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Aerial Photography – 5ive Tips

The world looks different from the air, and aerial photography thus offers some unique photo opportunities.

If you’re not a pilot, probably the best way to get aerial photos through a flight school at your local general-aviation airport. Training planes can fly fairly slowly, and the instructors will be familiar with the area’s airspace, and experienced at flying from either front seat (with some planes, only the window on the pilot’s side can be opened).

High-wing airplanes are generally considered best for aerial photography, because the wing is above the cockpit, out of the way when you’re shooting downward. However, most high-wing planes have wing struts, and many have fixed landing gear, both of which can get in the way. You can work around wings, struts and landing gear–I’ve done nearly all of my aerial photography from a low-wing plane, by aiming the camera midway between the wing and the nose of the plane. Sit in the airplane you’re going to use on the ground, open the window, and try different camera positions and lens focal lengths to see what will work best with that particular aircraft.

More important than wing configuration is that you can open a window in-flight, so you don’t have to shoot through the plexiglass. Shooting through the plastic will result in reflections, decreased sharpness, and a color cast if the plastic is tinted. If you can’t open the window, move the camera as close to it as you can without touching it, and shoot straight through the window, not at an angle to it. It’s also a good idea to wear black clothing and use a black cloth to minimize cockpit reflections. Don’t let the lens touch the window, frame or other part of the aircraft–vibrations will be transferred to the camera, causing unsharp images. And don’t stick the lens outside the plane–the rushing air can pull the camera right out of your hands, and will almost certainly tear off the lens hood.

If you are a pilot, remember that your first job is “pilot.” Fly the plane, and watch for traffic. When you arrive at the target area, slow the plane to a safe speed, trim it for hands-off flight at that speed, check the area for traffic, take a shot, check for traffic again, check airspeed and altitude, take another shot, etc. Don’t get so involved in shooting that you stall the plane or forget to check for traffic.

I have the large advantage of being the pilot on my aerial photo flights, so I can just fly the plane where I want it for each shot. If you go up as passenger, discuss beforehand with the pilot what you want to do, and establish a communication system. An intercom with headsets is invaluable here–it’s noisy in flight, especially with a window open.

Don’t look through the camera for long periods of time in flight, especially while the aircraft is turning–you’ll likely get airsick. When you spot a subject, have the pilot maneuver the plane into position, then bring the camera up to your eye and take the shot.

It can get cold aloft with the window open. Consider the temperature (it usually gets colder the higher up you go), and dress accordingly.

When photographing subjects on the ground, use manual-focus mode and set focus at infinity, then tape the focusing ring there so it doesn’t accidentally move.

While I do most of my shooting these days with digital SLRs, I still prefer film for aerial work–generally Kodak Ektachrome E100VS or Fujichrome Provia 100F or Velvia 100F, all pushed a stop to EI 200 to provide faster shutter speeds and more contrast. Aerial photos generally lack contrast and color saturation, due to the haze between camera and subject–you’ll be at least 500 feet from subjects on the ground (1000 feet in populated areas), and I’m often shooting from several thousand feet up during cross-country flights. If I need more speed, Fujichrome Provia 400F is the finest-grained high-speed slide film, and I also use Ektachrome E200 pushed to EI 400 or 800 at times.

A polarizing filter can help cut through haze (but not smog, which actually consists of particulate matter) and improve contrast, but I rarely use one.

1. The Best Time
As with all photography, lighting is a big factor. For aerial photography, the lighting is best early and late in the day, when the low-angle sun creates long, dramatic shadows. Ideally, you also want a clear and smooth day, because hazy weather makes for murky photos, and turbulence causes image blur and missed compositions. Unfortunately, clear days are generally that way because of strong winds, and strong winds make for bumpy flights. I’ve got a few good shots on bumpy days (also a lecture from air traffic control when I accidentally keyed the yoke-mount microphone button as a strong gust hit just as I shot, causing me to blow blew yet another composition, and I apparently muttered something untoward). If you’re up there and see something good to shoot, by all means, shoot it; but I wouldn’t deliberately set out on an aerial photo flight on a bumpy or hazy day.

