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HomePhoto TipsCountering for Heat Distortion in Images

Countering for Heat Distortion in Images

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Heat Distortion in Images

Shooting wildlife or landscape photography is a tough assignment to start off, but often nature plays spoilsport in manners that are unimaginable making it even tougher for even pros. Take for example a peculiar phenomenon called heat distortion.

You may have seen this in videos, especially in westerns, shimmering air while the camera looks over a vast patch of parched land. This is the worst kind of nightmare for a nature photographers, though cinematographers love it.

Griffith Observatory with Heat Distortion by Jeremy Miles
Griffith Observatory with Heat Distortion by Jeremy Miles

Sun heats up the land and air coming in contact with it also gets heated up. Heated air rises up. As the density of the air is different at different places you tend to get a shimmering effect. Landscape photographers as well as wildlife photographers have to deal with this problem every single day.

The problem seems to be exaggerated when you shoot with telephoto lenses and particularly over vast tracts of open land. Also you are likely to face this more often when shooting under the mid-day sun. To be honest there is nothing that you can do in concrete terms to counter this, only avoid it as much as possible. Here are some tips on how you can work your way around this problem.

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Shoot when the sun is not directly overhead

The air is coolest when the sun is closer to the horizon and vice versa. If you plan your shots so that you are shooting more during the dawn and dusk times you are not likely to be affected by heat distortion.

Avoid shooting with telephoto lenses

Telephoto lenses are likely to be affected the most. Try to avoid really long lenses during the day. Try the wide angle lens and attempt a different perspective. Alternatively try to get as close to the subject as possible to cut down the impact of heat distortion. At times however, there is really no way to get a shot unless you use telephoto lenses.

Bendy Rails by Tristan Honscheid
Bendy Rails by Tristan Honscheid


Avoid vast patches of dry land

Easier said than done but avoid dry patches of land when setting up your camera. The drier the patch of land you are shooting over the more likely it is going to affect your images. Some photographers prefer to shoot from over their car bonnet.

Wildlife photographers often use their vehicles as a blind, hiding behind them to shoot images. It’s a risky thing to do no doubt, especially if big games are around, but is effective. The car bonnet, especially if its mid-day can also cause cause the air to heat up and create heat distortion.

Shooting on cooler days

Shooting on cooler days is a good way to avoid this problem. You could also shoot on overcast days when the temperature is more amiable to use tele lenses.

Working with heat distortion

Heat distortions are not always a bad thing. Sometimes they do make for some pretty interesting images. If it is entirely not possible to avoid either use it or reschedule to come back later for the shoot.

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