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Seeing the Big Picture – Aerial Photography

Seeing the Big Picture - Aerial PhotographyUp, up and away. If you ever have the opportunity to strap yourself in the seat of a helicopter or small airplane for some aerial photography – take it! It can be a fantastic experience (providing you don’t have a deathly fear of flying) that will reward you with images you wouldn’t be able to get any other way. That is unless you’ve figured out how to sprout a pair of wings.

Aerial tours and aerial photography are available in different areas all around the world – from major cities to country landscapes and island retreats. Try to search around on Google before leaving for a trip to find out if there are any aerial companies where you’re headed and how much their rates are. Generally they range from $150-1000 depending on the time, location and company.

Here are a few tips and techniques to consider before lifting off, with photo examples from a recent assignment in Aruba.

Prepping Your Gear and Settings

Seeing the Big Picture - Aerial PhotographyIt’s very important to have all your ducks in a row before strapping in and taking off. Whether you’re in a small plane or helicopter, many of the principles are the same.

Before arriving at the airfield make sure to do a basic prep of your gear. Check that you’ve got plenty of space in your memory cards, preferably by placing new, large ones in there because you don’t want to be changing mid-air. Attach your preferred lens(es) to your camera. If you only have one body on you I’d recommend a mid-range zoom. If you have two bodies, a mid-range zoom and telephoto work well.

Ensure that anything you’re taking with you can be strapped down or secured in a buttoned pouch or pocket. Don’t put anything in your pockets that could potentially fall out. Double ouch if it does and smashes into something vital in the back of the aircraft before exploding on the ground. Anything that can’t be strapped down, leave behind. This includes extra lenses, backpacks, etc. I never recommend changing lenses while up in the air unless you are completely closed in. Pick one and stick with it. It simply takes too much time to change while you’re flying by and if the doors are off you risk losing that lens.

Seeing the Big Picture - Aerial PhotographyWhenever possible I recommend you take your aerial tour in a helicopter with the doors off. Airplanes are generally traveling much faster and have less flexibility in terms of slowing and turning. This allows you to shoot out the door without trying to eliminate pesky window reflections. You can inquire with most heli tours what their cost is for removing the doors on photo flights. Some charge only an additional $50-100. Others have set rates much higher. It often depends on the use of the images (whether for personal fun or commercial use). If you’re just shooting for fun, see if they can work with you on a discount. If it’s for a commercial client, prepare to pay a bit more.

The first thing to remember when up in the air is that you’re in a fast moving, vibrating metal can in the sky. If your shutter speed is too low you’ll come back with a disappointing amount of blur and camera shake in all your photos. I always shoot above 1/500s and prefer to even be at 1/640s or above. You’ll have to crank up your ISO a bit more to get here, but it’s a must. You can shoot comfortably opened up around f/5, though the more you can stop down the better. That’s because most of your subjects are going to be at relatively the same focal length – right around infinity.

Seeing the Big Picture - Aerial Photography

Strap a polarizer filter on your lens. Generally you’ll have to cut through a decent amount of atmospheric haze and this will really help with that. The wider out your shot is and further into the distance, the more likely you’ll have larger amounts of haze. Lastly, pop the lens hood off. When you’re shooting out the door this can essentially act as a large sail on your camera, creating more drag and shake in your shots. You want to minimize the drag and surface area of your equipment. Now you’re ready for take-off.

Watch for Propellers and Wing Struts

Image: Oops, propeller in the shot!

Oops, propeller in the shot!

It sounds like it goes without saying, but be sure to watch out for plane struts and helicopter propellers in your shots. Nothing ruins a great shot quite as well as a big propeller blade sweeping through the top half. Try to sweep your shots down and sometimes you can avoid them if you click off a few frames really quick while the blade turns around. You can incorporate these elements if you have a really wide lens and want to show the full “out the door” perspective. Often it works better if you aim towards the side you’re not sitting on. Other times, simply avoid them.

Create Isolation

Creating isolation is a powerful way to highlight a subject from the air. Whether it’s one person jogging through an open field, a single house amidst the woods or a surfer plowing through the waves, isolationist photos can be striking. It really shows the scope of how large a landscape can be when compared to the tiny frame of a person or object in it. While not a hard-set principle, keep the rule of thirds in mind for these types of shots. It’s when that rule can really shine.

Look for Patterns and Lines

Image: Isolate wind surfer.

Isolate wind surfer.

Also keep a lookout for patterns like the whorl of corn crops, the path a winding road cuts through a mountainside, straight city blocks or colored umbrella tops at an outdoor restaurant. All of these are seen completely different from the air. Often the more you can get your perspective shooting straight down at them the more unique of an image you’ll create – because it will be so different from how we normally see something.

Telling a Story

When shooting aerial work I like to tie it together into a story. The highlight is obviously the images from the air, but they can be supplemented well with shots of the pilot/crew, riders on the helicopter and shots taking off and landing. You can also wait around for another flight to take off with popular aerial tours and grab some shots of the helicopter as it takes to the air above you.

No matter where you’re flying be sure to stay safe and keep yourself in the aircraft. Always check all your straps. That great shot is never worth a tumble down! That being said, enjoy the ride and the great perspectives you can get from the air.

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Matt Dutile

Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

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