Photographing storms from the best seat in the sky

CNN  — 

One perk of being a pilot is a front-row seat to the Earth’s natural wonders – from jaw-dropping sunrises to silver slivers of lightning against ink colored-clouds.

Thankfully for those of us stuck way in the back, some aviators enjoy taking out their cameras to share the view from the cockpit.

Among them is Ecuador-based Santiago Borja who is known as “The Storm Pilot” because of the images of unfolding meteorological phenomena he’s taken.

Borja began photographing stormy skies four years ago when his hobbyist’s skills with a camera improved enough to encourage him to bring it to work.

“I realized that we have such great views from the aircraft, that it would be a really good opportunity to portray those landscapes,” Borja tells CNN Travel, “and then share these views with my friends with my family – and ultimately with everybody else.”

His photographs aren’t just aesthetically pleasing, they’ve also got scientific significance – even NASA has taken interest.

Now Borja’s images are the subject of a book, “#TheStormPilot,” published by teNeues, accompanied by illuminating insight from meteorologist Michaela Koschak.

Stormy scenes

Pilot Santiago Borja takes photographs of storms from the airplane cockpit.

Borja, who became a pilot because he wanted to see the world from a unique perspective, now flies a Boeing 767 for a major airline.

“On our long haul flights we’re usually three to four pilots and we switch places,” explains Borja. “So on a 12 hour flight we always get six hours off the controls. So that’s a perfect opportunity for me to try different angles, different lenses.”

Borja takes the photographs on his commute to work and while he's off the controls.

He adds: “We have two great windows on the observer seat in the cockpit. These are on the sides, one on each side of the aircraft. The good thing is that you don’t have any glare from inside lights, so it’s a great place to try and take these photos.”

He’s not the only pilot to snap photographs from 30,000 feet – in 2018, CNN Travel interviewed pilot photographer Christiaan van Heijst, known for his striking cockpit captures.

Borja differentiates his work by concentrating on tumultuous weather conditions.

“It’s something different – something that hasn’t been done yet from the air,” he says.

International recognition

Borja's photographs have been recognized across the world.

At first, Borja was just sharing his images with like-minded colleagues, plus friends and family.

“Pilots, cabin crew, we love to see these landscapes because we are always flying through them,” he says.

After sharing them more widely, one entitled “Pacific Storm” was shared by a Twitter user and attracted attention.

“A couple of meteorologists asked me about this image – because it has also some quite interesting features for the scientific community,” says Borja. “It’s a very particular storm.

This image won Third Place in the landscape category of the National Geographic 2016 Nature Photographer of the Year.

“I realized that people like those images and it was worth sharing them.”

“Pacific Storm” depicts a large cumulonimbus storm cloud over the Pacific Ocean, taken en route to South America.

“Carrying up anything from 20 to 100 million tons of water, cumulonimbus are also the cloud formations associated with hurricanes,” explains weather expert Koschak in Borja’s book.

This striking shot landed Borja with third place in the landscape category of the National Geographic 2016 Nature Photographer of the Year.

Borja says a combination of a great view and good conditions helped him get the shot.

“Because the atmosphere was so calm and there was an isolated storm, I was able to capture this storm with very little blur – and it was almost as if I had a tripod,” recalls Borja.

“It was a great moment that is very difficult to get when you are there – because there’s always some movement or the storm has some clouds around it and it’s not the perfect scenario – but this one was, and it’s kind of as if you had painted the storm.”

Another of Borja’s favorite images, a bolt of lightning illuminating the skies above Ecuador’s rainforests, features on his book’s cover.

“It’s called ‘Lightning Strike’ and it’s one of the few images I have of lightning that is outside of a storm,” he says.

“Usually lightning happens inside the cloud so you don’t see the lightning itself you just see the clouds glaring from this light.”

Scientific interest

NASA, MIT and the Columbia University have all taken interest in Borja's images.

As well as garnering him thousands of followers on Instagram, Borja’s images have also attracted attention from scientific centers.

NASA has used a couple for presentations on particular storms, he says.

Others photos have contributed to scientific research at Columbia University, where scientists used them to compare with satellite analysis.

“They were telling me that these images are quite useful for them because they can see how accurate their forecasts are,” Borja says.

The pilot takes photographs of extreme weather across the globe, but he namechecks “the Amazon – the rainforests from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador” as particularly photogenic.

The skies above the Panama and the Caribbean are also fruitful

“It’s a very active area,” he says. “You can always expect some weather around there.”

Despite a growing portfolio, there are plenty of weather conditions he’s never photographed.

“There are many types of storms or phenomenon related to storms that I haven’t seen yet – or that I have seen, but I have been unable to photograph because I have been flying at that moment, so I am unable to take my camera out,” Borja explains.

He uses a DSLR – digital single lens reflex camera – and, to take good images in low light, avoids automatic settings.

“I would use manual exposure, manual focus, the biggest aperture I can, depending on the lens I use,” says Borja.

Borja usually uses manual photography settings for his images.

“But after that, for example talking about the exposure length, the time setting – it varies a lot depending on how far is the storm, depending how much light there is available, if there is a full moon it’s different versus when there is no moon – so that takes a lot of trial and error”

One common misconception of Borja’s work is that the photographs are taken in turbulence. Borja explains it’s actually the opposite.

“The fact that you can see the storm is because you are away from the storm and you are flying through clear air. So I would say that all of my images happen in a very quiet, very calm environment. There’s no turbulence, there is not much going on in the cabin.”

This atmosphere, Borja says, is his favorite part of the process – admiring the view from the cockpit, camera in hand or not.

“It’s a very quiet, very peaceful moment – and it’s kind of great because you get to enjoy the image, even if I don’t have my camera on board, I just enjoy looking at the stars.”