Photographs can easily be taken on every flight, but here are my best tips and tricks for aerial photography to make sure you get the ‘Wow’ shots!
Introduction to Aerial Photography
Most people are used to viewing the World, from an altitude of around 5 to 6 feet, while standing. Many pilots learn to fly, simply because they enjoy looking down on everyone. I’m joking of course, but in reality the views we experience inflight offer a very unique perspective. Naturally, photographers have capitalized on these views since the days of the balloons, and they’ve created stunning images of our planet.
Now that everyone carries a camera in their phone, it’s a given that photographs can easily be taken on every flight – and not just influencer selfies.
Sure, professional aviation cinematographers can hire helicopters and gyro-stabilised gimbals to hold their medium format professional digital SLR cameras, however, hobbiests and enthusiasts can still produce terrific images with our cheaper yet convenient handheld gear.
What is aerial photography?
Aerial photography is the process of capturing images of the Earth’s surface from an elevated perspective. The first aerial photographs were taken in 1858 by a French balloonist named Felix Tournachon, who captured images of Paris from above. Aerial photography quickly became a valuable tool for cartographers, federal agencies and military planners, and was used extensively during World War I and World War II to help with battlefield reconnaissance and enemy movements. Geoscience Australia has a huge historical aerial photography collection. Time also has some fantastic historical photos.
Today, aerial photography is widely used in a variety of applications, including land use planning and records, real estate marketing, mapping and news reporting, as well as satellite imagery from space, which has been a huge technology advancement in recent years. It can be used to capture stunning images of landscapes, construction progress, high-rise architectural designs or to provide important information about a particular area. It is also widely used for recreational purposes.
How can we improve our aerial photographs?
- Ensure your phone or camera is fully charged before flight
- Ensure you have sufficient memory for the photographs.
- Clean your lens
- Plan the flight if you have a clear objective or subject in mind.
- Talk with your pilot and go over geographic information systems or airspace limitations.
- Think about the time of day that would be ideal. Generally flying conditions in the morning are smoother and cooler, however you must also consider the position of the sun and shadows
- Shoot through an open window or open cockpit, or at least clean the windows before flight
- Avoid resting cameras against the window, as the vibration of the engine can create a ripple effect in the image
- It’s best not to drop your camera out of the window- for obvious reasons
- If photographing through glass try to wear dark or black clothing to minimise reflections. Ask your fashion conscious pilot to dress in similar slimming colours
- When taking your photos, glance in each corner of the shot to ensure you aren’t getting excessive ‘airplane bits’ in your frame. You can ask your pilot to raise or lower their wing to give you a clearer view, and an orbit may be possible. The propellor is normally almost invisible to the human eye, but if it gets in shot it can become an annoying feature. If you can lower the shutter speed or fit a Neutral Density filter, then that pesky prop may disappear.
- Remember to identify and focus on the subject, and not your wing or window. Many camera phones focus simply by pressing on the screen where your desired subject appears.
- Try to avoid using excessive zoom by flying lower- within reason. Generally speaking, you are often limited in low flying to 500ft in regional areas or 1000ft above built-up areas and cities. Lots of zoom amplifies any handheld shake which will blur your images, so low altitude aerial photography can turn out really well.
- Take more photos than you think you need. The aeroplane costs a lot to operate, and you may not get another opportunity. Film is cheaper than AvGas, but so is digital memory.
- What looks awesome in camera might not look too ‘crash hot’ back on the ground when opened on your computer, so shoot a few ‘backup’ photos.
How to help the pilot
- Try not to say the word ‘crash’ in front of your pilot.
- Be a valued crew member. Listen intently to the pre-flight brief, hold the microphone close to your mouth, try to avoid speaking when you hear anyone on the radio, and alert the pilot if you see any other small or full size aircraft nearby
- If you drop anything inside the aircraft, let the pilot know. If you feel sick, let the pilot know. If you left your iron on at home, let the pilot know.
- Smile at, or applaud, their awesome landing
- You don’t have to tip your pilot, but it’s sure appreciated if you help them push the aircraft back into the hangar
- It’s also polite to offer them a copy of the images if possible. It might just get printed and displayed in their hangar or at home
Summary of Aerial Photography
Good aerial images will depend on multiple factors and while the above tips will help you, it will also be dependent upon the camera you are using for aviation photography, the landscape, your location, whether there are other airplanes around, weather and sky, the angle of the photo, the altitudes you are flying, your photography research, ground terrain, other detail in the image, how the prints actually turn out and the type of aerial imagery you are photographing.
Have you tried any aerial photography of your own, as a pilot or a passenger? Let us know if you have any tips you could add.