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Aerial Photography: Tips for Your First Flying Experience

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Read Time: 8 min

The objective of this tutorial is to provide some little tricks and advice to help you make the most of your first flying experience. If you are planning to fly soon, whether it is for a trial flight in a small aircraft or maybe for an exploring flight in a helicopter, make sure to read these first. Hopefully these will ensure you will take off with the right equipment and the good tips to capture stunning photographs from above!

Choose the Right Period

The landscape can look completely different depending on the season. Spring and autumn usually offer the most colourful pictures. They are the perfect time to capture fields in flower or orange-coloured forests...

Winter is interesting if you have the chance to fly around a mountainous area. However, any plain under snow can look even more flat and monotonous.

It is also important to choose the right time of the day and, more specifically, to check the position of the sun in the sky. Because of the altitude, the risk of dazzle increases in late afternoon when the sun is low in the horizon. The sunset can offer spectacular views but with extreme contrasts between the sky and the land making it very difficult to capture. If you're flying when the sun is low, if possible choose the seat opposite to the sun.

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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Cloudy or Sunny Weather

Unless the pilot is a very good friend of yours, you probably won't have the opportunity to postpone the date of your flight and wait for the perfect weather. Do not be too disappointed if you are not flying in a perfect blue sky, you can always take advantage of a cloudy sky.

Of course, sunny days provide in most cases the brightest pictures and accentuate the details of the ground. However, even when the weather on the ground is perfectly clear, you can encounter haze with altitude, significantly reducing your visibility and misting over your pictures.

I find the best conditions come with a fairly cloudy day. Clouds have the advantage to naturally balance the light, and can also be a good shooting subject. Look out for funny shapes!

An overcast sky inevitably reduces the light on the ground, tarnishing the pictures, but can also provide the right conditions for dramatic photos.

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Recommended Equipment

It is absolutely necessary to protect your camera and lenses from shocks during the flight. Use a protective or UV filter for your lens. If you do not have one, use a lens hood. It will avoid the lens hitting the window handle for example.

For your camera, always use your strap as you never know when an air pocket will happen. This way, you will avoid it getting caught up. Other recommendations are:

  • Map
  • Bottle of water
  • Microfibre or chamois skin cleaning cloth

N.B. The purpose of the above will be explained later in the tutorial.

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Choose the Right Optic

The first thing to consider when choosing your optic is that you will most likely use the same lens during the whole flight. The movement of the aircraft, the turbulence, and the confined space will discourage you from changing your lens when on board.

The choice of the lens depends on your preferences; whether you like close-up pictures or panoramic views. To help you make your decision, here are the advantages and disadvantages of the each type of lenses:

Telephoto zoom lens:

Necessary if you want to get very close to the ground and isolate your subject, but difficult to handle in a light aircraft because of their weight and size.

Wide-angle lens:

Great to capture a landscape or a sea of clouds and ideal for panoramic views.

Zoom lens:

Great for a first aerial photography experience, enabling you to try several different compositions during the flight: from stunning panoramic landscapes to close-up images.

Prime lens:

It is well known that prime lenses take sharper photographs. However, I would only recommend you use a prime lens if you have already done aerial photography and want to challenge your skills.

The following example has been shot with a Canon 50 mm f/1.8.

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Check the Windows

If you have ever tried to shoot through a window, you probably already know that the three main factors of risk are: stains, reflections and unfocused images. There is nothing worse than a beautiful landscape spoiled by a stain in the middle of the picture or an unfocused picture. Therefore, I suggest you do the following.

Check the inside and outside of the windows before the flight and get rid of any stains. This is where the microfibre or chamois skin cleaning cloth and some water will be useful. Always ask the permission of the pilot beforehand and do not use any other type of clothes (cotton, tissue...) as most of the light aircraft windows are made of plexiglass and you could otherwise cause micro-scratches.

To avoid reflection in the glass, just follow the usual advice: use a UV filter, avoid wearing bright clothes, and get as close as possible to the window.

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Manage the Risk of Camera Shake

Getting sharp images is the first challenge of aerial photography. Because of the vibrations of the aircraft and the turbulence, avoiding blurry pictures becomes a tough task. As you can imagine, a tripod is also completely useless in these conditions. So to avoid blurry images, you first need a short shutter speed.

Here is another good tip: use the window to stabilise your camera. Hold your camera with your right hand. The index finger on the shutter release and the thumb next to the setting buttons. Place the index finger and thumb of your left hand around the edge of the lens to hold it. Then, press the other fingers and the side of your palm against the window to stabilise the camera.

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Set the Camera to Manual Mode

In order to experience aerial photography you must be familiar with the manual mode of your camera, as it requires complete control of both the shutter speed and the aperture. Here are the settings to consider:

ISO between 100 and 200: Depending on the weather and external light, I always select an ISO setting between 100 and 200 to minimise the noise. I usually keep the same ISO for all shots in the same session.

Aperture: When I first started aerial photography, I was using a fairly small aperture around f/7-f/8 in order to ensure a great depth of field. In consequence, I had to reduce the shutter speed in order to keep a good exposure. Through experimentations, I decided to try wider apertures, even up to f/1.8. I eventually realized that my pictures still had a great sharp focus with the benefit of a lighter image.

High speed shutter: The key to success in aerial photography is to get the shutter speed right. As I mentioned earlier, the high shutter speed is essential to get good sharpness despite the movement of the aircraft. I usually set the speed shutter around 1/2000s when I use a wide aperture, or to 1/250s with a small aperture. Any shot below 1/250s ends up blurry.

Settings for the following picture are ISO: 100, Shutter speed: 1/2000s, and Aperture: f/2.8

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Compose Your Image

To get the right composition is another big challenge in aerial photography for various reasons:

  1. You depend on the position of the aircraft
  2. The size of the window considerably reduces your shooting area
  3. The aircraft's wings obstruct part of your field of view (especially low-winged aircraft)
  4. Even small turbulence can push the main subject out of the frame
  5. And finally, you only have a few seconds to capture your subject.

Therefore, my advice is to avoid zooming in too much and to keep a wide angle. Use a post-processing software to level, crop, or re-frame your pictures afterwards. It is often the best option to consider at the beginning.

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Prepare the Flight

Good preparation will save you precious time, since you only have few seconds to get the right picture. Here is some advice for your preparation:

  • Make a list of the spots that you plan to shoot (monuments, stadiums, lakes, castles, airfields, etc.)
  • Mark them on a map. If you do not have aeronautical map, use a normal map and take it with you on board
  • Have a look at the satellite view on Google map. From above, some spots will look closer than you think.

If you do your homework, you should be able to guess during the flight the position of the aircraft from the different spots, and from which side you will shoot. During the flight, keep an eye on motorways, railways, roundabouts, lakes, woods, towns, etc., as they are the best localization marks.

By doing this, you should have some time to test your camera settings before you arrive right above the spot.

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Be Creative

I know by experience that it is difficult to get your eye out of the camera sometimes. You are going to discover some breathtaking views from the air, so do not forget to enjoy the landscape and the whole picture!

There are lots of exciting things to look at and to capture. Watch out for the shape of the clouds, the mix of colours on the ground, or the inside of the aircraft, etc.

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You all already know that in photography, practice makes perfect. But it is even truer in aerial photography. The first step is to achieve focused images by getting the right shutter speed and aperture. Framing will come later, and can always be improved in post-processing.

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