There is some debate over who the first person was to photograph lightning. Many will point to English-born photographer William Jennings who was active in Philadelphia in the late 19th century. Seeking to dispel the popular image of the zig-zag lightning and to show the phenomenon's nuance and differing patterns, he snapped an image on September 2, 1882, and the photos were later published in the Scientific American in 1885.
Jennings certainly thought (and insistently claimed) that he was the first to capture lightning in a photo. The real award, however, may go to Thomas Martin Easterly, a photographer who was an expert in the 19th-century daguerreotype process. Easterly took a photograph on June 18, 1847, in St Louis, Missouri. The original plate has been lost however, and the existing image is a cabinet card photograph that sat in Easterly's gallery for many years.
Jennings may not have been the first (and Easterly may only be the one who has the earliest surviving image) but his image is certainly the best-preserved and considerably more discernible than the faint forks on Easterly's daguerreotype. Either way, the images stand as fascinating windows into an early technology taking on an everlasting natural phenomenon.
- 1847-06-18 American photographer Thomas Martin Easterly takes the earliest known photograph of lightning using the daguerreotype process in St. Louis, Missouri