Seeing the Big Picture - Aerial Photography

Seeing the Big Picture – Aerial Photography


Up, 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

It’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.

Whenever 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.

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

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

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

Some Older Comments

  • Rich August 17, 2012 11:14 pm

    I'm lucky enough to have a pilot for a friend so have had some practice at aerial photography over Sydney and its coast line. A shutter speed is a must, be prepared, you might only have a few seconds when the angles are perfect.

    Here is a traditional aerial shot of the sydney opera house:

    If you speak to the pilot, ask them about the lesser known sights, like this coastal shot a few minutes by air from the sydney CBD:

  • Rahela August 17, 2012 05:57 pm

    Really interesting article!
    I'm on a budget so cannot take a helicopter/hot air balloon ride now, but would love to and plan it for the future.

    The closest I got to *amateur* aerial photography was taking a photos from the 'regular' plane en route to my travel destination:,-italy-image11269611

  • stevens August 17, 2012 02:21 pm

    going up in a helicopter with the doors off had to be one of the most amazing perspectives i have ever seen . very hard to find landmarks though . enjoy my adventure :!i=1689562221&k=Q4cxKhz

  • raghavendra August 17, 2012 12:52 pm

    mesmerizing views. Kinda fun, adventure and little freaky.

  • Fran August 17, 2012 10:55 am

    Excellent article. Thank you! I've always dreamed of taking a helicopter tour while on vacations, but never had the nerve. With this information and helpful hints now I'm determined to try!

  • Briar Bentley August 17, 2012 09:53 am

    helicopter work is the greatest buzz! Just you and the scenery.

  • Howard Mitchell August 17, 2012 08:51 am

    Excellent article and advice, if you get the chance take it and you won’t regret it for a second.
    I would add wear warm clothing, it can get cold at those heights on bare arms and shivering is not very conducive to steady shots.
    I decided to forgo the polariser for a lower ISO, I found most processing can overcome a bit of haze and as Matt says shutter speed is very important.
    To take full advantage of the panoramic view I opted for a 11-16mm wide angle, there is some distortion but I don’t think it takes anything away from the shots.
    With the expected high dynamic range on the day manual exposure was used for more control, another thing to remember is to shoot fast and often, blaze away because you don’t get a second chance.
    Our helicopter was a Robinson R44, small but comfortable and our obliging pilot at Touchdown Helicopters removed the doors at no cost, it takes about 20 seconds.

    Some of the shots are in this set:

  • David August 17, 2012 07:09 am

    Thanks for your article. I am using my own high wing airplane with large windows that open in flight to take photos of southwest scenery, Although I have a lot of experience with airplanes, but my experience in photography is limited. I appreciated your comments about the importance of higher shutter speeds. I thought selecting an ISO of 100 would make for clearer photos, so I used this ISO and set the aperture mode on my Nikon D7000 set at f11. I was surprised to see that many of my photos with these settings have low speeds around 1/60. No wonder some of my photos have to be discarded because they are fuzzy. However, some are good even with a slow shutter speed. During my next flight, I will try increasing my ISO to 200 and experiment with f stops around 5-8. It will be interesting to see the results with these settings. Thanks for your help.

    David [eimg url='DSC_4352.jpg' title='DSC_4352.jpg']

  • paul August 17, 2012 04:51 am

    If you ever get a chance to fly in a power parachute take it. It flys about 30mph no glass and u steer with your feet. If u want to see photos send e mail. Sending this from phone

  • Marcelo August 17, 2012 03:30 am

    I perform my aerial photos with a kite (Kite Aerial Photography) with excellent results!

  • Paul August 17, 2012 02:35 am

    I'm working on a different kind of aerial photography, using a radio controlled helicopter and a GoPro camera. There are several challenges, not the least of which is the time and money required to become proficient flying the thing. And with a GoPro you have no control over things like ISO and shutter speed. So far my first set of pics were pretty good, but since then I've been challenged with a lot of vibration as well. But I think eventually I'll get it figured out. Just a thought of an alternative, which, while expensive and time consuming, could become a rewarding hobby in its own right, and probably no more expensive than 4 or 5 helicopter flights. Mind you, you probably won't get the kind of shots shown here, but it can still give you a very unique perspective in your work.

  • Mridula August 17, 2012 01:45 am

    All I have done is to take some pictures from the window seat of a plane and once from a hot air balloon! Helicopter with doors off? Didn't even know something like this existed :D

  • rohit kothari August 17, 2012 01:38 am

    Hi Matt,
    its really a great info on aerial photography, but this is kinda costly for newbie as for this type of photography person has to know his camera properly but will try to do it from hot ballon then will try in helicopter or in plane