Can someone please explain these trails at sunset [Contrails]

Peter Stewart

New Member
These 5 photos were taken at the weekend just gone, from Alderley Edge, UK, looking West at sunset.
Firstly, what kind of cloud is that ? Looks like smoke. But it isn't.
And secondly, take a close look at the photos...above the rounded shaped pine tree in first shot there is a 'boomerang' type shape....zoom in to spot it.
In the series of shots you can see it hangs shape, straighten up and arch upwards...
I never saw it at the time, busy trying to catch the sunset without blur.
I switched views for a couple of shots and then switced back...the final shot shows the object streaking away at the top of the shot. It's not a hair as all shots of other views that I took between the first and last photos I've attached here do not have the same 'aberration'. All other photos without any aberrations. I wish it was as simple as a hair. But it's not.
And I assure you I have better things to do than play around on photoshop. Please feel free to check the photos for any type of tampering. They are not faked in any way.

Which therefore begs the questions?
1. What's that smoke shaped cloud all about?
2. What is that shape shifting object?
3. What's going on out there in the skies, in plain view?

The weather was perfect. Very still. There's a regular vertical contrail to the left of some shots.
This shape shifting object is something very different.

There appears to be a second object streaking towards the 'smoke-stack' cloud... looks like a fine line, drawn in pencil horizontally, towards the right hand side of some images. Again I promise you I haven't interfered with these images at all except to bring out the shadows in some on my iPad photo app. Nothing more.

I'm not able to upload all 5 shots at once so will upload each shot in next upload, immediately.
Sorry, this is my first post, just try and get these five images explained before I go nuts.

Please explain!


Peter Stewart

Just want to say thanks to all the brilliant and super fast responses to my questions. Am knocked out by the quality of the replies. A really superb website. Thank you all.
So now, having solved one riddle within minutes, I've got a few other photographic anomalies which I'm going to upload next thread

Here are the 5 photos in sequence...see the object seemingly change shape and by photo 5 it's streaking towards the top of the shot, heading north. WTF?

IMG_7208.JPG IMG_7213.JPG IMG_7214.JPG IMG_7215.JPG IMG_7216.JPG
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Mick West

Staff member
The "smoke" is a old contrail, spread out a bit as it drifted in the wind. It looks dark because it is no longer lit by the sun.

The contrail on the left is high enough to still be lit by the sun. It has also spread out

The "boomerang"/"hair" appears to be a distant short contrail.
However it's hard to tell with these small images. If you email the full sized image (or just one) to me at, then I can give a better analysis.
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Mick West

Staff member
The "boomerang"/"hair" appears to be a distant short contrail.
More context on that, compare it to these distant short contrails in a tme-lapse video I took several years ago:

In particular the ones at 00:19:

Towards the end of the video you will see the trails appear dark, almost black (unfortunately the camera auto-focus messes up a bit).
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Staff member
The "smokey" effect is typical of contrails just after sunset, when they are in shadow. It reminds me of this photo, also taken at the weekend:

In this photo you can see a higher or more distant trail (at the top left) that is still catching the light and appears whiter than the others:

As Mick says, the "hair-like" trail is another contrail, but not necessarily more distant (it stays looking "hair-like" even when high in the sky). It looks thinner because it *is* thinner - it is at a different altitude, where the air is drier, so the contrail is not persisting and spreading.


Staff member
What was the time and date of the shot? The flight should be identifiable with that course change making the "double bend", turning first left then right. If it was this Sunday just gone then this would be a candidate, right around sunset:


Alderley Edge is in the red circle.

The course corrections look very minor on a flight tracker, but when viewed almost "end on" the turns look much sharper due to foreshortening.
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Mick West

Staff member
Peter emailed the full images to me, and I've edited the first post to include them. Close examination reveals the "hair" to look just a contrail, especially in the 4th image:


and the last image:

Compare with this image I took under better lighting conditions
Zoomed in:

Mick West

Staff member
This animation might be helpful. The plane is flying towards the camera, so looks like it is going upwards. The slight curves in the path are greatly amplified by perspective foreshortening, as explained above.


Staff member
Exif of the curved image says
Date Time Digitized: Mar 25, 2017, 7:30:08 PM

That's an hour after local sunset. The clocks went forward that night, so sunset on Mar 25 was around 6.30 and on Mar 26 it was close to 7.30.

The images look too light to be one hour after sunset.

Mick West

Staff member
Update from Peter via email:


Staff member
It would be interesting to know when the photos were really taken though. That EXIF data can't be right as it would have been dark at that time. Can you help, @Peter Stewart ?


Senior Member.
This guy was filming in Liverpool on the 25th March. Possibly he captured some of the flights that created those older contrails?




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