Up, up and away! For most people, taking a scenic flight is not an everyday occurrence. In fact, for most of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. If you plan on taking to the skies to capture some aerial shots, what gear should you take and how should you prepare for the experience so that you capture better aerial photos?
In the space of six weeks in 2017, I was lucky enough to take aerial photos from three different modes of transport: a hot air balloon, a seaplane, and a helicopter. Below is my guide to taking better aerial photos.
What gear should I take?
This is probably the first question you’ll ask yourself. The answer largely depends on a few factors: what kind of flight you’re taking, how much room you’ll have, and what kind of shots you want to take.
The gear you have available to you may also depend when and where you’re taking the flight. For example, if you’re doing a scenic flight as part of an overseas trip, you will probably have a smaller number of lenses to choose from than if you were at home.
A good starting point for aerial photography is taking one camera body with a zoom lens, for example, an 18-55mm or 24-70mm. My go-to zoom lens is the Fujifilm XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS, which has a full-frame equivalent focal range of 27-82mm.
Lenses like this are quite compact and suited to even the tightest of spaces. It also has optical image stabilization, which helps to keep images nice and sharp. I took almost all of the images in this article with that lens.
This focal length is also very handy if you wish to take photos of your companions, or images of the aircraft before, during, and after the flight.
Depending on the circumstances, a longer lens might be your preference – just make sure you have enough room to maneuver. In a hot air balloon? No problem. In a small plane? Maybe not.
If I was going on a flight where I knew I would have more room to maneuver, such as a doors-off helicopter ride, I would take a longer telephoto lens with the same maximum aperture (f2.8 or f4) throughout the range, such as the Fujifilm XF 50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR lens.
If you want the best of both worlds, consider taking two bodies with two zoom lenses – I wouldn’t recommend trying to change lenses while airborne.
Have your gear ready
One thing you must do to take better aerial photos is prepare. Check and double-check your gear the night before your flight. Halfway through a once-in-a-lifetime balloon ride is not the time to discover you’ve run out of space on your memory card or you’ve had the ISO set to 6400.
Mistakes happen, we’ve all made them. However, you can minimize your risk by having a list of things to double-check before your flight. Here’s what I check:
- Check image format: JPG+RAW.
- Check film simulation: especially if you’re shooting JPG only.
- Check your ISO settings. If you’re using Auto ISO, check to make sure the settings are suitable for your flight.
- Format your SD cards ready for use beforehand. Take a couple of test shots to make sure everything is working okay.
- If you have a second SD card slot, use it. Consider writing RAW images to one SD and JPGs to the other.
- Choose a fast SD card. If you’re taking continuous shots on a slower card, there can sometimes be a delay before you can take more shots as the camera tries to catch up writing images to the slow SD card. You want to avoid this on a scenic flight.
- Use a 64gb or 128gb memory card if possible. You don’t want to find out halfway through your flight that you’ve run out of space, and you need to delete shots or find another memory card.
- Make sure your batteries are charged.
- Have spare batteries and SD cards just in case.
Visualize your shots beforehand
Look at the images posted on your flight operator’s website and social media – this will give you a rough idea of the types of shots that are possible. Have these types of images in mind before you take your flight. You can also contact the flight operator if there’s a particular landmark you wish to photograph, or if you’d like advice on the best place to position yourself in the aircraft.
There are many variables with flying, though, so perhaps on the day the flight, the shot you have in mind won’t be possible. Keep an open mind, and don’t be upset if you don’t nail it. I always look upon a flight as a fun thing to do, and if I get some good photos out of it, that’s a bonus.
I’ve taken photos in the air in both shutter priority and aperture priority modes. In shutter priority mode, I’d start off by setting my shutter speed to a minimum of 1/500 second. This should keep your images sharp if you’re in a fast-moving aircraft on a bright, sunny day. Your ISO will depend on how bright the conditions are.
As always, check and review your images and change your settings as the conditions dictate.
