This article is about how to get the best out of your photographic flights. I've been flying for over 20 years and have flown with quite a lot of photographers and taking pictures myself. Flying around the volcanoes of Iceland is one of the many perks of being a pilot in a beautiful country.
Flying and Photography
The world does look very different from the air. Aerial photography provides
photographers often with a unique view of landscapes. This article is for you - the
photographer to better assist you in getting that great shot from above.
For aerial photography we basically have two kinds, fixed wing and rotors; i.e. airplanes
and helicopters, with the latter being the more expensive option (we’re talking 3-6 times
more expensive than planes). The helicopter can offer you very slow flight and even
hovering (static) when you’re taking pictures, and the possibility of landing almost
anywhere. Those options may well be worth the extra cost, depending on your budget and
needs. Helicopters often have a door opening or a large window you can put your lens out
of, offering an unobstructed view of the area below and directly out.
Airplanes on the other hand have fixed wings - not rotating. They’re generally either highwing (like most single-engine Cessna’s) or low wing (like Piper Cherokee and many others).
Generally, high-wing airplanes are considered better for aerial photography because the
wing is located above you and hence out of the way when shooting downward. But then
there are the turns, or bank as pilots like to refer to it. You might see something worth
shooting and ask the pilot to make a slight turn around the area of interest, but then the
wing gets in the way. Also, the wing struts (between the wing and the lower part of the
fuselage) will be in your way at all times. Low-wing airplanes don‘t have any wing struts,
so when taking a turn around a point, the view may well be unobstructed, depending on
how sharp the turn is (more angle of bank).
Cessna usually has a large window that
can be fully opened in flight, but Pipers
have a small opening in the window on
the left side - beside the pilot‘s seat. So
if you‘re flying in a Piper, you would
require a pilot that’s used to flying from
the right seat. Most flight instructors are
comfortable with that, but others may
have an issue. If you’re opening the
window, please note that you have to
prepare for the oncoming wind when
sticking your hand out to open or close
the window. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever put your hand out of a car
window at high speed.
You can work your way around the struts and the wing in most cases by pointing the lens
forward and downward.
Speed and wind velocity
At full speed, most Cessnas and Pipers fly at around 110-120 knots (200-220 km/hr) so
relative wind velocity is high. That’s why you don’t want your lens hood sticking out of the
window in flight or even the strap. It may do some damage to the lens, camera and even
the airplane if it rips off. If you’re using a zoom lens, chances are that the wind causes the
lens to retract when subjected to the wind forces, so that’s another reason for not sticking
the lens out.
Camera settings and shooting speed
As you won’t be doing a lot of close-range shooting, I’d recommend you use manual focus,
set it to infinity ( ∞ ) and even tape the focus ring stuck so it doesn’t move when the lens
peers out the window.
Keep your shutter speed as high as
possible – preferably over 1/500.
Image stabilization lenses are great,
but unnecessary if you stick to high
shutter speeds. The best light is found
early morning or just before the
twilights, so you might want to up your
ISO setting in case the light is
insufficient for high speeds.
Shooting through windows
Taking pictures through windows is
less desirable, mainly because of
scratches or contamination of the
window and reflections. You may want to clean both sides of the window before the flight
and bring a black towel or cloth with you. The cloth may be taped to the window and
whenever you need to, you would cover the lens (not the optic of course) to minimize
reflection. Some of my best pictures I’ve taken through windows, although some may have
been better using the black-cloth technique.
Looking into a viewfinder and then out the window, moving your head and changing focus
may induce motion sickness. If you’re sensitive, you might want to take a motion sickness
medications before your flight (Dramamine and Scopolamine may help). Make sure there
are motion sickness bags (barf-bags) onboard and accessible to you. Get some fresh air
blowing on you and even stop taking pictures for a while, until you recover.
If you feel nausea, please tell the pilot so he can make life a little easier on you and even
make a short stop at an airfield close by. Helicopters are less susceptible to turbulence, so
you’re in luck if choppers are within your budget.
The pilot’s job
Safety is the pilot’s number one priority. Arranging the plane to your preferences is
secondary. You’d rather be alive than dead or mutilated with that special picture on your
memory card. So, please respect the authority and skills of him as a pilot. I recommend
that you talk to your pilot beforehand and find out the type of aircraft and even his
personal qualifications before you fly. Make sure you have a common understanding of the
mission and establish rules of communication with each other. Most airplanes have
headsets with a microphone that turns on the intercom when spoken into. Pilots and
passengers alike would appreciate if you’d move the mic out of the oncoming wind when
you’re leaning into the window. That’s good etiquette.
If you already use a polarizing filter on your lens, leave it on, but don’t rush out to get one
just for one flight. It may reduce haze and improve contrast - but perhaps nothing akin to
what photo editing software does. Haze that forms because of airborne particles, which
are more prominent after noon because of the earth lifting air upwards, and with it, dust.
Best time of day
Lighting is one of the most important factors in photography. The best lighting for aerial
photography is early morning or late evening - most of the time. I prefer early morning or
even at night here in Iceland, because of the 24 hour sunlight over the high summer. It‘s
also less turbulence because of wind or thermal activity. Early morning in warmer
countries is also preferable because the sun hasn‘t been up that long to warm up the
earth‘s surface that in turns heats up the air and causes it to lift - resulting in buffeting
(light to moderate turbulence) at lower altitudes.
Some photographers I fly with bring along
their 70-300 mm lenses - and keep it in the
back seat the whole time. The best lenses
for aerial photography have usually been a
17-55 mm, 24-70 mm or even 35-135 mm. A
bit of zoom range is good, but you‘ll hardly
never use a large zoom, like 200 mm. or
Cropped sensor or full frame? Well - don‘t go out buying your equipment for a single flight.
Whatever you have and like is actually fine. Some of the best photos I‘ve gotten were
taken with my iPhone 5.
At last; dress for the occasion. Here in Iceland, it tends to get pretty cold, especially at
altitude. Generally, by each 1000 feet, temperature drops by ca. 2° C. At 5000 feet, it’s
10° colder than at sea level. Use gloves and keep your coat on! Factor in the wind chill,
and you’re experiencing coldness like never before.
Take care, have fun and safe flying!
Haraldur U. Diego