7 Tips for aerial photography

Nothing replaces being on a high peak for a sunrise or firmly planted on the beach to watch the colors take shape for a sunset. The level of control you have as a photographer will never be higher than when you have a tripod, slow changing light, and fixed foreground elements. So why change any of these elements? Because the skies come calling. Taking photos from 30,000 feet never seem to turn out great. But I am continually surprised by how through dirty windows or in less than optimal conditions you can get some really great shots. I will cover drone tips in another post as there is much to be spoken about there. In the mean time check out Tom’s Tech Time if you want some great tips on techniques and settings.

I have taken Aerial Photos in Belize, Alaska, Greenland, and Utah and have had good results. What could have made them a little better?

Blue Hole of Belize

The Blue

#1 Try to Clean it UP

I am not talking about your mouth or your mind. I am talking about the window you will be looking out of. On the smaller planes the pilot will typically take you around the plane kind of like a rental car. If they don’t they won’t be offended if you ask if you can quickly clean the window. Especially if you have a shammy or this set of extra large lens cloths. In Alaska this wouldn’t have been possible as the plane was very big and high off the ground and certainly not possible for Commercial airline service but on a small plane, totally doable.

Back Waterways of Lake Powell Arizona

On Point

#2 Proper Planning Prevents Poor Photography

Not the 5 P’s of the Military. But with aerial photography try to estimate the flight path. Then you can try to be in the shade side if you know the suns angle. Photo pills can be very helpful here with their plan function as you can drag two pins between takeoff and landing to see where the light will strike. The same thing goes for any particular sites you want to see. Use Google Earth or Instagram to figure out where the scenic icons are on your flight and try to be on the shade side of the plane for these shots. Many pilots can adjust their flight plan to accommodate a shot and some scenic tours will circle in such a way to see the icon from both sides.

#3 Are You Coming or Going

The ideal is to be able to fly with no doors or windows, but there is still a thing called liability. Dang. So chances are you will be shooting through a window. The windows will be clearest when you take off and as the temperature drops is when ice and fog will form. My experience is also that the Shade side fogs up less. In Greenland I had some amazing views as we took off but on landing my window was almost completely covered in frost.

Crazy Glacial Colors of Greenland

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#4 Reduce the glare

No polarizer filter. No neutral density filter.  No UV filter.  You are shooting through a layer of plastic and two layers of glass on many planes. The chance of the light refracting is so much higher than shooting through any other type of glass. This also gets way worse if you have any sun in the shot. I had some epic shots in Alaska but as soon as the sun hit the window it sent a spiral of light through my image. Not going to be able to correct that in post processing :(

Funny enough the below shot I had a pretty dirty window which actually helped to soften the shot a little bit.

No Glare in this Shot

Lake Powell Aerial Shot

#5 Not just where you sit

Avoid sitting over the wing if at all possible but it's often okay to sit under the wing on a prop or over wing plane. The wing can add some shade to your shot and in my experience does not detract that much. If you get stuck with a wing in your shot you can crop it out but also you can play around with framing like this shot from Alaska. Bonus tip. Wear dark clothes. If the sun is shining into the cabin the light will reflect off what you are wearing and can get into the frame.

Play around with the framing

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#6 Think Wide and Focus

In Alaska I wish I had my 14-24mm lens as I was so close to the mtns I could not get the entire mountains in but usually I want my 28-300mm as I will want to zoom in on some detail at some point in time. Most of my shots are in portrait and most are at 28mm. I have also had problems with auto focus through the layers of glass so I typically go to manual focus. Fire some test shots as you are flying out to check your focus.

Got the focus correct first-Belize coast

Coastal Contrasts

#7 Bracket and think big!

I bracket all the shots in the air. I have been also been able to stitch together Arieal panos and also have been able to hdr a few shots with decent results. I typically bracket with 2 stops difference but for aerial I have found just one to be better as the overexposed one on a two stop sequence is typically not useable.

Denali Aerial Pano

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