At its heart, good photography is about showing people views of the world they would not otherwise see. That might be; places your viewers have not visited, impossible ways of seeing to the human eye such as long exposures and night photography, but most often this novelty comes in the form of a different perspective. Even familiar scenes and objects can make compelling photographic subjects if we are willing to explore them from new angles.
Aerial photography is one of my favorite ways to provide that novel perspective. I’m fortunate to spend a lot of time in small planes. My life in Alaska is full of flights in bush planes to remote places in the state. While only occasionally do I fly specifically to make aerial images, I find simply going to and from different locations provides ample opportunity.
The second way I frequently use to access an aerial perspective is by flying drones. While both techniques get me the elevation I want, the photographic experience is very, very different. The two methods, planes and drones, require very different ways of thinking about image-making.
Here are a few tips to improve your aerial photography images, whether you are shooting from a plane or using a remote drone.
While big passenger jets are great for getting us from one place to another quickly, they are lousy photography platforms. Sure, I’ve made some images from jet windows, but they inevitably follow the same formula. There’s an airplane wing in the foreground with some sunset or mountain beyond. It gets old. Plus the perpetually fogged or scratched windows will destroy your image quality. Except for the occasional phone snap, I rarely bother with it anymore.
Small, single-engine planes, however, are a different story and can be an amazing platform for creative aerial photography.
Attaining a sharp image is a major challenge because airplanes are vibration-filled nightmares. Here are four things to help you improve sharpness:
- Use a fast shutter speed. I like anything over 1/1000th of a second.
- Don’t brace your lens or arms on the plane. Hold your camera and elbows free of the window. If you touch the plane, the vibrations will be transmitted straight into your camera. I tuck my arms against my sides and hold the lens an inch or so away from the window glass.
- Focus at infinity. I often shoot manual focus from the air and pre-set my focus point to infinity. Everything you are seeing from the air will be in focus when the lens is set to infinity, so don’t even bother with autofocus.
- Shoot wide open. The depth of field is not a problem from a 1000 or meters from your subject. So a take advantage of the extra shutter speed provided by your fastest f-stop.
When flying 100+ mph at low altitude, the landscape passes very quickly. If you don’t act quickly, you’ll miss the shot. That’s why I like zoom lenses for aerial photography. I can quickly compose with different focal lengths, without having to change lenses or cameras. I favor a wide to moderate zoom. A 24-105mm or similar lens is about right.
Usually, in a small plane, you’ll be in direct communication with your pilot, who might be willing to help you out with your photography. When I’m flying over something interesting, but a wing or strut is in the way, I’ll often simply ask the pilot to tip a wing one way or another. Pilots are often happy to accommodate you.
You can also ask them to make slight turns, or even circle if there is something particularly compelling. If you’ve chartered a flight for photographic purposes, feel free to ask for what you want.
I recommend talking to your pilot ahead of your trip to discuss what kind of images you want, and how he or she might be able to help you. If it is a photography-specific flight, you may even be able to remove windows or doors from the plane.
Remember your pilot is the final judge of what is acceptable in terms of safety and time. If they say they can’t do something, they can’t. Don’t push them into something with which they aren’t comfortable.
There are almost as many ways to shoot from an airplane as there are from the ground so any discussion of composition runs the risk of leading us deep into the photographic weeds. However, the general rules of landscape photography still apply. Remember depth, foregrounds, and the way lines connect the image.
Some shots from the air could be details of the landscape below, but more often they will be sweeping landscapes. I like to place elements in the frame that guide the eye through; a river, a mountain valley, or a highlight like a lake or patch of colorful ground.
The altitude at which you are flying will also dictate your options. When making aerial images of mountain environments (my usual subject) I prefer the plane to be below the level of the surrounding peaks. This perspective still provides a sense of grandeur, while maintaining the unique aerial perspective. Ask your pilot if you can fly lower or higher, and they may be able to help you out if conditions are safe.
Flying a remote copter or drone is a very different experience from being up high yourself. There are advantages, but also some drawbacks.
First the drawbacks. Most consumer grade drones limit you to one focal length. Without the ability to zoom or change lenses, most drone shots tend to have the same wide-angle look. To change the scene, you’ve got to move the drone. Drones also have limited ranges, elevation capabilities, and at times, limiting regulations.
Some locations, like national parks in the United States (and many other countries) are off-limits for drones. Range limitations also mean that you have to get yourself close to your desired subject. So if you want to make images of some remote, or difficult to access location, you’ll still have to do it on the ground.
The advantages, however, are many. Cost is a big one. For the price of a couple hours charter of a small plane, you can buy a decent drone, literally. Flexibility is another. If you want to go make some aerial photos, you simply do it, no waiting around for a pilot or plane charter. If the light is right, you just go fly.
The biggest advantage for me, though, is composition flexibility. You can create an image from a few meters off the ground, to a couple hundred. You can also spend the time necessary to get the composition right. The drone sits still when you want it to, or you can adjust to your heart’s desire.
I like to fly my drone fairly low. I find the combination of altitude and wide angle lenses make everything look less dramatic and smaller if I’m flying too high. 20-30 meters off the ground is probably my favorite height, but of course, it varies on where I’m flying and the image I’m creating.
Remember to take advantage of the many camera angles drones allow. Shooting straight down is almost impossible from a plane. But with a drone, it’s as easy as angling your camera.
Playing with lines and patterns is a drone specialty, so take advantage of the way the world looks from above. Play with dividing your images into parts using the natural variations in the landscape. Trees from above, for example, create a starburst pattern, not a typical way humans see a forest!
The flexibility provided by drones is extraordinary. Don’t be afraid to experiment with aerial images of places a plane could never fly.
Follow the rules! Flying a drone in a dangerous area like around airports, or at the scene of an emergency is not only irresponsible it can be life-threatening. Be aware of the laws surrounding drones, and fly only in areas where it is allowed, and at permitted elevations.
Lastly, be respectful of others. Don’t fly over private property if you don’t have permission, and be aware of how your flight is impacting the experience of others. Simply put, don’t be a jerk.
Aerial photography is a gateway to new ways of seeing. Whether you are shooting from the passenger seat of a Cessna or from your phone screen using a drone, there are abundant opportunities to make new and exciting images. Explore it and share with me what you make!