Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Living with vapour trails

click photo to enlarge
One recent cold and frosty morning, as I went out into the garden to feed the birds, I chanced to look up and saw a curving vapour trail that was being made by an aircraft heading away from me. It was an odd route for a four-engined jet to be on, and as I studied the sky I noticed the remnants of a couple more such trails slowly de-materialising. Looking closer to the horizon I could see more curved trails whose positions suggested they were part of the same trails nearer to me: clearly one or more aircraft was flying in large circles over Lincolnshire and the nearby sea.

Some of the bigger RAF bases are in the county so unusual vapour trails are a common sight. However, it was immediately clear to me that there was only one four-engined military aircraft that would deliberately fly in circles, at great height. I took a pair of binoculars outside to get a better look and my suspicion was confirmed: a Boeing Sentry AEW1 (AWACS) with its large radome slowly revolving above it was flying in a circle that must have been twenty, thirty or perhaps more miles in diameter. It was clearly participating in some kind of exercise, monitoring and controlling other aircraft and perhaps shipping or land forces below. Either that or we were being invaded!

In one of my first blog posts (actually the eighth, in December 2005) I sounded off about vapour trails, calling them, as far as a photographer is concerned, aerial graffiti, and suggesting that "only rarely do they add something to the image." My view of them hasn't changed since then. I find them an unwanted intrusion much more often than they are an element that I want to include in a composition. But, I have made a few images where vapour trails are, I think, key to their success. This landscape and this semi-abstract of a fairground ride are a couple that come to mind.

However, vapour trails, I discovered recently, aren't always so obviously intrusive. In saying that I'm not referring to those that are so dishevelled that they look like clouds. A few days ago, after I'd taken a speculative shot of the moon through some nearby ash trees and a veil of thin cloud, I noticed near the bottom of the brighter part of the photograph, a wavy vapour trail. As I studied it I reflected that you aren't even free of the wretched things when you're photographing at night!

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 300mm
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/10 sec
ISO: 3200
Exposure Compensation:  -1.00 EV
Image Stabilisation: On