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Photographing water from the air

Glare is the nemesis


This aerial image has many problems, glare being one. The subject is too far away and the message of the picture is not clear.
This aerial image has many problems, glare being one. The subject is too far away and the message of the picture is not clear.

The main problem faced by aerial photographers in shooting water is one of glare, where sunlight is reflected towards the lens at the same angle at which it strikes the water – technically described as the sunlight’s angle of incidence being the same as its angle of reflectance. Think of a mirror lying face-up on the ground, with someone on the other side shining a bright flashlight at it so that the reflected light strikes you in the eyes. Moving your face away from the direct reflection will eliminate the glare.


SOLUTIONS INVOLVING MOVEMENT

Although the problem of glare seems simple to solve by merely increasing or decreasing altitude so the angles are no longer the same (and that is one solution), it is not always possible to shoot a subject the way you want from a different altitude. Since water is rarely dead flat, waves can reflect glare at a variety of angles, and a change in altitude can sometimes result in little discernible difference.

If you will be flying for a while, you may be able to go off and photograph other subjects, then return later when the angle of the sun has changed, allowing you to shoot from the angle and altitude you want without glare.

The same subject shot with the sun behind shows no glare and the picture's message is much clearer.
The same subject shot with the sun behind shows no glare and the picture's message is much clearer.

A polarizing filter reduces glare from the surface of the water.
A polarizing filter reduces glare from the surface of the water.

Another answer is to shoot from a different direction so the sun’s light reflects away from you. This is sometimes unworkable since some aerial subjects are best photographed from one direction only - for example, the front of a house that is surrounded by trees.

If your subject itself is moving (a sailboat, for instance), you need simply to stay with it until it is in a position where the reflected glare is gone. Passing it or allowing it get ahead may also provide the solution.

THE POLARIZING FILTER

A common solution to remove glare from water and other surfaces is to attach a polarizing filter to the lens, and turn it until the glare is sufficiently-reduced. This requires TTL (through-the-lens) viewing so the effect of the filter can be seen and controlled.


THE BEAUTY OF WATER FROM THE AIR

The effect on large bodies of water of currents, depth and bright sandy bottoms cannot always be seen from ground or sea level, but may be vividly apparent from the air. One of the joys of aerial photography is its ability to show people a new and beautiful view of an area they are familiar with. Most people don't have the opportunity to fly over places where they live or recreate, and those who do are often not able to take the time to really examine it as it looks from above. They may be flying in inclement weather for ideal viewing, or on a mission that distracts them from enjoying the view, or simply stuck in the center seat of the aircraft.

As an aerial photographer, you are expected to choose an ideal day on which to take aerial pictures, and to have the time to select shooting angles that make your subjects look their best. You can do what most others can't, unless they decide to become aerial photographers themselves. This means your pictures can show things under ideal lighting conditions, during the prime season. For example, with the sun properly located, the sandy shallows around an island may seem to glow in comparison with the darker-green adjacent depths when seen from the air. This effect may not occur regularly, but your image of it when it does occur will preserve its beauty so that others may know it really can look like that at its best.

Water seems to afford more opportunities for dramatic aerial photography than does the land, and a truly-beautiful water aerial can not only become one of your most-treasured photographs, but may also become one of your best sellers.