Here are some aerial photography tips, as requested by readers of my Flying Carpet column, and fans of my fine art aerial photographic prints. Note that in some respects I’d be considered an aerial photography amateur, because 1) I shoot in the course of travel rather than flying dedicated missions seeking the best light, weather, and shooting conditions and 2) I usually shoot through the awful filter of aircraft windows.
Technically-great aerial photography requires shooting through open windows, or at least high-grade glass. (Check your airplane’s POH for any limitations before opening windows in flight.)
My photography, however, “focuses” on opportunities I cannot plan for. I always carry my camera when flying, out of its case and ready for action. So while my shots might not always technically match those of the pros, I often catch things they might have missed. (“Sunset Rains”, for example, was captured on a routine flight where few pilots would have brought their cameras.) That being said, following are my tips.
- Use a quality digital SLR with a broad zoom range of wide angle to telephoto. (I use a Nikon D7100 with 18-200mm lens.) Image stabilization is desirable (Nikon “VR” and Canon “IS” lenses, for examples.)
- This camera should be a recent model capturing “high dynamic range” (such as Nikon’s “ADL” adaptive lighting feature) that collects additional shadow and highlight recovery information. This is particularly important in high-contrast light areas such as the US mountain West.
- High resolution is important both to capture detail on the ground, and because post-cropping is often required.
- Also, because post-processing is almost always required, it is best to shoot RAW files. (I shoot RAW+JPEG.)
- Identify the clearest, least distorting shooting directions from your cockpit. Usually this will be through side windows. Shooting forward is less predictable because the windshield’s compound curves add distortion, plus you may be photographing through a propeller.
- Early morning and late in the day offer the most dramatic lighting. Midday offers saturated colors but few shadows for contrast.
Process and settings:
- Have your camera out and ready from takeoff to landing.
- Set focus manually to “infinity” as sometimes auto-focus gets confused shooting through windows. (If your camera locks up, auto-focus is likely the problem.)
- Use image stabilization when the ride is bumpy (VR “active” mode on Nikons).
- Reduce shutter speed if necessary when shooting through a propeller,
- If no white or grey objects appear on the ground, shoot a reference photo of each view incorporating outside white parts of the airplane like wing or strut. (You’ll soon see why.)
Post-processing: Acrylic plastic imparts a blue cast to your photos, and desaturates colors. So when shooting through aircraft windows, post-processing your photos is a must. That being said, the better your originals the better the outcome. Plenty of photos are unsalvageable.
My “straight-out-of-the-camera” example photo (left) is definitely borderline. Note the blue cast and reduced contrast imparted by acrylic aircraft windows, with additional softening due to haze. Following are my typical post-processing steps to address these issues (terminology is Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or Lightroom):
1. Correct white balance to eliminate the window tint. This is commonly done by touching the Photoshop/Elements/Lightroom white-balance eyedropper tool (image>adjustments>levels) on a white or neutral grey area of your photo to correct the colors.
An additional aid for post-correcting shots through acrylic windows is the terrific ColorWasher app and plug-in, which allows you to drag a marquee selection tool across larger white and grey areas to find an “average” white. Whether you use ColorWasher or the eyedropper tool to color-correct a given photo, that correction will remain at the top of the “filters” menu for use on subsequent photos while your current session remains open.
Observe in my white-balance-corrected photo (left) how the warm autumn colors have emerged compared to the pre-correction original. (In this case, I took my white sample from the airplane’s strut in the preceding photo — not shown. Note that grabbing your white sample from an area of shadow will emphasize the warming glow of the sun, but if drawn from a sunny surface that warmth will be neutralized. Drag the Colorwasher marquee tool across an area containing both to get an average.)
2. Next, run image>adjustments>auto-levels/auto-tone from the image menu. This enhances colors and contrast to effectively “cut through haze.” (If the colors turn garish, try image>adjustments>auto-contrast instead. Either way it may be necessary to deselect extreme dark or light areas of the photo before filtering, for optimum effect.)
3. “Fade auto-levels” as necessary if the colors or contrast appear too strong. (“Edit” menu.)
4. Apply image>adjustments>shadow/highlight compensation as necessary.
Now for the “art.” Cameras don’t always see what our eyes see. Paraphrased from National Geographic aerial photographer Adriel Heisey: “Remember what you saw that made the scene special, and impart it to your photo.” Don’t correct the “gold” out of a golden sunset!
When you have completed your masterpiece, if sending it anywhere other than for fine prints, “save as” an 80% JPEG. That delivers a relatively small file with printworthy quality. (For fine art printing stick with TIFF.)
- When flying unfamiliar terrain, a GPS geotagger is useful for automatically tagging your photos with the locations where they were taken. (I use a Solmeta Geotagger.)
- For pre-sorting, culling, and naming large numbers of photos, nothing beats Photomechanic software. (See my review.)
- Assign someone else to take photos during critical phases of flight, so you can concentrate on flying! My wife, Jean, takes many of my column photos for that very reason.
- Personally, I always try to stay 1500 to 2000 AGL per regs if there are houses around. If not, and assuming I can keep a clear route out of the area without needing to climb to clear terrain, I descend to 1000 AGL. I find that low enough to do what I want using a good telephoto zoom lens. (Flying lower also introduces the possibilities of speed blur and distortion.)
- Lowering a notch of flaps is useful for slower flight, especially to avoid getting close to stall. Since excess rudder (ie skid or slip) is often required to get the best shots, be careful not to get slow enough to expose yourself to a spin. (This is the stereotypical aerial photography accident, along with getting preoccupied with the photography and flying into terrain.)
Now get out there and start shooting! Please comment with your own tips and tricks.
©2012, 2014, 2015, 2017 Gregory N. Brown (I receive no compensation for endorsing any of the above products.)