In aperture priority mode, I’d start off by having my aperture at f/4 and my ISO to 400. I’d then take a test shot to see what shutter speed the camera is choosing. Again, these settings depend on the conditions, but you’ll want to aim for a fast shutter speed, above 1/500 second. If the shutter speed is as high as 1/4000 second, you could lower your ISO to 200 or change your aperture to f/5.6 or f/8. If your shutter speed is under 1/500 second, you’ll need to bump up your ISO and experiment.
The advice above is for fast-moving aircraft. If you’re floating along in a hot air balloon, you don’t need to worry about shutter speeds as much.
Look for other opportunities
A helicopter on a landing pad, hot air balloons being inflated or deflated, seaplanes on the water – taking better aerial photos is also about looking for shots you can take before and after the flight.
Case study 1: Hot air balloon
There’s nothing better than floating high above the landscape in a hot air balloon, and nothing worse than setting your alarm for 3.45 am to get up for it! Although you may not be feeling it so early in the morning, a hot air adventure is worth getting up early for. It’s one of the most magical things I’ve ever done.
A balloon ride is the easiest aerial adventure to undertake with a camera. For it to take place, you need good weather. You also have a guaranteed space at the edge of the basket with clear uninterrupted views – and no window glass. Best of all, the balloon moves at a relatively slow pace, so it’s not as much of a challenge as a plane or helicopter.
My balloon ride took place inland from the Gold Coast in Australia. I mostly shot with my Fujifilm XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS lens, but also took the wider 10-24mm lens for some shots of the balloons inflating.
Make sure you have a secure strap on every camera you take with you – the last thing you want to do is drop your camera overboard.
Case study 2: Seaplane
A few days after my balloon ride, I was joined by my family for a seaplane ride. We flew from the northern Gold Coast to nearby South Stradbroke Island, where we spent two nights glamping. The flight left Southport, headed south over Surfers Paradise and Broadbeach, then we turned inland and headed north towards our destination.
Space was quite restricted inside the aircraft. I didn’t have a perfect angle of view in every direction, but I still managed to get some shots I liked. As it was so bright, shutter speeds were very high.
A couple of issues I had to deal with when shooting were the reflections off the windows and ensuring the wings of the aircraft weren’t in my images. I also got a little airsick, which wasn’t fun.
Some photographers swear by circular polarizing filters to cut reflections from windows – this is certainly something I will try in the future. Just be aware that it does cut the amount of light that reaches your sensor, but on the seaplane flight, it wouldn’t have been an issue.
Case study 3: Helicopter
A few weeks later, I took a magical trip to the Faroe Islands.
The highlight was taking an Atlantic Airways helicopter from the main international airport to the remote island of Mykines, where there are spectacular colonies of puffins and other birds.
In the terminal, you’re given a safety briefing before heading out to the tarmac by bus. I made sure I was the last person getting on the bus, so I was the first person out. I then managed to secure a window seat in the helicopter. I didn’t mind which side of the helicopter I was on, as there were great views on either side.
The flight lasts just 11 minutes, so opportunities for taking images are limited. On this flight, I had window reflections again, but this time I also had the added problem of heat coming off the helicopter into the cold European air marring my view occasionally.
I still managed to get some photos I was happy with. However, as I’ve said before, think of any photos as a bonus, rather than the reason you take the flight. As always, look for other photographic opportunities – I took some photos of the helicopter on the landing pad at Mykines.
An aerial adventure is a lot of fun, but make sure you’re prepared before you take off. A zoom lens with a wide-to-mid focal range should be perfect, but make sure you use a large capacity, fast SD card. Also, make sure you prepare the night before your flight and ensure all your equipment and settings are ready to go.
The most important piece of advice is to have fun and enjoy your time in the air. Don’t spend the entire flight looking through your viewfinder.
I hope this helps you capture better aerial photos on your next flight. Remember to think of them as a bonus, rather than the main reason you took the flight.
Feel free to share any of your aerial photography stories or photos with us in the comments.