This article is geared toward individuals who already have a basic knowledge of working with SLR cameras and want to try out the bird’s eye vantage point. There are many books out there filled with a lot of great information on this subject, but as with anything else, all of this information can seem daunting and keep newbie aerial photographers from taking their first flights. My goal here is to compress all of the critical information into a quick start guide that will get you up in the air and taking great shots in no time.
Generally the biggest obstacle that gets in the way of taking good aerial photographs for a beginner is proper positioning in the sky for the subject matter. Most of the rules of good photography that apply on the ground are the same from an airplane, so it isn’t necessarily camera settings or composition that will trip you up. It’s placing yourself in the opportune position in a 3D environment that will make the difference between a keeper and a throw-away. You will quickly learn while looking through the lens what is going to be a great frame, but it can come upon you quick and the next thing you know you’ve missed it. Getting into that exact positioning again can be extremely elusive and frustrating foto.
Achieving “spatial success” starts with proper planning on the ground. The first decision you will need to make that can influence the outcome greatly is what aircraft you will use. If you are in a rural location, most likely you will be choosing between a Cessna 152 or 172. If in or near a city, then a Robinson R-22 helicopter will be on the list. Shooting from a helicopter will increase your chances of getting good shots, most of the time. The exception to this is in situations where you want to shoot large areas from high altitudes. The R-22 is one of the least powerful helicopters around, so it can take a long time to climb to a high altitude, and once at that altitude it will take a lot of time to move to different positions. At around $300 an hour, this will quickly rack up a large bill. But this is really the only disadvantage (albeit a pretty big one) to using a helicopter over an airplane. The most economical way to go is the trusty Cessna 152, at $100 an hour, or less. Only go for the pricier 172 if you need more space in the cockpit, which you might.
The next important pre-flight item is to arrive at the FBO (Fixed Based Operator) on the airport at least 30 minutes early. You need time to sit down with the pilot and get on the same page as him or her before things start happening quickly in the cockpit. I cannot emphasize the importance of this step enough. Most pilots have not flown aerial photography missions before, and although they will most likely be excited to work with you, they need to understand ahead of time the uniqueness of your requirements. Just getting you directly over the location is far from enough. Spend 15 minutes talking with the pilot while you sit in the left seat of the airplane on the ground, simulating how you will be working with your camera. Ask to be in the left seat because it is much more comfortable to turn to the left with the camera than to the right (you will have a better chance of the pilot accommodating this request if they are a flight instructor and used to flying from the right seat).
The first thing you will notice is the challenge of shooting around the wing and wheel of the aircraft, while leaning out the window (which needs to have the limiting arm removed with a screwdriver…very important). Have the pilot take the seat for a moment and look through the lens to understand this challenge. It is important for the pilot to have a mental picture of this, because they have a lot of control over placing the clear shooting space directly in line with your target at the correct angle. It isn’t enough to just get the airplane in a stable bank and circle the target, which is what pilots are trained to do. You will be asking your pilot to fly “actively”, constantly banking, pitching and yawing the aircraft to accommodate your clear shooting window. Of course, your stomach’s tolerance for this type of maneuvering might be the limiting factor, but that’s why barf bags are always available! The final note on this topic is to firmly establish your form of communication such that the pilot quickly understands what you are asking him or her to do, whether you use hand signals (recommended since there will be a lot of wind noise coming through your headset microphone as you lean out the window) or verbal cues.
If you have taken the time to properly formulate a game plan with the pilot, the flight should be fairly stress free and a great experience. Most likely you will be going for wide landscape shots in this first flight, as opposed to zoomed in shots of architecture. Your most dynamic photos will come from having the pilot fly at the lowest possible altitude that will still accommodate your subject framing. This adds depth to the photo by keeping the horizon in the shot. You will immediately realize the challenge of getting the horizon you want with the wing in the way. This is where you need to have efficient communication with the pilot to get the wing lifted at the exact moment you see your shot angle coming into place. The pilot cannot keep the wing up for very long, as the plane is turning this whole time. One trick in the pilot’s bag that can alleviate this is what’s called a “slip”…request one and you will quickly understand its value. The key is to experiment and not be afraid to ask the pilot for what might seem impossible. They will most certainly be excited to be trying something new (within safe limits of course!).
Ok, I know you are wondering about lenses and camera settings. For this first go, the standard “kit” lens with any SLR body will be just fine. Since you do not need to worry about depth of field, simply shoot at the fastest shutter speed your lens can accommodate. Normal exposure setting is fine and you will need to do some post-process tweaking of this. Go with 400 ISO to give you more shutter speed. A lot of aerial photographers like to set manual focus and tape the lens to infinity, but auto focus works great with today’s cameras.
I feel this is enough information to get you started in aerial photography and give you a decent chance of landing with some good photos. The in-flight tips I have given assume you will be in a Cessna. If you are in a helicopter, you do not need to worry about any of those points. You will have no obstructions to shoot around (but also no door to give you that extra feeling of security) and the pilot will naturally fly at a very low level. Shooting from a helicopter is the ultimate experience if you are willing to pony up the extra bucks. Just be sure to dress warm!