Aerial Photography Tips

Jennifer Betts
View from above

Maybe you're considering taking your photography to the next level or are in the Caribbean and booked an aerial tour; whatever the case, there are tips and tricks that you can use to ensure your pictures get those ohhs and ahhs that you are looking for. Time of day, gear, weather conditions, and type of craft can be just as important to think about as the camera and settings you're using.

Opt for the Best Camera You Have

Aerial photography can present a few challenges, and this is a situation where you'll want to use the best camera to which you have access. While a point-and-shoot can work for aerial photography, you will get better results with a digital SLR camera.

Using a DSLR

The movement of the plane will really make it hard to avoid blur and get crisp images, but a DSLR will give you the control you need over your settings and light. It can allow you to get the higher ISO levels needed to adjust for the lighting conditions on the aircraft.

When looking for a DSLR camera for aerial photography, you want to think about the resolution (aka mega pixels) and high ISO performance. Given the constant movement of an aircraft and the ever-changing lighting and scenes, the more mega pixels the better. Additionally, a higher ISO can help you buffer the high shutter speeds that are needed to avoid blur. Having a camera with good performance at a higher ISO can also work better for those using a telephoto lens.

If you don't want to shell out the money for a DSLR camera, you can always consider renting one if you know you're going to be taking an aerial trip.

Using a Point-and-Shoot

While it might not be optimal if you are looking for large prints, you can get decent smaller images with your point-and-shoot camera. These can be especially useful if you are on a flight and just want to get some neat shots of the ground.

To really get the most out of your point-and-shoot, you will want to use priority or manual modes that allow you to set your aperture and shutter speeds. This will help you get those higher shutter speeds and maximize your light. If you don't feel comfortable going manual, you can give the sports mode a try. This will have a faster shutter speed and a continual focus. Whatever setting you decide to use, it will take some experimentation to find the right balance to get those pictures crisp.

Use the Right Lens

When shooting aerial photography, the lens that you use is just as important as the camera you have; in some cases, it can be more important. The lens you choose is really dependent on your skill and overall vision. However, if you are a beginner and this is your first time out doing aerial photography, you can't go wrong with a zoom lens.

  • Zoom lens: This type of lens allows you to modify the focal length and zoom out or in to a frame your focal point. It works great for aerial photography because you can adjust the field of view, narrowing it down to really zoom in on your subject or zooming out to photograph a wider area.
  • Prime lens: This is a single focal length lens that really provides clear, sharp images. They also often have a wider maximum aperture, making it easier to take in more light and keep your shutter speed up.
  • Overhead view
    Telephoto lens: If you are trying to get images that are closer to the ground, you can use a telephoto lens. This lens has a longer focal length (typically 100mm plus) and can really magnify the image, allowing you to get a lot of distance. While this will give you a long focal length and isolate your subject, you will narrow your field of view.
  • Wide-angle lens: Wide angle lens offer a wide field of view and can provide great cityscape or panoramic views. These can be amazing for mountains or clouds too.

Make Shutter Speed a Priority

Planes vibrate and move quickly, and sometimes the lighting isn't optimal. Therefore, your shutter speed needs to be high to get clear images. This means that you will not want to use your camera on automatic in these situations because you won't have control over the shutter speed. Instead, you will want use shutter speed priority or manual. This will allow you to control the shutter speed. Usually 1/1000 second to 1/2000 second is a good shutter speed for aerial photography, but if you need to go a little lower, don't go less than 1/500 second or you will lose sharpness in your images.

Additionally, the length of your lens can affect the shutter speed that you will need to use especially for a telephoto lens. The longer a lens is, the more sensitive it is to camera shake. If you are using this type of lens, ensure that your shutter speed is 1/2000 second or faster to make sure you get crisp images. Remember, when you shoot on the ground, you want your shutter speed to be faster than the reciprocal of your focal length and that's without the vibration of the plane. So, the higher you can get your shutter speed, the better. Just try some different settings to see what works out best for you and your lens.

Try Turning Off Vibration Reduction

Higher quality lenses might come with image stabilization or vibration reduction. These are designed to correct the wobble in your hands when holding the camera. While some work fine in an aircraft, others can get confused by the vibration of the plane, causing major issues in your images. Experiment with turning it off to see if it affects your image quality if you are having issues.

If you do choose to turn this off or have a lens without this capability, you will want to use a higher shutter speed.

Think About Your Focus Settings

While continuous autofocus (AF) might work great for portraits, it can get confused in an aircraft. Therefore, you'll want to set your AF for 'S' or single. This can help you flawlessly focus your shot even when you are zooming in and out. If you are using your camera on manual focus, you'll want to set it on infinity, and it might be helpful to tape it in the mechanical stop in case you knock it in the plane. However, you might not use infinity, if you are using a longer lens like 200 mm, are closer to the ground, or photographing other planes in the air.

Open Your Aperture

Aerial view

In aerial photography, there isn't a need to worry about depth of field because you are focusing infinitely. Therefore, you can open your aperture to allow the most light in. However, you don't want to just open it all the way and hope for the best. Each lens will be slightly different in what setting will offer you the clearest, crispest images, so you'll want to do a bit of experimentation to find that "sweet spot." This can also be extremely helpful in getting those faster shutter speeds.

