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Ground-based measurements of the solar transmission and sky radiance in a horizontal plane through the Sun are taken in several geographical regions and aerosol types: dust in a desert transition zone in Israel, sulfate particles in Eastern and Western Europe, tropical aerosol in Brazil, and mixed continental/maritime aerosol in California. Stratospheric aerosol was introduced after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991. Therefore measurements taken before the eruption are used to analyze the properties of tropospheric aerosol; measurements from 1992 are also used to detect the particle size and concentration of stratospheric aerosol. The measurements are used to retrieve the size distribution and the scattering phase function at large scattering angles of the undisturbed aerosol particles. The retrieved properties represent an average on the entire atmospheric column. A comparison between the retrieved phase function for a scattering angle of 120°, with phase function predicted from the retrieved size distribution, is used to test the assumption of particle homogeneity and sphericity in radiative transfer models (Mie theory). The effect was found to be small (20% ± 15%). For the stratospheric aerosol (sulfates), as expected, the phase function was very well predicted using the Mie theory. A model with a power law size distribution, based on the spectral dependence of the optical thickness, α, cannot estimate accurately the phase function (up to 50% error for λ = 0.87µm). Before the Pinatubo eruption the ratio between the volumes of sulfate and coarse particles was very well correlated with α. The Pinatubo stratospheric aerosol destroyed this correlation. The aerosol optical properties are compared with analysis of the size, shape, and composition of the individual particles by electron microscopy of in situ samples. The measured volume size distributions before the injection of stratospheric aerosol consistently show two modes, sulfate particles with r m < 0.2 µm and coarse particles with r m > 0.7 µm. The "window" in the tropospheric aerosol in this radius range was used to observe a stable stratospheric aerosol in 1992, with r m~ 0.5 µm. A combination of such optical thickness and sky measurements can be used to assess the direct forcing and the climatic impact of aerosol. Systematic inversion for the key aerosol types (sulfates, smoke, dust, and maritime aerosol) of the size distribution and phase function can give the relationship between the aerosol physical and optical properties that can be used to compute the radiative forcing. This forcing can be validated in dedicated field experiments.