Beginners Aerial Photography Guide
Taking your camera up in a plane or helicopter to make aerial photography is one of the most exhilarating things you can do, it’s super amazing and everything looks totally different from the sky.
However rushing out and jumping into any airborne mode of transport is a huge risk if you don’t know what you are doing or if you have not put any preparation into your first aerial photography flight. Not to mention costly. Choosing your method of transport is also key to what you need, some helicopter operators will make sure you can’t switch lenses especially on the “doors off” experiences. In aeroplanes there is sometimes a small hole to shoot through which means there are far less restrictions from a security point of view.
My personal preference is a helicopter, especially for shooting city scapes but they can be pricey so watch your budget, however some tour operators offer regular discounts that make it super cheap to get up into the air for the first time. If you are in the New York area check out FlyNYON who make getting in the are very affordable. If you’re unsure what to expect you can always book a taster flight and take a small camera or phone up with you to check it out, this way it won’t be a daunting task on your second flight for example.
planning it out
There are other flight modes to choose from such as micro-lite, glider and even a tandem hang glider.
The other bit of planning you will need to consider is your location, get a sense of what you are trying to achieve before you fly and use Google Earth to see if a location has what you are looking for, of course there is still an element of risk if something comes off or not with regards to weather and how recent that Google Earth image is.
In NYC, Miami and Vegas there are a tonne of doors off aerial photography helicopter experiences that can be had for great prices, which really removes the financial barrier for access to helicopters. In small towns it’s worth cracking open the yellow pages and reaching out to local flight clubs and schools. They may know a pilot that can take you to your destination for $200 and get you in the air in an under wing plane. Again plan where you want to go, what to see and if need be take a short trip to see what it’s all about first before splurging big on a project.
Couple of things to note, normally the warmer / hotter the day the more chances of haze will try to ruin your sight distance, inner cities suffer with loss of visibility on hot days more than in the country. So plan your day and watch the weather or plan for a cooler time of year to go. Most tour based operators that fly set routes will be flexible, if you are going to charter then you may have much more flexibility.
kit and getting ready
Leave your long lenses at home unless you’re going up in an aeroplane of some kind, reason being is that the wind can really play a big part in keeping your camera stable or there lack of in a helicopter as your lens will have to fight with downward force as well as from the front of the aircraft. Taking a 24mm or 15-30mm is best when flying under 2,000ft. Anything up to 70mm is great, however the wider the better is normally the rule of thumb here and take some high quality fast glass such as f 2.8 or anything that bests it. If you are going on a high altitude flight then 85mm at most works best in a helicopter.
Take two cameras with a lens attached each. My preference is a wide zoom and a prime, if your pilot / tour company allows it, place an action cam of some sort securely inside and record your shoot. This is a great way of seeing what you did right and wrong, give commentary while you shoot too if necessary. It’s a nice way to improve and build your skills and of course shots you may have missed.
Wear something to cover the eyes like skydiving goggles or a strap to keep your glasses on if you wear them assuming you’re up in a helicopter. The wind has ripped glasses off my face before which made for a tricky drive home so take a precaution if you are flying doors off in either mode of transport but mostly with helicopter and microlite or ultra light aircraft.
If you are planning to go up into an ultralight aircraft, take something to protect your legs from the wind, they will get battered around somewhat and often new flyers will instantly regret not having insulated their legs and arms. It doesn’t really matter the time of year, its going to be much cooler than on the ground so grab some leg coverings such as ski salopettes which cost around $100 USD from any local distributor.
Here are some very important tips for shooting from a plane such as the cessna that should always be adhered to. Other items to check on fly day are the color of the seats inside the plane and your choice of clothes. Always wear black, everything from your toe to nose should be covered including wearing a balaclava if possible and your kit bag should also be black, if it has some reflective tabs then cover them with black duck tape. Since most planes will have you shooting through glass the reflection will occur at some point, the only way to reduce it to almost zero is covering yourself and the seat of the plane black. Easy way to cover the seats in the back of a cessna is using a mat black (no shine, polyester) untapered bed sheet for a twin bed, that is normally big enough to cover up those rear seats.
Make sure the windows are not only completely smudge free (take some window cleaner of your own and a lint free cloth just in case) but also single ply glass. Dual pane or dual ply like the kind you get on commercial jet liners can create so much shadow and reflection that your black covering will be next to useless as one pane of glass reflects off the other and bang goes your shoot.
Your camera performance will really depend on the brand you own but there are a tonne of things you can try to give you crisp images. If you are shooting during the mid morning or afternoon you are also competing with the shadow of buildings if you happen to be in an urban or city-scape area. So think you may need to recover shadows later on, it’s a neat trick to enable a small amount of dynamic range recovery in camera, or shoot knowing you can recover 2 to 3 stops of shadow.
Also add a UV filter to your camera too.
To get the shutter speed right I have a great rule of thumb which is, the faster the aircraft, the faster the shutter speed. Its really as simple as that as far as the shutter is concerned. A great test is while the helicopter or planes rotors are in “idle” take a shot. If the blades are not frozen take another shot with a faster shutter. Normally 1/500s nails it but its a brilliant and easy check to make before you get on the plane or aircraft if you are unsure.
Other settings I leave to the camera, ISO I switch to auto within 100s to 1600 limits and shoot in RAW so you can change the AWB at a later date in post of need be although I would just as easily say selecting a kelvin appropriate for the time of day too. You can save time and pre program your camera and recall these settings just before you fly if you wish and a technique I highly recommend.
Make sure your image stabilization is active both on the lens or sensor if either is applicable, if you have a pixel shift mode as well then turn that off.
One of the biggest challenges you will have is shooting at night, but check with your pilot they are allowed to do so before you fly. The lights of city buildings should produce enough light for your camera to pick up which is certainly the case in large metropolitan cities like New York, Chicago, LA and of course Las Vegas but be aware of the level of noise you are happy to introduce into your image with your ISO setting. Knowing your camera is very important here, and setting the camera to the highest threshold will bring grain, so try and keep that to a minimum knowing you will have some tidying to do in post production.
For night flying I would keep to around 1/250 at the very least and drop the ISO to ISO3200+ and f5 at the minimum, it will depend on your camera performance but this is my go-to depending how much light is available.