Witnessing the drama of nature as thunderstorms rage over the urban jungle of Panama City.

Panama City, Panama

7-22 June 2023

Over the span of a few weeks in Panama City, I found myself captivated by the electric dance of nature. From my perch on the 25th floor, the city sprawled beneath me, a vast expanse of lights and shadows. But on several nights, it wasn’t just the city lights that held my gaze. The sky was alive, each thunderstorm telling its own unique story. The bolts of lightning seemed to dance between the towering structures of Panama City skyscrapers, making the buildings, despite their imposing stature, seem almost meek beneath the raw power of the storm.

Using the technique of long exposure, I was able to capture this dance in all its glory on multiple occasions. Lightning streaks painted the sky, their electric paths contrasting with the dense, moving clouds. The city below, bathed in an ethereal under-lighting, revealed shades of purple and violet, standing in stark contrast to the dark silhouettes of the buildings.

Panorama of Panama City shot with Nikon D750, 24-120mm lens at 24mm — Exposure: 5 frames at 30 sec, f/18, ISO 250

Thunderstorms in Panama City

Panama City is no stranger to the drama of thunderstorms. Nestled between the lush expanse of tropical rainforest and the vast Pacific Ocean, the city is a melting pot of urban life and raw, untamed nature. The tropical climate, characterized by high humidity and frequent rains, ensures that thunderstorms are a regular spectacle, especially during the wet season.

These storms are a display of nature’s raw power, with lightning strikes painting the night sky in hues of white, purple, and blue. The city’s skyscrapers, standing tall and proud, often attract these electric arcs, creating a visual symphony of man-made marvels and nature’s fury.

Such storms, while disruptive at times, are a blessing for photographers like me. Powerful flashes of lightning transform the city, casting it in a different, more dramatic light. Every flash, every thunderclap tells a story of a city that stands resilient, even when nature unleashes its full force.

Panama City - skyscrapers hit by multiple lightning strikes

Noir skies: Panama’s skyline illuminated by nature’s fury

Panama City - tall buildings hit by double lightning during tropical storm

Panama City after dark: where lightning meets cityscape

The Art and Challenge of Capturing Lightning

Photographing lightning is as much about patience and anticipation as it is about technique. At its core, the process requires a long shutter speed to capture the fleeting brilliance of a lightning bolt. A sturdy tripod is non-negotiable; it ensures that your shot remains steady, especially during those extended exposures. Lens choice can vary based on the situation. While a wide-angle lens is perfect for capturing vast landscapes illuminated by the storm, a zoom lens becomes invaluable when the storm is distant or for achieving specific compositions.

Safety, of course, is paramount. While the thrill of capturing the perfect bolt is unmatched, it’s essential to ensure you’re not putting yourself at risk. Equally crucial is the protection of the gear. Rain might be a constant companion during these shoots, and water droplets on the lens can easily mar an otherwise perfect shot.

Capturing lightning is like trying to hold a fleeting moment in your hands;
it’s elusive, powerful, and breathtakingly beautiful!

Shooting from the 25th floor presented its own set of challenges. When the rain was pouring, I had to shoot through the windows. This meant dealing with potential glare, reflections, and the occasional smudge on the glass. However, when the storm moved further away, I could open the window, eliminating these barriers and capturing the storm in all its raw beauty.

Wind is another factor to consider. It can sway your tripod, introduce a camera shake, or bring rain into your shooting space. And then there’s the unpredictability of the storm itself. Lightning doesn’t take cues; it strikes where it pleases. This means a lot of hit and miss, numerous wasted shots, but with patience and a keen eye, you can sometimes anticipate its next move, leading to that perfect capture.

lightning strike from a tropical thunderstorm at night
lightning from a thunderstorm captured at night
Panama City lightning from thunderstorm hits tower building
dramatic clouds inside tropical thunderstorm
lightning flash inside dense clouds of tropical storm

Utilizing a remote trigger allows me to truly immerse myself in the spectacle, anticipating each lightning strike. Sometimes, the reward is a magnificent solitary bolt, at other times a multitude, and occasionally just a subtle glow, hinting at the drama unfolding deep within the clouds.

This dramatic picture below showcases the raw power of a thunderstorm over Panama City. Multiple strikes of lightning, some appearing to hit a singular tower, create a vivid spectacle. The tower, topped with a cone illuminated in a bright yellow light, stands like a beacon amidst the storm, almost as if charging the electricity around it.

The backdrop is a turbulent sky, so dark it’s almost black, but pierced with flashes of purples and violet where the storm illuminates the clouds above. This photograph is the result of patience, the perfect blend of settings, and meticulous post-processing. From a set of 16 shots, I selected the top five and blended them in Photoshop, crafting a single image that vividly captures the unbridled fury of the storm.

Fury Unleashed - powerful thunderstorm lightning strikes over Panama City

Five frames blended in Photoshop. Nikon D750, 70-200mm lens at 112mm. Exposure: 30 sec, f/13, ISO 100

Until Next Time, Panama City

Capturing the thunderstorms over Panama City was more than just a photographic endeavour; it was an amazing experience! Over several nights, the city, with its towering structures and bustling life, showed a different side, one of vulnerability and awe in the face of nature’s grandeur. As a photographer, moments like these remind me of the beauty that exists in the interplay of light, shadow, and structure.

For those inspired by these images and looking to capture their own stormy skies, check out my detailed guide on how to photograph lightning. Whether you’re in a bustling city or a quiet countryside, the thrill of capturing that perfect bolt remains unmatched.

If you find yourself in London, I’d be thrilled to have you join one of our in-person photography courses. For those further afield, the internet knows no bounds, and I offer comprehensive online photography training sessions tailored to your needs.

Appreciate the artistry in these images? I have prints available for purchase and licensing options for publications or projects. Your support is invaluable. The long hours spent crafting articles, editing photos, and sharing tips are fueled by passion and, occasionally, a good cup of coffee ☕.
If you’ve enjoyed this piece, consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee. I’m currently saving for my next source of inspiration, Sebastião Salgado’s “Amazônia”.

Whether we connect through a course, a print, or a shared love for photography, I wish you clear skies and the perfect shot.

Roland Pokrywka - photographer