and the trigger actually just stops the recording.

      • I remember reading about a high-speed camera used to capture images of nuclear explosions. One of them took a frame of the shelter on the top of the tower actually illuminated from inside by the blast, but it hadn’t consumed the structure yet. The next frame showed the corners of the shelter sticking out of the fireball. The documentary explained the process as the film running unimpeded between reels at super speed, and a rotating prism taking the place of the shutter by refracting an image onto the film as it rocketed along.

      • Have no idea how they set up the camera in this case, but years ago we were capturing the ‘past’ using fiber opitics and an optical time-delay loop. A sensor looked for a signal, e.g., a flash of light. When it detected one, it activated the ‘camera’ (a bank of sensors). At the same time, a lens would capture the same flash, and route it optically on a coil of optic fiber to the camera. The length of coil delayed the signal long enough for the camera to activate.
        That was a long time ago. I don’t know if such optical time-delay loops are still in use for any purpose at all.

      • The fastest standard black and white Kodak film used to be Tri-X which had an ASA film speed of 400. It was easy to push it to 800 and beyond, if you didn’t mind the grain, and it already was grainy. Plus-X was I believe 125 ASA, and less grainy, and Panatomic X was 100 speed (I think) and very good graininess.
        The LOWEST ISO speed on my latest Nikon D-500 camera is 100, but you can make it go slower to about 60 but it gets even grainier.
        So my previous Nikon digital could go to 6,400 ISO, and you could push that to 12,800.
        So the D-500 goes to 51,200 ISO, and its big brother the D-5 goes to 102,400 ISO, but both of them can be tricked into going much higher than that. To 1,638,400 for the D-500 and twice that for the D-5.
        Either camera can literally take a picture of a black cat in a cellar at midnight. Yes they are grainy but you wouldn’t even notice the grain alongside a Tri-X B&W film photo.
        The D-500 is 20.9 Mpx, and I think the D-5 is less than that (bigger pixels) The D-500 is a half frame 24 X 16 mm DX format. Fastest shutter speed is 1/8,000 sec, but with electronic flash, you can take pictures way faster than that (limited by the flash length).
        So that is done with a back side illuminated CMOS sensor. That means that they lap the wafer way down to almost nothing, and then put the micro-lenses on the back surface, which has absolutely NO metal structures on it. So all the wiring is on the top side, which is opposite where the light goes in.
        On conventional sensors the interconnect wiring on top of the wafer covers a good fraction of the pixel.
        So those are sensors you can buy right off the shelf.
        Both cameras take a brand new Digital chip to record the data. It is a proprietary Sony chip called XQD, and they are expensive. I paid $250 each for 64 GHz chips. Well they are only half that now, but still expensive.
        So I don’t know how many pixels are in a frame of these lightning videos, but I doubt it is very many.
        I dare say that a 640 X 480 frame would still be very impressive looking video, and that is only 300K pixels.

      • Panatomic x was 32 ASA. Some people used it with the Questar Telescope to make simply stunning pictures of the sun in B&W (Through a full aperture chromium filter)

      • People used to take Kodac SO115, rebranded as T-Max film and hyper it by exposing it to H2 gas to pre-sensitise it and get speeds of ISO 64K-128K out of it; that was too exotic for me. I did post exposure treat it with O2 evolved from H2O2 and got decent results at ISO 16K, sometimes, garbage others.

    • Great metaphor! The clouds doing the “I’m not touching you thing”, but when they do – watch out!

  3. Can you get just the return stroke event slowed down to a playback rate of, say, 70 fps? (or even 7 fps), That might be interesting.

    • If you do a stop and go on the video it self you can “freeze frame” it it actually shows more then one return strike ( I think 3 at least) but you can see the strike very nice as well. The best freeze I got was at 14 seconds . On my computer i stop and go as fast as my fingers can click the mouse ( not very fast any more) but it works

  4. Interesting – I read somewhere that lightning that strikes the earth actually starts from the ground up. Looks like that theory is wrong.
    I must have read that on the internet…

    • The return stroke, which is what you actually see, starts at the ground. The leaders aren’t usually visible without a high-speed camera.

    • Generally speaking *the part you see* is from the ground up. Someone else can explain better all the physics of why it (sometimes) happens in that order, but the downward strike opens up a path for all of that ground-based energy to go up.
      Without the high-speed video you only see the brighter upward journey.

      • For every such rule there are exceptions found.
        One of the most amazing is reverse polarity lightning, the strokes of which are orders of magnitude more powerful and deadly than the usual polarity.
        There are some great videos of stepped leaders in super slow motion, in which it can be seen that they are almost seeming to be alive, reaching out and probing, pulling back and trying a slightly different path.
        Very cool stuff.
        I will look around and post if I can find the one I am thinking of.

