What to do About the Weather

November 03, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Thunderstorms rolled through the area last night and it got me to thinking. For pilots concerned about safety and completing a mission, CAVU* meteorological conditions might be preferred. But the weather may have other ideas and missions get flown sometimes in spite of the weather. Sometimes those missions involve capturing images of aircraft.

Before we get too far along, let me assure you that we never fly a photo mission if the weather would reduce safety. Not going to happen.

But that doesn't mean we fly and shoot only in those CAVU conditions. Sometimes you just can't wait (deadlines) and other times you actually prefer it. CAVU can be nice but it can also be boring.

_MBP5304 Here is a recent image captured in clear air. It's actually pretty good, but that is more a function of the scenery and composition than how the aircraft plays against the setting. A cloudless sky would change the character of the image, reducing it in my opinion. Then remove the mountains? Well, if all you have is a beautiful shot of an aircraft against nothing but blue sky, one glance and the reader moves on to other things.

What do you get with weather? You get, if you're lucky, more drama. More variability. More eye-catching moments. Imagine if I had taken the above photo five seconds later. Or ten seconds before. Not much would have changed. The mountains would be slightly rearranged, but the basic lighting and setting are pretty much set. Get the good shot and move on.

_MBP9933 Unlike this situation. The ragged clouds appear nearly unbroken beyond the aircraft, but obviously there is a tear in the cover letting sun in on the ship and a strip of rugged ground. The white parts of the ship contrast against the shadowed mountain and the blues in the shadows contrast with the warmth of the sunlit elements. The skies are uncertain, the light is in motion. Five seconds from now the sun might be gone or the midground might be in shadow and the ridgeline in the light!

Here we have another example of a shot made with broken clouds overhead. This was a case of a deadline pushing me into the air when the weather looked un-promising (this mission was for a cover story in Aviation Week & Space Technology). The aircraft went out for a final check flight so I cooled my heels awaiting its return. (See below for an exciting event that occurred while I waited. I'm serious!) The sky seemed to offer nothing but gray opportunities. Still, I will create the best possible with what we have to work with.

The aircraft returned from the test flight, refueled, and we launched into that dull sky. However, once away from the airfield and into the mountains the beauty of the conditions became obvious. The aircraft and the background were alternately lit or shadowed, allowing dynamic compositions of color and brightness. The image above has the aircraft in the shadow of a cloud, which actually brings out the glossiness of the black paint, mirroring the sky above and ground below.

DEA MD Explorer

Here's another shot. It's missing the mountainous background but for a cover image it is, of course, more useful — all this low-detail background gives the designer clear space to put the flag, story titles, indicia, and the like. With this kind of lemonade to be made, you sometimes wish for lemons!


When The Ground Doesn't Cooperate
What's the exciting event that occurred while I waited for the black helo? Oh, just an AStar crash right before my very eyes, and into my camera…

A-Star N970AEA-Star N970AEThis A-Star was damaged during training on 20 January 2004 at Falcon Field, Mesa, Ariz.

They were practicing autorotations but as they neared the ground this time I could tell they were going too fast. So, as they were coming down my camera was coming up.

As I understand it, the student and instructor, both, were just a bit late in flaring, thus smacked the turf a bit harder than they should have, and then the coup de grâce — the right-side skid dug into that turf and, instead of the aircraft springing up from a hard landing, with maybe a bent aerial on the belly, the physics of gyroscopes took over and, bound as it was to the ground on only one side, it spun and rolled and my first frame has its first main rotor blade striking that ground. Not long after everything stopped spinning and flinging and banging, out popped three men and, from them, three cell phones. Whew! (By the way, you can see the gray skies I was worried about.)


* CAVU means ceiling and visibility unlimited.


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Photography is a massive field. Aerospace photography less so. In these writings I share stories and tips.
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