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Lighting & the time of day


At noon, this aerial image would look flat and featureless. Morning light adds dimension to the trees.
At noon, this aerial image would look flat and featureless. Morning light adds dimension to the trees.

Lighting is perhaps the most important consideration in aerial photography.

Bright sunshine provides excellent contrast for most aerial scenes and permits faster shutter speeds – but not just any bright sunshine.

Shooting in the light around noon-time is generally to be avoided since it tends to be flat and featureless (except in certain cases - see Shadow & the time of day.) Morning and late afternoon light, when shadows are beginning to lengthen, lends visual impact and definition to an aerial scene. In the longer summer hours, shots taken in early evening, when the rays of the sun create warmer tones, can be quite dramatic.

Morning light illuminates this scene.
Morning light illuminates this scene.

Generally, the best times to take aerial pictures are early to mid-morning (up to three hours following sunrise) and late afternoon/early evening - beginning about two hours before sunset, and right up to sunset, depending upon the subject and the effect you want.

WHICH WAY DOES THE SUBJECT FACE?

One of the determining factors in deciding whether to go up in the morning or the afternoon is the location of your subject. If, for example, you intend to shoot an aerial of a home that faces in an easterly direction, you will catch it bathed in full light in the morning, whereas it could be in dark shadow by afternoon.

It pays to scout your subject’s location and its setting in advance, and plan accordingly. Usually (almost always), it is best to shoot towards the west in the morning and towards the east in the afternoon. An exception occurs when the light is relatively weak or diffused, and shadows are not too dark, as shown by the image below.

Afternoon shadows on this home (left) indicate it would normally be the wrong time of day to photograph it, but this picture is okay since the sun is not too strong. The soft shadows add interest. The home on the right, however, is in too much shadow.
Afternoon shadows on this home (left) indicate it would normally be the wrong time of day to photograph it, but this picture is okay since the sun is not too strong. The soft shadows add interest. The home on the right, however, is in too much shadow.

CONTRAST

Another factor is the question of haze, which tends to increase as the day warms up, causing ultraviolet light scattering and reduced contrast. Too much haze can cut short your aerial photography. Sometimes a clear morning will become a hazy afternoon, ruining the kind of aerial shot you had in mind. (See our tips for dealing with the problem of haze under Hazy conditions.)

SUBJECT CONTRAST

Where you can, you should seek out aerial subjects that are themselves high in contrast. When tones and color differences between objects on the ground are similar and blend together, aerial pictures can look dull, but where colors and tones contrast - a white beach against deep blue water, for example - and there is sharp visual separation, aerial photos look vibrant.

 
Further information...
Shadow & the time of day