  5. Love these videos…now I’m wondering how scientifically literate kids are…that is, if they know it connects via the earth “returning fire” 🙂

  6. We are in a cloud chamber…. and see the secondary particles making ionised pathways. The question is what ‘generate’ the high potential in the first place… my (un-qualified!) theory is the Sun-Earth interaction.
    Charged particles constantly ‘hit’ the top of the atmosphere charging it … and when the cosmic high energy particles hit, the secondary effect is ‘shorting’ the ‘circuit’ to the ground…. still, this not explaind the Jets and other misterious stuff 🙂

  7. Studying :” the upward electrical discharges from thunderstorms known as starters, jets and gigantic jets”
    Is that the same thing as “sprites?” If so then I wonder how far our electric and magnetic fields reach out and how much of an interaction between the two exists ( and who knows how many more “fields” actually interact like gravity and so on)

    • yeah I’ve read abut that
      We have lightening on other planets, electrical charges also are seen exchanged between Jupiter and it’s moon Io.
      The comet that passed mars also caused interesting effects on Mar’s atmosphere and magnetic field, showing clearly the long held assumptions about asteroids and comets are inaccurate. Comets clearly have electronically properties and are anything but dirty snowballs.
      The ESA’s Rosetta also showed they miscalculated the density greatly too, with the craft bouncing three times.
      One comet coma expanded larger than the sun, when it was traveling away from the sun, in a position past Saturn, which clearly debunks the whole “coma caused by solar wind and heating”.
      A close passing comet to earth would have significant largely unknown effects, we know we could forget anything that depends on magnetic poles for a time at least and could alter the composition of the atmosphere, a lot of “coulds and unknowns”
      The universe is not as inert as we have been led to believe these past few decades

    • According to genealogy of the Olympians Gaia was Zeus’ grandmother.
      Gaia with Uranus had son Kronos (Saturn), Zeus (Jupiter) was son of Kronos and Rhea

    • Actually it is Thor; not Zeus ! Or maybe Donner.
      I like Donner, and his ” Heyda, heyda heydo ! ”
      See (and hear) ” Das Rheingold ” just prior to “The entry of the Gods into Valhalla. “

      • Hi big G
        Since Slavs are the most numerous of Europeans, our god Perun (Cyrillic: Перун) is the highest god of the pantheon and the true god of thunder and lightning!
        So there.

  8. This is so cool… I have been watching lightning all my life. I even had a close encounter (about 30 feet from tree that was struck). My wife had her car struck by lightning while going over a hill at 70 Mph on an interstate – I didn’t even know cars could be struck – it melted the antennae, the cable up to the radio, and fried all the electronics. No one was hurt – just scared silly.
    Its like watching something magical.

    • I read that being inside a car (with closed metal top) is about the safest place to be in a thunderstorm.
      (Car becomes a Faraday cage.)

      • My dad had just arrived home a few years back and was just about to open his truck door when lightning struck a tree on one side of the yard. The discharge traveled through the ground under his truck to the house, where it cracked the basement wall and blew out all the electronics. Surge protection didn’t stand a chance. When I visited a couple months later you could still see the path the electricity had taken across the yard, including where it passed through the metal fire pit ring and welded the grate to the ring. If my dad had stepped out of his truck a couple seconds sooner he very well could have been killed.

      • jheinrich, cool story….
        It’s amazing how different it (the energy) acts. At my aunts house it simply traveled through/via the cast iron (old house) sink vent, to ground with the rest of the sanitary sewer line, but on the way it decided to stop and melt the sink. No other damage, and the 90 yr old aunt was uninjured as she stood close by the sink.
        Or I guess it may have traveled up from the ground, through the sewer lines and out through the vent to the cloud leader….

  9. Plasma in space experiment.
    Some results at the end look rather like galaxy formation on a small scale, unfortunately the commentary is Russian, one even produces a double helix form
    I like empirical experiments, the experiment above creates this with plasma
    This is mostly plasma, no need for dark matter if there is this much plasma in space, there is your missing matter

    • Plasma cosmology although relatively new is producing some brilliant results in experiments that standard cosmology could only dream of

    • complete nutters ! No only inviting a lighting strike tens of yards from where they are, they then go speeding away on a scooter with BARE feet.

  10. Is there a theory on why the leaders spiral?
    I tend to to think of spin being induced by physical interaction, not electrical resistance. Are the leaders acting like a flow of physical particles pushing against the air molecules, and spinning?
    This might be duplicate. I can’t tell what happens on this tablet.

      • thanks, one of the most uninteresting and uninformative videos I’ve ever seen. The most information is in the title. You could have just posted the title.

    • You are right though, it is physical, what else could it be, virtual? It’s not mechanical though.
      You can make a sphere spin if you put one electrode precisely at the southern pole and another a few degrees off the northern pole, it will spin when you run current through it, it wont work if both electrodes are both opposite facing at each “pole” as it were
      Check this simple motor out

    • Here is an example of the angle of alignment of electrodes to make the sphere spin, you need to align one electrode to the southern magnetic pole and the other to the northern geographic pole to make the spin happen. Magnetic pole to magnetic pole wont create spin. I dont know why
      (not relating this to earth’s spin but.. interesting)

      • Maybe this causes our wobble in axis.. huge guess, unsubstantiated.. before I get lambasted 😀

    • Why do the leaders spiral?
      Keep in mind that the leaders are charged plasmas (maybe even mostly electrons). As such, they will be crossing the Earth’s magnetic field and will be subject to the cyclotron effect (gyration around the magnetic field lines). I’m not saying this is The Explanation, but I think it is reasonable to expect.
      It is remarkable to see the leaders separate and diverge. When two currents are moving parallel to each other, the effect of the joint magnetic field is to draw the current streams together. This is sometimes called the zeta-pinch effect, as its application to a single current stream (of plasma) is to compress the stream. Therefore, the behavior of the leaders seems hard to explain.

