Aerial Photography: Professional Photographer Talks About the Basics of Aerial Photography

Aerial photography can be a challenge if one is new at it. It requires much more than just shooting a view from a high elevation and it can be very mundane if not done in an artistic and creative way. Professional commercial photography is intended to sell the client’s product, whatever it may be. In the case of aerial photography, it may be that a developer needs to show a recent residential development or a new shopping center. An architectural firm my want to show their project in a scope and perspective that only an aerial photograph can properly portray; a resort may want to show its amenities and golf course.Whomever the client, they are selling something and an aerial photographer must create effective images that will be successful in illustrating and selling the product. The two most important key elements in a good aerial photograph are composition and lighting.

A good aerial photograph should convey much more that just information about a city grid or of a landmass from a high elevation. Care must be given to the composition of your subject in aerial photography, just as it would be for any other kind of professional photograph. Most aerial photographs are taken from an oblique angle as opposed to straight down as in satellite imagery. The oblique view gives much more interest and dimension to the image, not to mention it is much more practical to shoot from and an oblique angle than from shooting straight down. Although one may be able to capture a satisfactory image with a few exposures, I find that for critical composition I need to circle around the view quite a few times in order for me to be certain that I have what I want for the final image. I allow 20 -30 minutes of shooting once I get to the location – it can be done much faster perhaps, but I would rather have more to choose from to make sure that I have the perfect shot. It takes a very different “mind-set” for aerial photography and there are a lot of things to take into consideration all at once, not to mention that you are trying to navigate an aircraft with a pilot while moving at 100 MPH and who doesn’t really know exactly what it is you are looking for with respect to angle, distance and elevation – the three most important factors in composing a good aerial photograph.

The first thing to consider is what kind of aircraft to use, a small airplane or a helicopter? Although helicopters are much easier to work with and navigate for composition, they are not always practical: their hourly rate can be prohibitive and they might not be available in many locations (although I have contracted helicopters from a couple hundred miles away from the shoot location, but that can be very expensive) so it is important to learn to shoot from a small airplane, which in most cases is perfectly satisfactory. The Cessna’s (152, 175,etc) are the best planes to work with for oblique aerial photography; they are very popular and most always available; they are affordable (probably around $175/ hour which includes the pilot) and most important of all, they have an overhead wing, which is critical. The other important factor with the Cessna is that the pin form the window can be taken out to allow the window to be in the full up position while shooting (this is also critical). While flying, the wind will keep the window all the way up and out of the way for an unobstructed view. You will have to inform the pilot that you need the pin out BEFORE take off; it’s a simple thing to do. I also try to “fly left” if possible (pilot is on the right side of the plane) because I am right-handed it is more comfortable and easier to maneuver myself when shooting down and to the rear, which is how you will be shooting. Aerial photography from helicopters is much easier compared to aerial photography from a plane. Helicopters have much more control so getting your camera angle is much easier and they can fly much lower of course, but contrary to popular belief, they shouldn’t hover unless they are of the dual engine type; I have heard of too many helicopter fatalities when the pilot tried to hover with a single engine only to crash to the ground like a ton of bricks (light airplanes can always glide down to a safe landing if there is engine trouble).

It’s a different world up there and it is advisable to scout the location from the ground first in order to find your subject because everything looks very different. It is hard to orient yourself and knowing of a few large landmarks near your shoot location is very helpful; of course these days having GPS coordinates is very important as well, but there have been times when the GPS failed and I had to depend on my own reckoning to locate my location. Once I arrive at the location I am in constant communication with the pilot (who should be instrument or be an instructor) and I will have him go as low (which from a plane would be 500′ in rural areas and a minimum of 1000′ in urban locations) and as slow as possible. I will then start circling around the subject many times, starting at the lowest elevation that I can, usually varying the elevation, in order to insure that I have the shot I want. It isn’t easy composing when flying at a minimum of 100 MPH. from a plane. When I get to the optimum camera position I will tell the pilot to bring the wing up (this gets the strut out of the way and puts the airplane into a “slip” which will push the aircraft further away, but it will maintain the camera position angle a little longer so the perspective doesn’t change as much. A few other common sense things to keep in mind are: A). Keep it simple. B) Have everything set up before you go up, like the camera settings etc. C). Keep the horizon line straight, D). Shoot with a fast shutter speed: a minimum of 1/250 of a second. Depth of filed is no issue so an f-stop of 4 or more is acceptable. E). Frequently re-check camera settings and focus.

One of the most important elements in a good aerial photograph is clear light, and that can be a very frustrating and challenging thing to deal with, especially in large urban areas where there might be air pollution and haze. A clear, cloudless high-pressure system day is best. I have gone out on an aerial shoot, only to have to turn around and come back down because the conditions suddenly changed and were no longer favorable. A haze filter over the lens can also be helpful, although on the right day it isn’t necessary. The other thing to consider for aerial photography is the time of day. It’s always best to have long shadows and that would require shooting either in the early to mid morning or later in the afternoon. In short, stay away as far as possible from mid-day light which although may be very bright, is also almost shadow-less.

Aerial photography can be a new adventure; it is a totally different perspective and it has a place in both the commercial and fine art worlds; especially landscape photography. However, remember the Boy Scout motto: “be prepared!” If something goes wrong with your equipment up there it could be a disaster for your shoot and your client, therefore always cover yourself with a backup camera and lens system. After over 30 years in the business, I have seen it all!