5 Tips For Aerial Photography

Photo by Jeff Stamer / Kauai's Kahili Falls

Photo by Jeff Stamer / Kauai’s Kahili Falls

Many of us were first attracted to photography because it allowed us to see the world anew. Your camera challenges you not only to explore new places but also see familiar ones differently. One of the most dramatic ways to do this is with aerial photography.

Have you ever taken two shots a few yards apart and been amazed at how different they looked? That slight difference in perspective is multiplied exponentially in aerial photography.

For example, look at these two photos of Kauai’s Na Pali coast:


From sea-level, Na Pali is pretty... / Photo by Jeff Stamer

From sea-level, Na Pali is pretty… / Photo by Jeff Stamer




...but from the air, the view is epic! / Photo by Jeff Stamer

…but from the air, the view is epic! / Photo by Jeff Stamer

This is the same stretch of coastline at about the same time of day, but what a difference 500 feet in altitude can make! Not only that, but there are some incredible locations that can only be photographed from the air.

The primary challenge of aerial photography is that it requires different techniques than we normally use. Even experienced photographers are often disappointed with the results of their initial flights. I certainly wasn’t any different. It took a lot of research plus trial and error before I could produce quality images. Below I’d like to share five critical tips that will help make your next aerial photography experience a productive one:

#1 – Plan, Plan, Plan

Like any type of photography, the more planning you do, the more likely it is that you’ll have a productive shoot. Before booking a flight or a tour, check out the tour’s website first. Then review them on Trip Advisor and similar sites to see what previous customers thought (frankly, some places simply don’t have many sights worth photographing, or at least not enough to justify the cost of a flight).

Look at Google Earth and Flickr to find out what sights/locations are in the area. Finally, remember that most pilots have flown with photographers before and are glad to share their expertise—don’t hesitate to take advantage of their input as well.

#2 – No Windows

The best way to photograph from an aircraft is through an open window. Windows create reflections that you might not notice in the air, but they are painfully obvious later when reviewing images on your monitor. Windows also desaturate colors, reduce contrast and often add a blue/green color cast.

TIP: Many small planes and helicopters have removable doors. If you ask around, you will likely find a tour that offers this option. This is the perfect platform for aerial photography and it also makes for an incredibly fun experience!

#3 – Shoot Fast, Shoot Often!

Set your camera on Shutter Priority and select 1/750th of a second. This will help “freeze” your shots despite your aircraft’s speed and vibrations.
If your camera has a “burst mode,” then use it. Take multiple shots of the same subject. This will help if a propeller blade shows up in some frames or if your autofocus doesn’t nail every shot.

#4 – Shoot Wide and Crop Later

When I’m taking a landscape shot, I’ll often spend two or three minutes to make sure everything is perfectly composed, level and focused. Unfortunately, you won’t have this luxury in the air. You are paying big bucks for every minute and you want to make the most of every one of them.

#5 – Take the Right Lens

Zoom lenses are the perfect choice. You don’t want to try changing lenses in the cockpit (some pilots won’t even allow it). Besides, the ability to zoom is critical to maximizing your productivity. You won’t need a long zoom, I have found that most of my shots are taken between 28-130mm on a full frame camera (18mm-84mm on cropped APS-C sensor). Besides long zooms tend to be much more susceptible to vibration.

Hopefully this brief article will perk your interest in aerial photography. If you decide to give it a try, you might be interested in a much more detailed article I’ve written at: http://www.firefallphotography.com/aerial-photography-tips-guide/

Enjoy your flight!

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Jeff StamerAbout the Author: Jeff Stamer got his first camera, a secondhand Kodak Brownie back in 1964. A lot has certainly changed since then, but he will tell you that love of photography hasn’t been one of them. After a 30 year interlude with an international Fortune 500 corporation, Jeff returned to full-time wildlife and landscape photography in 2010. He has since been making up for those lost decades with a vengeance. Jeff writes a regular photography blog and maintains a well-respected website at: http://www.firefallphotography.com/

Comments

  1. One thing you missed was the importance of keeping the horizon horizontal in the frame. I just recently did some aerial photography for my book and had to be really conscious of that when getting horizons in the photograph.

    • Great tip, Frank. An angled horizon will make or break an aerial shot.

    • Hi Frank,
      You are absolutely correct about the horizon. I could only briefly touch on that topic in my 4th bullet-point (one of the challenges of writing a brief ‘Top 5″ article)! I think you might like the much longer and detailed article I mentioned in the last paragraph. Take a peek and let me know what you think,
      Thanks!
      Jeff

  2. One thing worth mentioning would be the use of a gyrostabilizer. If you have a serious aerial opportunity and you wish to maximize you shot quality, gyroscopically stabilizing your camera is the way to go. This is especially useful is lower light (sunset, sunrise, early morning, night shots of volcanos) where longer shutter speeds will be required. They are a necessity, if you’re doing HD video from a plane or helicopter. Keep in mind these are much more powerful than the IS or VR on your lens.

    Gyrostabilizers can be rented at most camera rental suppliers for $50 per day and work by using opposing gyroscopic vibrations to counteract vibrations from the aircraft and your forward motion. You can also buy one for $1300+, if you will be doing a fair amount of aerial photography.

    • Hi Eric,
      Good point about gyrostabilizers. For video they are critical and for very low-light situations they can be a wonderful too as well. I’ll update the detailed article on my website to include your tip. Thanks again!
      Jeff

  3. Thanks for these great tips, I have some upcoming trips over the next 12 months and would like to experiment with aerial photography, not my forte! Your examples and tips are right on point, thanks and keep up the good work!

    http://www.jaredlawsonphotography.com

    • Thanks for the feedback Jared! One of my favorite things about this job is helping out other photographers and it is always nice to know that my tips have come in handy. Good luck with your upcoming aerial work and send me some examples!
      Jeff

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