If you've been reading my tips for a while, you already know that good photos are often taken from unusual perspectives. An eye-level shot of a sailboat on the water may be boring, but the same shot taken from water level or from the top of a lighthouse will give the viewer an unusual perspective that will greatly enhance the visual appeal of the image.
Now imagine that same boat photographed from an even greater height. Not many of us get to experience the world from the cockpit of an aircraft - at least not regularly - which makes high altitude shots almost instantly appealing. Aerial photography isn't just for real estate professionals, it can be a great opportunity for any photographer to capture some stunning and unusual images. But it's often no simple (or inexpensive) matter to arrange a plane and a pilot, so it's important to make sure you know enough in advance to make the very best out of the experience.
Where does the average hobby photographer come up with an airplane?
If you don't have any friends who are private pilots, you can still get into a plane pretty easily. Most flight schools have instructors who will double as aerial tour guides--if not, the local flight school is sure to know of a few private pilots who are willing to take photographers up for a fee. Expect to pay a fairly healthy price for the privilege, though--you'll likely have to pay for the pilot's time, for rental of the aircraft and for fuel.
The type of aircraft DOES matter
If you're not familiar with general aviation it probably won't occur to you that some types of airplanes are just bad for photography. Any plane with a low wing such as a Bonanza will be difficult to shoot from because the wing will block most of your shots. High winged aircraft such as Citabrias and most Cessnas are preferable, but the struts (the structure that supports the wing) may still get in the way. A few planes, such as the Cessna 177RG, don't have struts, so it's worth asking if your local school has one in its fleet. Keep in mind, though, that airplanes are regulated--in the US they aren't permitted to fly closer than 500 feet from any person, object or structure (1,000 feet in congested areas), and they are limited by how slow they can - or can't go - usually no slower than about 80 miles per hour.
Because they can fly low and slow and don't have any struts or wings to get in the way, helicopters are also a good choice for aerial photography--but they are a pricier alternative. Helicopters can also be flown without doors, which gives you an extra advantage provided that you're bold enough to sit next to an open door at 500 feet altitude (or you're wearing a parachute).
You may not be lucky (or unlucky enough) to be able to sit next to an open door or window, so be prepared for dirty windows and the possibility of unwanted glare and reflections. Before takeoff, ask the pilot if you can clean the window (use a microfiber cloth, which won't scratch the plexiglass). To reduce glare, position your camera as close to the plexiglass as possible when taking the shot, and avoid wearing bright colors that will reflect into your shot. Sadly, a polarizing filter won't help you shoot through plexiglass (it will create an ugly sheen that won't do your photos any favors), so your best option is to get the glare out of the shot in other ways.
Choose your flight day and time wisely
Photos shot from the air can look very two-dimensional. This is because the distance makes shadows, subtle variations in color and other elements that give photos depth difficult to see. For this reason, it's best to shoot aerial photos just after dawn or just before sunset, when the shadows are longer.
Overcast days make flat light and aren't as good for revealing details on the ground, but they can provide you with the opportunity to shoot--what else--cloud photos. So don't cancel your flight just because the day is overcast. Remember that contrast can be added in post-processing if necessary, and flying above the clouds can give you some great "cloudscape" images.
Haze can be a problem for aerial photography, especially if you're planning to shoot urban scenes or in other areas with air quality problems. If you have the flexibility, try to choose a day just after it has rained, when the high moisture content in the air helps to settle some of the particles that create haze. Keep close tabs on public air quality reports in the area where you plan to fly. If all else fails, there are a couple of commercial Photoshop plug-ins that are designed to remove haze.
Camera shake is even more of a problem when shooting from the air, since your entire studio is in motion. Airplanes and helicopters produce a lot of vibration, and the speed of the aircraft can contribute to motion blur on your subject as well. And since you'll probably be using a zoom lens, keep in mind that the magnification will also magnify motion. For great aerial shots, you will need to use a higher ISO and a fast shutter speed (think 1/500 or faster). This will freeze motion and prevent camera shake. And don't brace yourself against the plane to help steady the camera, because it won't work. You'll pick up extra vibration that way and make it even harder to get a great shot.
If you're flying low in a helicopter, you can get by with a 100mm zoom lens. In an aircraft you may be flying as high as 1,000 feet, so you'll need a longer lens--at least 200mm. You will probably also want a wide shot or two to help convey the feeling of flight, so also bring a wide angle lens in the range of 16 to 28mm (be aware that the rotor blades of a helicopter or the struts of an airplane will most likely be visible in wider-angle images, so be prepared to crop them out in post-processing).
Expect turbulence, so make sure your camera is on a strap and secured safely around your neck, or you may lose it. Even if you aren't flying next to an open helicopter door, you still need to make sure your camera is protected from unexpected jolts, which may send it careening into some particularly metal part of the aircraft.
A final piece of equipment you may need is a dose of Dramamine. Even if you don't normally suffer from motion sickness, long periods of time in an aircraft looking through a viewfinder may still take its toll on your otherwise iron-clad stomach. So take plenty of breaks to reacclimatize yourself to the experience of being airborne, otherwise you may have to cut your flight short--or worse, use the barf-bag.
Finally, be aware of your surroundings. Airplanes move fast and landmarks can slip in and out of view quickly, so make sure you're constantly looking around so you can plan your shots well in advance. Unless you are lucky enough to have friends in general aviation, the opportunity to get some great aerial shots may not come around again for a while. So be prepared, be smart and bring a big memory card.
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