What are lightning sprites? How to photograph them

Lightning sprites: A red, glowing structure in the sky, with an intricate, jellyfish-like shape, domed top with streamers hanging down.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Stephen Hummel, who works at McDonald Observatory in West Texas, captured this fleeting view of lightning sprites – aka red sprites – on July 2, 2020. McDonald Observatory is spearheading a Dark Skies Initiative in its region. Stephen commented, “Dark skies help you see faint objects like sprites.” Thank you, Stephen!

What are lightning sprites?

Did you know that lightning sprites exist above some thunderstorms? Sprites aren’t terribly well known, except to meteorologists, nature photographers and others who study the skies. They aren’t especially rare, but they’re fleeting and hard to capture with a camera. Lightning sprites are electrical discharges high in Earth’s atmosphere. They’re associated with thunderstorms, but they’re not born in the same clouds that send us rain. Thunderstorms – in fact all earthly weather – happen in the layer of Earth’s atmosphere called the troposphere, which extends from Earth’s surface to about 4 to 12 miles (about 6 to 19 km) up. Lightning sprites – also known as red sprites – happen in Earth’s mesosphere, up to 50 miles (80 km) high in the sky.

Starry sky over a village. The Milky Way is in the middle. There are red lights falling from the sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Kartik Kota of Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, captured this amazing image on July 16, 2023, and wrote: “While trying to image the Milky Way arch over Lake Wanaka, I managed to capture some stunning lightning sprites or red sprites over an incoming thunderstorm. These sprites were right in front of the galactic core.” Thank you, Kartik!

From a distance they look small, but they’re not

So when you’re standing on Earth’s surface and you spot one, it appears relatively small, even though, in fact, sprites can be some 30 miles (50 km) across. As Matthew Cappucci of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang said in an article about lightning sprites a few years ago:

Imagine one electrical discharge spanning the distance from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.

Cappucci also commented:

Although sprites are poorly understood, atmospheric electrodynamicists have figured out the basics behind their formation. Sprites are often triggered by a strong, positive bolt of ordinary lightning near the ground. They’re thought to be a balancing mechanism that the atmosphere uses to dispense charges vertically. It’s a quick process that takes less than a tenth of a second.

That’s what makes hunting for sprites so tough. Blink and you’ll miss them.

Bright green streak of a meteor, and red jellyfish-like tendrils hanging down in a dark sky.
View larger. | A bright Perseid meteor pierced the sky at the same moment a large lightning sprite, an electrical breakdown in the upper atmosphere, occurred over a distant thunderstorm. Stephen Hummel captured the image from McDonald Observatory in West Texas on August 8, 2021. The sprite occurred some 250 miles (over 400 km) away, over Chihuahua, Mexico. The profile of the Davis Mountains can be seen in the foreground. This image won 1st place in the International Dark Sky Association’s Capture the Dark contest in 2022, in the Dark Sky Places category. Published here with permission. Thank you, Stephen!

A fleeting phenomenon

The fleeting aspect of lightning sprites probably explains why – when people first see photos of them – they’re surprised that such a strange-looking weather phenomenon even exists.

Also, it hasn’t been that many years since lightning sprites were confirmed. In the 20th century, pilots spoke of “flashes above thunderstorms.” It wasn’t until 1989 that someone captured lightning sprites as we know them today on film. Experimental physicist John R. Winckler (1916-2001) happened to capture one while testing a low-light television camera.

Today, people around the world routinely capture photos of lightning sprites. You’ll find many photos of them in this gallery from

How to photograph lightning sprites

To photograph a sprite, you need a dark sky and a clear view toward a distant thunderstorm. The sky needs to be dark, because you’ll be taking long exposures; too much stray light in your sky will wash out your photo and make capturing sprites impossible. One of the most successful sprite photographers in the U.S., and likely in the world, is Paul M. Smith. He captured the sprite below in June 2020.

Paul spoke to EarthSky about his top tips for photographing lightning sprites. He recommends that you be under dark skies, let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and be persistent! Paul hosts workshops multiple times a year for those who want to learn how to photograph lightning sprites. He said the same tips apply to those who just want to see one with their eyes alone as for those who want to photograph them. He also said:

Some storms may produce one sprite all night, whereas others may have a sprite a minute, so activity obviously plays a big role.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulMSmithPhoto. Or find him on YouTube.

More lightning sprite photos

Want more photos of lightning sprites? Try these:

Lightning sprites over the Andes in early 2020, from Yuri Beletsky

Lightning sprites over Oklahoma in 2018, from Paul Smith

Captures of elusive red sprites from the International Space Station

Bottom line: Lightning sprites, or red sprites, often occurring in tandem with lightning, are short-lived electrical discharges that flash high above thunderstorms in the mesosphere layer of the atmosphere.

July 22, 2023

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 

Deborah Byrd

View All