Storm Blogging

The Andes

 

 

 

 

Descending into the Andes can be a truly inspiring experience, specially on a foggy morning, with the sun hitting the mountain tops at an angle.

 

 

 

 

 

You don’t need any colors to enjoy the shapes and the shadows of the mountains.

Volcanoes pierce the fog into the clean atmosphere above

A great and beautiful lake on what is a very old volcano crater called Quilotoa, is reflecting the sun light off its surface.

 

As we pass this lake, the view changes dramatically, with the great volcanoes at the far end of the image.

Shooting at 35000FT

 

You probably know that I fly the Boeing 767. This marvelous aircraft is capable of lifting 186 tons of mass up to 43000Ft into the atmosphere.. impressive!! until you hear of the 300+ ton aircraft that today fly all around the world.

Most people wonder if flying near storms represents a hazard to the flight. Scary as it seems, flying ‘near’ storms represents no hazard at all. Do not confuse it with flying ‘into’ the storm, which indeed represents a great hazard and therefore is always avoided at all costs.

Anyway, I’ve seen that most people are scared of a pilot taking pictures from an airliner. I guess they’re comparing this to taking a selfie while driving a car.. with 250 passengers.

The thing is that there are indeed critical phases of flight where as a pilot you’re 100% concentrated and can make no mistake. Takeoff and landing are really demanding, specially when using little or no automation from the aircraft.

Cruise phase can be really demanding too. Specially if you have turbulence, weather, traffic, system failures, etc. But generally you have some time left you can use. Did you really think that pilots can spend so much time airborne without eating?

 

The truth is we make use of the autopilot during the cruise phase. This doesn’t mean we don’t set course or altitude. This means we do it by turning knobs and pushing buttons, not moving the controls. It is actually kind of illegal to hand fly the aircraft at high altitudes. Why? Because up there, all aircraft have a very precise (and small) separation from each other, and at such great speeds, minimal control deflection could quickly move the aircraft out of its assigned altitude. Try to drive your car at 500mph and you’ll get the idea.

 

So, when is it safe to shoot? If cruise phase is uneventful, one pilot can have the controls of the aircraft, while the other can take a minute and shoot a picture, eat his breakfast, etc. Personally, I prefer to shoot when I’m not even sitting at the controls of the aircraft. This happens on every single long haul flight (usually 12 hour flights or more) because we carry extra crew to take turns at the controls so you can go back and have some sleep. It is during this sleep turn that I jump into the cockpit, seat on the observer’s seat (there are two extra seats behind the main pilot seats) and shoot at the storms all around us. This gives me the ability to spend a lot of time on each storm, while the other two pilots are happily flying the aircraft .

Living in one city and flying from another one, makes me do a lot of dead-head commuting. Which means I fly just like a passenger from one city to the other. This is really cool because as a pilot I can jumo into the cockpit of the Airbus fleet, learn a lot about it (I’ve never flown Airbus) and of course, take some storm portraits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shooting Techniques

A lot of people ask me about what settings I used on specific photos, if I used a tripod, etc. and while most of these questions have a clear answer, others are still a big question mark to me.

I do have a “checklist” (can’t help it, I’m a pilot) to go through every time I shoot a Storm Portrait. Always fix the focus to infinity even before takeoff. Always use the manual mode. Always use the widest aperture of the lens (at least the widest usable: I found myself using a f1.8 lens always at f2.2 because of the crappy performance at f1.8 and the great results at f2.2)

However, I always end up messing around with some other settings for every shoot and they end up being really different from scenario to scenario. The ISO for example really depends on the lens. If I have a very fast lens (the f2.2 I was talking about) then I can begin with an ISO somewhere around ISO400, whereas for a not so fast lens (f4 or f5.6) I prefer to begin with something around ISO1600 which in today’s DSLRs is not a problem at all.

I believe the most discussed setting is the shutter speed and it turns out to be the one that I always end up changing the most. Not all storms are equal, they’re not even the same from one lightning to the next one. Light from a first lightning can be so low that it barely shows up on the screen, but the next one could be so powerful that it completely blows up the highlights. So YES, luck plays a big role on my storm portraits.

Compare this shot with the first one. They’re both about the same storm, just seconds away from each other. The first one while still a great photo, could have been improved by a lower ISO, so the highlights are not blown inside the storm. Of course I didn’t know the lightning was going to be so powerful, this is where intuition and luck play a big role.