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Aerial photography and the weather


More sunlight and less atmospheric moisture are needed for this aerial
More sunlight and less atmospheric moisture are needed for this aerial

Bright, sunny days provide excellent lighting for aerials, but there is more than sunlight to take into account.

ATMOSPHERIC HAZE

The amount of moisture, dust and smoke particles visible in the air (haze) is a major factor affecting visibility. Ideally, you will be flying on a day when there is minimal haze, and visibility remains clear for several miles. However, you may start out on a clear morning and not notice the gradual build-up of haze as more and more moisture enters the atmosphere. It also sometimes happens that there is a haze build-up close to the ground that you don't notice before take-off because you are looking up through it to clear blue skies. Once you are airborne, however, the low haze layer can have a detrimental effect on your pictures.


You can minimize the effect of haze by using an ultraviolet (UV) filter that reduces atmospheric reflections, or a polarizing filter which has a similar, if not greater effect. A polarizer will reduce reflections dependent upon your angle to the sun, and also tends to darken blue skies and whiten clouds. Another means of getting around the problem of haze is to fly at a lower altitude so there is less atmosphere, and therefore less haze, between you and the ground. (See Shooting in hazy conditions for more tips on reducing the effects of haze.)

If visibility is less than 10 or 12 miles due to haze, you will probably be dissatisfied with your images.

Almost perfect conditions - bright sunshine and minimal haze
Almost perfect conditions - bright sunshine and minimal haze

If it is hazy, it will really show up when you shoot in the direction of the light
If it is hazy, it will really show up when you shoot in the direction of the light

CLOUDS

Clouds can be helpful, but generally are not. In the distance, bright, well-defined clouds can improve an aerial picture by serving as a backdrop, but overcast, cloudy conditions above your subject tend to make an aerial scene look flat by diffusing the light. High, thin cloud can have little or great effect, depending on how much of it there is. Sometimes, the overall diffusion caused by an overcast sky can be of benefit for shooting subjects on their normally-shaded side or when you wish to reduce overall contrast and have no harsh shadows.

Broken cloud can create unusual shadow patterns on the ground, which usually do not help an aerial picture. A ray of sunshine through a break in heavy cloud cover can provide you with a dramatic shot, but you can wait a long time for one to occur.

Rule of thumb: If it’s too cloudy, try for another day. How do you know if it is too cloudy? If 30% to 40% of the sky is cloud, that is generally too much to ensure good results.


FOG

Fog can produce unusual aerial views when you have an island, mountain peak or tall building poking through it, but the pilot should keep an eye out for a shift in the fog so you don’t get caught with zero visibility at the airport. If there is any danger of fog preventing a landing - no matter how remote - forget that one extra shot and get on down quickly and safely. Weather can close in faster than we anticipate.

WIND AND THERMALS

High winds and thermals (rising currents of warm air) can affect an aircraft’s maneuverability and make for an uncomfortable, bumpy ride. Although you may still be able to take pictures in all but severe conditions, you would be better off trying again another day. A sudden bump of the plane that causes your face and camera to come in violent contact with each other is not a fun experience. And it is difficult to load film when you are being jostled about. Anything not tied down, like your camera bag, can suddenly become airborne itself. Bouncy planes and carnival rides have a lot in common. If you have to shoot in bumpy conditions, try to time your picture-taking so that you trip the shutter at the top of a bump when you have a brief moment of relative calm.

A lack of wind can also create problems, since haze can build up, particularly on warm days over metropolitan areas.

Dropping altitude helps to offset the effect of haze
Dropping altitude helps to offset the effect of haze

Shooting towards the light will sometimes produce a dramatic aerial
Shooting towards the light will sometimes produce a dramatic aerial

TEMPERATURE

Since a good deal of aerial shooting is done through the open window of an aircraft, temperature is an important consideration. Winter conditions can often provide the best visibility when the cold air prevents the build-up of haze. If it is a bitterly-cold day on the ground, you can usually count on it being even colder once you are airborne. Holding a camera in a very cold airflow can stiffen up fingers within seconds due to wind chill, and the aircraft's interior can quickly become too cold for you to function properly.

Winter photography requires extra precaution – warm clothing, minimal exposure to the elements, and the common sense to know when to quit before you develop frost-bite or are shivering so much you can’t point the camera properly.


HEAT SHIMMER

If the sun is particularly bright, rising heat waves may cause a shimmering effect in the air, particularly near ground level above surfaces that absorb heat (like a road surface) or reflect light (like a shiny metal roof). Excessive shimmer can distort the view, and is more noticeable when using a long lens at fairly low altitude.

CHECK THE FORECAST

Check the weather forecast from a reliable source before you head for the airport, then double-check it again before take-off.

A GOOD WEATHER RULE FOR AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

A good rule in gauging weather conditions for your aerial photography is to always err on the side of caution. If you feel at all uncertain, either from a safety perspective (high winds or fog, for example) or an image quality perspective due to questionable atmospheric conditions, you are probably right, and it is generally best to try again another day.

Shadow from scattered cloud on the deforested area improves the composition
Shadow from scattered cloud on the deforested area improves the composition
Further information...

Shooting in hazy conditions