Aerial photography is basically landscape photography, and the lighting is best early and late in the day, when the sun’s light is warm and shadows are long (top). Midday sun produces flat lighting that’s good for record shots, but pretty dull (bottom).

2. Shutter Speed & Aperture
In aerial photography, the subject is almost always at “infinity.” So depth of field is rarely a consideration. However, the camera is moving through the sky at more than a mile a minute, so motion-freezing shutter speeds are important, especially at lower altitudes.

For most aerial work, you want the fastest possible shutter speed, to offset the motion of the airplane (and camera), especially at lower altitudes. This shot was made with the camera pointed straight down at the ground for a vertical viewpoint. Remember to shoot some vertical-format images, too–don’t shoot everything in horizontal format.

I shoot wide-open in aperture-priority AE unless except in cloudy conditions where the sun might suddenly come out–the camera’s fastest shutter speed won’t be fast enough to avoid overexposure with the lens wide open. For example, at ISO 400 (which I use for cloudy weather), the proper shutter speed for bright sun at f/2.8 would be 1¼12,500. In such conditions, I either closely monitor the light level, or switch to program AE mode. (Action mode would provide the fastest possible shutter speed for a given light level, but doesn’t permit use of exposure comp, and I frequently use that–for example, most SLRs tend to overexpose greenery.)

A fast shutter speed is especially important when photographing nearby objects like clouds–even if you hold the camera perfectly steady, you are moving past the object at more than a mile a minute, and a slow shutter speed will blur it. Tip: Fly toward such subjects at an angle, rather than trying to shoot them when they are directly to the side–the relative motion will be less, and your chances of a sharp shot that much greater.

3. Focal Length
I like focal lengths from 28mm to 135mm for aerial photography (not coincidentally, I have a 28–135mm zoom lens). With wider focal lengths, it’s hard to keep from getting some part of the camera plane in the shot; with longer focal lengths, it’s hard to get sharp results due to camera shake (my 28–135 has a built-in image stabilizer). Sometimes it’s nice to use a really wide lens and deliberately include a wing as a graphic element, but generally it’s best to shoot “clean” aerial photos. With the “affordable” digital SLRs and their smaller-than-full-35mm-film-frame image sensors, any lens will have a narrower angle of view than it does on a 35mm SLR–my 28–135 frames like a 45–216 when used on my digital SLR with its 1.6X “crop factor.” This still provides a good range of focal lengths for aerial shooting, but I also have a wide-angle zoom lens I use on both film and digital cameras.

Sometimes a lens outside the 28–135mm focal-length range comes in handy. It’s a bad idea to fly near fires–smoke, turbulence and firefighting aircraft present hazards, and TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) make it illegal. This image was cropped from a shot made with a long image-stabilized lens from well clear of the fire area.

Why zoom lenses? Because it’s a lot easier to rotate or slide a zoom ring than it is to change altitude hundreds or even thousands of feet to get the desired composition. Most pro aerial photographers work at lower altitudes–500–1000 feet above ground–because shooting from lower altitudes provides a more dramatic perspective (the higher you shoot from the flatter everything looks) and reduces the amount of atmospheric haze between camera and subject, but I also shoot a lot of images while en route to destinations, at much higher altitudes.

4. Circle
Those perfect moments when camera angle and lighting are just right are fleeting. Keep your eyes open, and when you see something good, have the pilot circle it, so you can get several chances at that perfect moment.

If you see something interesting, have the pilot circle it, so you can shoot from several angles, and get more than one shot at the best one. Be sure to keep the horizon horizontal, even if it doesn’t appear in the frame. If you tilt the camera around the lens axis, the ground surface will look “off” and make viewers of the image uncomfortable.

5. Fear Not…
If you’re afraid of little airplanes, you can still get some “aerial” photos by shooting from hilltops or tall office buildings. This also provides the advantage of a stationary camera, allowing you to study your compositions carefully before shooting, and you can get sharp images in dimmer light by attaching the camera to a tripod and making longer exposures.

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