  11. While we are on the topic of electrical discharges, any one know of a good popular science book that talks about thunderstorms and atmospheric electrical discharges? Its a fascinating topic from the point of view of history, destructiveness, power, variety, recent discoveries, and apparently lack of clear understanding of what causes them.

  12. Yes, by physical I meant mechanical or kinetic vs electrical potential. My limited understanding was that the leaders followed charge gradients until an ideal path was established. I would have expected those leaders to smooth, not fluttering.

    • My understanding is very limited too tbh, but there is no kinetic component to the phenomenon as far as I can tell

  13. So I suspect magnetic fields as above are why lightening is of equal width in the main strike, there are fractal offshoots of less energy and as a result smaller magnetic fields, so thinner branches to strikes.
    Without the magnetic field there would be no uniformity to a lightening strike

  14. Looks like my question got hijacked, lets try that one again
    While we are on the topic of electrical discharges, any one know of a good popular science book that talks about thunderstorms and atmospheric electrical discharges? Its a fascinating topic from the point of view of history, destructiveness, power, variety, recent discoveries, and apparently lack of clear understanding of what causes them.

  15. Fascinating video! And all the other videos in the thread.
    I have 1 question though: What does lightening ultimately do to a thunderstorm? I have a basic understanding of it’s properties–the hows and whys per electrical “balance” (for lack of a better word), but has anyone studied what happens after lightening has occurred and what it’s real purpose actually is? I’m always brought to the question of why–after learning the how–so why is it necessary, what does it do to the immediate environment …i.e. inside a thunderstorm? Anyone know?

    • Lightning is caused by a charge potential, it’s an effect caused positive and negative charges in clouds, but there is input from outside our weather system
      Convection causes the thunderstorm and the thunderstorm clouds create lightning.
      Lightning will follow a potential difference, potential on the ground draws the lightning, a strike is not driven from above I think
      here is what appears to be a reverse in potential to the usual
      Here the potential difference is above the clouds
      Potential difference within the cloud
      Bolts discharge sideways, down and up and anywhere there is a difference in potential. Sideways discharges in clouds are probably where Chinese dragon myths comes from.
      Given NASA have confirmed a circuit between the earth and sun when we see the northern lights, a circuit can be a path to juice up the atmosphere? I dunno, there must be a flux input, CMEs cause geomagnetic storms and these can dump serious charges into out electrical grids, so we have charge input from the sun.

    • On further reflection, you may have something there, two separate negative electron charges will repel each other, but what effect this would have on the thunderstorm I have no idea.
      I do suspect intrinsic electrical spin has something to do with Tornadoes in some way, but I don’t have the skills to work the problem

    • Nutcases do real experiments, others use maths only, I vote for the nutcase camp

    • Well when I was in school studying Radio Physics, we had students researching electric fields under thunderstorms, so they built instruments to measure the electric fields under a thunderstorm. These battery powered and vacuum tube smarts sensors needed to be attached to a standard Radiosonde balloon which then was flown on a tether, up into the face of the thunderstorm.
      So all of this stuff was kept in readiness in the RP department, until we got a weather report of a coming (very soon) thunderstorm.
      So we would pack all this stuff down to the harbor, and a remote pier, and set up the balloons, and sensors, on a string, and then inflate the balloon with HYDROGEN !!
      And then send it up into the clouds (almost) to radio back the electric fields measured by the Student designed instruments.
      So there we all were soaking wet idiots, standing out in the open, on a pier over the harbor, and hanging on to a string going up to a metal gizmo under a hydrogen filled balloon, and basically saying to Donner; ” Stick it in your ear pal !! ”
      Professor’s name was Dr. Karl Kreielscheimer; and he was an expert on antenna design. One of my favorite Professors. RP was one of my Physics majors. It also included electronics , ionospheric theory antennas; the whole radio shebang. Circa 1957; right around Sputnik Launch time.

      • Must have been awesome George, the way things went for myself I only got into it in my late 30s, regret it I do

    • All I can envision is another 3 or 4 paintings, with Franklin first handing the string to the kid and then scooting a safe distance away to watch.

  16. I’ll see your “Amazing Lightning Flash,” and raise you a “Swarm of Sprites.”
    And the sprite will drop the Ionosphere down from 90km to40km, how about that.. wowee
    “” Lightning scientist Oscar van der Velde of the Technical University of Catalonia explains: “A cluster of sprites can actually warp Earth’s ionosphere, bringing it down from its usual altitude of 90 km to only 40 km.””

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