Bring Multiple Cameras

If you are in a helicopter or an open plane shooting your images, you might want to consider bringing multiple cameras with the lenses that you plan to us mounted on each camera body. The movement of the plane and the wind will make it difficult to change your lenses, and given the open area, you could lose your equipment if the plane or helicopter jolts. Additionally, you're in an aircraft, and the scene will change fast; you don't want to lose that perfect shot because you had to change your lens.

Choose the Right Equipment

So, you've got your camera, lens, and batteries. You're ready to go, right? Probably not. With aerial photography, there is some extra equipment that you might want to pack or ditch to help make your trip a fabulous photography experience and lessen the risk of your equipment falling out of the aircraft.

  • Pack a camera tether. In an open aircraft, there will be wind and turbulence to deal with and you could potentially lose your camera if you drop it. Not only could it fall out of any open areas, but the whipping of the wind and shaking of the craft could potentially seriously damage it.
  • Pack gloves. Even in warm climates, the air temperature can get colder at high altitudes and wind can add to this.
  • Remove your lens hood. If you have one, you should remove it because it can potentially fly out of the aircraft if it falls off.
  • Make sure that everything is secured in your gear bag. If you are bringing a gear bag with you, ensure that everything is neatly secured in it, since it will be jostled.
  • Check your cards and batteries to make sure everything is fully charged and properly formatted.

Consider the Aircraft

All aircraft are not created equal, and they come with their own unique challenges and conditions that you will need to think about when doing aerial photography.

Helicopter

If you are going in a helicopter or aircraft with an opening, you have to think about the wind and the movement.

  • Keep telephoto lenses secure. Telephoto lenses can be long, and they will easily catch the wind whacking into the plane, especially if you poke them out a window. Therefore, try to sit back and keep your telephoto lens inside the window.
  • Secure all your equipment. In an open aircraft, equipment, like lens caps, filters, and other accessories, can get sucked out. Not only is this dangerous for bystanders below, but this can be a liability issue. Therefore, make sure all your equipment is secure at all times.
  • The open air will add to the vibration of your equipment; you might have to do a bit of maneuvering and tweaks to your settings and shutter speed to avoid blur.

Fixed-Wing Aircraft

In commercial planes or small crafts with windows that don't open, you will need to think about windows and the wings.

  • Ensure the windows are clean and smudge- or scratch-free. Doing a simple cleaning of the windows can help with that.
  • Reflection might be an issue with windows. Typically, you will be the biggest obstacle to overcome as far as reflection goes, so where neutral or black clothing that won't obscure the lighting in your images.
  • Another issue to keep in mind is the wing. For aerial photographs, you'll want a high-winged aircraft or the wing will impede your view.

Minimize the Vibrations

Helicopters and small crafts will vibrate. There is no way around this, but there are things that you can do to minimize the blur created by vibrations. In addition to adjusting your camera settings to help to compensate for this, you will also want to make sure that your camera doesn't touch anything that will add to the vibration. For example, if you are in a craft with an open window, make sure it doesn't touch the sill; use your arm to stabilize it instead. If you are shooting through a window, ensure that your camera doesn't touch the window. This way you are limiting the vibration to just the vibrations of your body, which can be partially absorbed by your torso.

Consider Time of Day

Manhattan

The lighting can vary greatly, depending on when you are taking your trip, and this can mean adjusting your camera settings. For example, at dusk, you would need a higher ISO to get those higher shutter speeds.

Therefore, you will want to consider the time of your flight when booking it. Think about the types of images that you want and what the best time of day might be. If you can't control the time of day, think about the lighting at that time and adjust your camera accordingly before the flight.

Look for a Partially Cloudy Day

Bad weather isn't always a bad thing. For example, storms or clouds can create great aerial images with expansive blues and endless rolling clouds. You don't want to the weather to be too perfect, because this can make for dull pictures. Look for days that might be partially cloudy to allow those clouds to add drama to the composition.

Consider a Polarizing Filter

Keep a polarizing filter with you on your flight. It can help to saturate your colors and reduce reflected light creating the great dramatic effects you were looking for. It can also help to reduce the glare that you might get from windows and water.

However, not everyone is in agreement on the use of these filters, because they lower the available light. On a low light day, these can make it very difficult to get a fast enough shutter speed. A little experimentation might be necessary to see if it works for you.

Vary Your Altitude

If you have the option available to you, ask your pilot to vary the altitude at which you fly. Even just a few hundred feet can make an amazing difference in the images you get. At higher altitudes, you might be able to reveal different background and foreground landscapes to create dramatic lighting and enhance your overall composition. For example, you might see a vast landscape of mountains that might hide at lower altitudes. At a lower altitude, you can zoom in more clearly on a single subject, enhancing the effect that you were trying to create.

Have Fun!

There are several tips and tricks that you can use to take your aerial pictures from alright to amazing. However, it does take time and tweaking to get things just right, so don't get frustrated your first time out. It can also be helpful to create a list of what you want and talk to the pilot to help you get the best shots. But most of all, have fun and enjoy that amazing scenery that you are about to capture with your lens.

Aerial Photography Tips