Confusion in the interpretation of standard-speed video observations of optical flashes above intense cloud-to-ground lightning discharges has persisted for a number of years. New high-speed (3000 frames per second) image-intensified video recordings are used along with theoretical modeling to elucidate the optical signatures of elves and sprites. In particular, a brief diffuse flash sometimes observed to accompany or precede more structured sprites in standard-speed video is shown to be a normal component of sprite electrical breakdown and to be due entirely to the quasi-electrostatic thundercloud field (sprites), rather than the lightning electromagnetic pulse (elves). These “sprite halos” are expected to be produced by large charge moment changes occurring over relatively short timescales (∼1 ms), in accordance with their altitude extent of ∼70 to 85 km. The relatively short duration of this upper, diffuse component of sprites makes it difficult to detect and to discriminate from elves and Rayleigh-scattered light using normal-speed video systems. Modeled photometric array signatures of elves and sprites are contrasted and shown to be consistent with observations. Ionization in the diffuse portion of sprites may be a cause of VLF scattering phenomena known as early/fast VLF events.