Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Farms Floating in the Clouds

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Aerial photography always presents problems. Getting this picture for National Geographic’s soil story presented extra problems. But the view was worth it. Boy, was it worth it.

Here’s how shooting aerial pictures is often presented: “Sweeping low over the clouds I shouted to my pilot, ‘There’s the farm.’ Quickly I raised my Nikon to my eye and clicked the shutter. I had my picture!”

Well, not quite. It makes a nice story, but it hardly ever works out that way. Here’s how it really worked.

My assignment for National Geographic was to photograph soil, that least honored of all resources, without which human life on Earth would be impossible. Telling its story in pictures, however, was no easy matter. One aspect I wanted to illustrate was that soil, so susceptible to erosion, can also be restored to health. From a previous story I knew about the Coon Creek Watershed of southeast Wisconsin, the area where the then-new Soil Conservation Service first began efforts to halt and reverse the erosion that was, in the 1920s, the worst in America.

I had been lucky enough, during my first visit, to find fog in the valleys during an early morning flight. I wondered if I might get lucky again. The luck was in finding the right pilot, one who knew the weather patterns around that area of Wisconsin. That turned out to be a flight instruction teacher just across the Mississippi in Winona, Minnesota, which had the nearest airport where I could find a high-wing Cessna 182 for my photography.

The trick is timing. Under the right meteorological conditions (dew point, temperature, etc.) the fog forms just before dawn. Since you can’t take off in a small plane in the fog we had to be in the air 45 minutes before sunrise. (As it happened, that was just enough, and the fog was drifting in from the river as we lifted off the ground.) The second trick is that the fog wouldn't burn off until later in the morning, meaning it would be several hours until we could land again. But the fog forms in the valleys of that hilly region around the river, not up on the high hills farther away. That meant that there were several small airports within easy reach where we could put down, if we had to, and wait out the fog (and where we could have a nice breakfast in the airport café).

In the event, it all worked like clockwork. Almost immediately upon takeoff I could see that the fog was forming. Within half an hour it was wisping over farms, curling around barns and silos, making everything quite dreamy. (Now it was my job not to screw up this incredible opportunity with some stupid mistake.)

Dawn really lit up the fog, but I knew it would also burn it off eventually, so we were in a race to find the right farm to shoot. Several opportunities looked good, and I worked them hard, which meant circling around, looking for the right angle and flight path, then flying and refining that flight path over and over to position the camera exactly.

Finally we found the farm you see, gloriously floating in the clouds, along the winding road that snakes along St. Mary’s Ridge. The red barn, white house, and windmill were perfect, offering just the right scene. And the contoured fields were graceful, the very picture of fertility. Hard to believe these very fields had once been gullied with erosion, sending their precious topsoil down the muddy Mississippi.

We worked it hard. I didn't count but I would guess we made 15 to 20 passes over the farm. Who knows what the farmer thought of this airplane circling his fields. For this shot we came in low, flying perpendicular and slightly away from the farm so I could shoot out the open window and get the plane’s strut out of the way (always a problem). I shot it with my Nikon D2Xs and 17-55 f/2.8. Metadata says it was 1/640th at f/4, motordriving all the way.

The remaining trick was to get home on the remaining fuel. Not so tough, as we found a hole in the clouds over the airport back at Winona and tucked down quickly while we had the chance.

But here is the big lesson: The picture would never have happened without a pilot who knew the tricks of the weather. A pilot who can put your camera in the right place at the right time is priceless.