Chasing Stormlight into Midnight

Midsummer weather conditions are occasionally interrupted by thunderstorms in northern Germany. These occur either as isolated thermal thunderstorms or as approaching weather fronts with organized squall lines. Such a thunderstorm front passed across northern Germany during the summer solstice on 27 June 2020. It was caused by a low-pressure system over the British Isles. The cold front of this low-pressure system passed over Hamburg in a southwest to northeast direction. Intense thunderstorms with heavy rain were embedded in its narrow band of clouds.

In contrast to the poorly predictable locations and intensities of isolated heat thunderstorms, such squall line thunderstorms can be forecast quite precisely, so that storm chasing of these weather phenomena is feasible. On this day, the temperature in Hamburg rose to 31°C (88°F) and the intense sunshine heated the ground during the 17 hours of daylight. The forecast of this active thunderstorm front suggested a passage for the area northeast of Hamburg at the time of sunset. Perfect conditions for a perfect photo.

So in the afternoon I headed out with my camera equipment to find a suitable location for the planned photo. I wanted to locate a cornfield with lush cornflowers in the foreground and a natural background with no buildings. In the baking heat of the day, I drove from village to village, examining the fields one by one. Eventually my search brought me to a small and remote village in the northeast of Hamburg called Brunsbek. Here, I finally found the abundant cornflowers I was looking for in a cornfield of considerable extent. To my delight, the background consisted of a row of trees and an adjacent forest. The angle of the picture, however, seemed to be anything but perfect, for the view of the picturesque scene was to the north.

The approaching thunderstorm was to be expected from southwest. If necessary, however, I could also photograph to the west here, so I decided to stay. In the meantime, it was evening and now only the thunderstorm was missing. The precipitation radar predicted its imminent appearance and soon I saw the pitch-black sky of the incoming thunderstorm in the south.

Apparently, the thunderstorm arrived a little sooner than originally predicted, because sunset was still about an hour away. The sky darkened rapidly and finally continuous thunder rumbled. The air became very humid and felt hot. The storm formed a beautiful squall line with a roll cloud that preceded the thunderstorm. The quiet before the storm was interrupted only by the frequent thunder. Not a leaf was moving. I stood with my tripod in the middle of the cornfield, where most of the cornflowers were blooming, and I realized that I was about to get soaking wet. The approaching storm with its many lightning bolts was magnificent to observe, but photographically it was still too much of a daytime light. When the large-drop downpour started and the earth took on that unmistakable smell of summer rain, I quickly packed up my camera gear and stowed it away in a rainproof bag. Then I found myself in the midst of the thunderstorm, the rain pelting down on me and the lightning twitching all around. This experience alone was worth the effort, even if no more photos would fall into existence. It took what felt like an eternity for the rain to ease, the thunderstorm to depart, leaving me soaking wet. A glance at the clock revealed that sunset was now only 15 minutes away and indeed the black departing thunderstorm sky showed first faint reddish hues.

Had I actually planned to photograph the approaching thunderstorm, I was now confronted with the departing thunderstorm. Since it had moved in from a southwesterly direction, I stood with my tripod perfectly aligned to the north. From minute to minute, the sky took on more color and then I understood what was happening: The thunderstorm line was so narrow that the setting sun in the northwest began to illuminate the thunderstorm from below. What happened now was an ecstasy of colors. By now, it was 21:51 and the midsummer sky began to blaze in gold-yellow colors in the northwest, while the northeast retained the gloomy bluish-grey of the departing thunderstorm. The already brownish-yellow color of the corn was extremely enhanced by the intense yellow of the clouds. The rolling thunder further emphasized this dramatic scene. At the time of the most intense colors, I pressed the cable release for my long exposure image. At the beginning of this exposure, the field of cornflowers lay motionless in front of me. Then, during the exposure, a strong gust of wind passed through the field and blurred the corn with the flowers into this picturesque scene. Soaking wet, I stood in wonder in the field and admired this gift from heaven and earth and watched retreating the thunderstorm until darkness fell.

June 2020
Canon 5DSR, Rokinon 14 mm, f/16, 2 seconds, 8688x7583 pixel, 66 megapixel, ISO 100, Manfrotto 055B triod with Manfrotto 410 3D geared head.
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