General Exposure Tips:
Those of you who remember shooting with film, the standard procedure for outdoor or landscape slide photography was to slightly underexpose the shots for saturation. This still holds true for digital sensors but not for saturation reasons, since you can bump saturation in post processing.
Sensors in digital cameras are still slightly biased toward darker scenes, meaning they will record more information in darker areas than they can with overblown highlight areas. Photoshop and Lightroom, especially with RAW images, can recover some of the lost highlights, but if they are really blown out, the information is lost.
More information can generally be recovered from dark areas than light ones, so the rule of thumb is to expose for the shadows. Ex: with aerials, tilt the camera down to include more land and less sky, or if over water, watch out for those exposure-killing reflections.
You can also set your camera for Auto-Bracket with a few shots at -2/3 or -1/3 if your camera allows.
A word about using high ISO: The focus (pun intended) of your settings is to stop motion and get a good exposure. Better cameras control noise really well, and unless you include large expanses of sky, you probably won’t see much noise in your shots.
If low light is forcing you to choose between a slower shutter speed vs raising the ISO, then raise the ISO. Sensors in the better DSLRs produce minimal noise at moderately high ISOs (1000-5000 ISO).
Especially with shots that have a lot of information in them – trees, breaking small waves, buildings, or smaller items – setting ISO in the 5000+ range may give you the fast shutter speed (i.e. 1/1000+) to make the shot(s).
Concentrate on focus and shutter speed. You can’t fix a blurry shot, but you can fix noise in post processing. You can still have a great shot with a little noise, but an out of focus shot is a reject.
DSLRs are still preferred for aerials. Point and Shoot cameras like the popular Canon G series are limited in their capabilities, display and ease of use in bouncing aircraft. They are good for videos, and people inside the cockpit, or on calm flights.
With DSLRs, you should either set them for Shutter Priority – bare minimum 1/500/sec for normal flight with minimal wind – or have an Auto ISO that keeps your shutter speed high. Preferred speeds are more in the 1/1000+ range. You can test a few shots as you fly off the ground to see what your settings produce.
Keep in mind that if plane turns, or the helicopter hovers, there will be a lot more forces shaking the cockpit and camera, so shutter speeds may need to be 3-5x higher than those for normal flight (e.g. 1/2000 for 200mm+ lens zoomed out).
Aperture is much less important in aerials, as everything will usually be at infinity, unless you’re including some cockpit items or people. As with land shots, setting the aperture a few stops smaller than the widest (lowest #) will give you the best sharpness for most lenses (e.g. f5.6-f8). Adjusting ISO to give you this opening plus the shutter speeds mentioned above will work too.
Ideally, you want to buy lenses with vibration reduction, or image stabilization, depending on the brand. Some cameras have built in image stabilization that supposedly makes it unnecessary to pay extra money for lenses with VR or IS built in. I am not convinced those cameras do a better job across all lenses than the traditional practice of having stabilization built into the lenses.
Cameras with IS do seem to work well for the smaller point and shoots, but when you get into DSLRs and huge lenses, the ability and benefit of a camera to adjust for larger lens motors, shaking, reduced light and other physics seems to decline compared to lenses with built-in stabilization.
The other consideration is that the benefit of image stabilization really starts to drop off above ~ 1/500 second. That depends somewhat on whether the shaking is due to you moving the camera, or something like a boat or helicopter moving you. But the idea is that if you’re in the fortunate situation of having tons of light, then a fast enough shutter speed can itself be enough image “stabilization” to overcome a moderate amount of shaking.
If you don’t have a vibration-reducing lens, think of ways you can adjust the camera (raise ISO enough) till you can get at least above 1/500 sec. If bumpy at all, 1/1000 minimum.
The drawbacks of lenses with IS or VR are their weight, bulk and battery drain. But most of the time, with the super long lenses, you are using a tripod, and you have extra batteries with you (they really don’t drain much juice from the improved batteries these days). The added weight and bulk of VR on a lens in the 80-200mm range is not much at all compared to the weight of the glass and build quality of the lens.
For lens length, in general, you can get by with roughly 2 lenses, especially if they are good zooms: a 70-200mm, and a 16-35mm or 24-80/120mm.
Author in CH46 helicopter, Exxon Valdez spill, 1989
Reasons for bringing a wide angle lens <50mm
1) Most of the time, you’re shooting scenics from the air, so wider angles (e.g. under about 50-70mm) get the expanse from the air with less amplification from shaking and vibration. Their angle and degree of spread will also generally allow more light into the camera than longer lenses (including f2.8 lenses, which still allow less light than f2.8 wide angles due to their narrower degree of coverage), and allow you to shoot with a higher shutter speed.
2)You can shoot inside the cockpit of your friends, pilot, etc.
3) Easier to attach and use a polarizing filter. This can come in very handy for reducing reflections on water or other shiny surfaces, and saturating any landscape. It will cost you 1-2 fstops, depending on your angle to the sun and how much you rotate it, but again, you can bump up your ISO or shutter speed to accommodate.
The drawback with polarizers is that you have to continually be aware of your angle to the sun as you fly, and rotate the filter to get the best results or the most light.
4) The biggest caveat with wide angle lenses is avoiding those pesky rotor blades that love to creep into your shots, and are so hard to see looking through a viewfinder. Many times the best option is to shoot as much as you can and want, and do your best to notice and avoid where the blades are. Chimping a few shots in the viewfinder after you take them (just before takeoff) can give you some boundaries to look for while shooting.
5) With the super-wide lenses (i.e. less than 24mm), it’s hard to shoot and not get the inside of the helicopter. The temptation is stick your camera a little further out if doors are off, but the second you cross that wind-shear line, you could lose it all. Not advisable.
My suggestion is to do the best you can and crop things out in post processing. This means you should be aware of your exposure! Your camera sensor may be averaging exposures from outside and inside the cockpit, which means dark and light scenes. So you will probably want to overexpose 1-2 stops, using your exposure compensation dial. Sometimes, however, framing the shot with part of the helicopter or a face makes a great shot, kinda like an over-under shot in underwater scenes.
Elephants, Okavango Delta, Botswana
Reasons for bringing a telephoto (prime or zoom) > 200mm
Telephotos are great to get those unusual angles of natural or man-made features, animals, abstract vignettes, etc. But you will be dealing with highly magnified vibration and faster scenes moving through the viewfinder, including the bounce from the aircraft.
So it really helps to have wide apertures and vibration reduction in the lens or camera. Nikon puts VR in their lenses, whereas Canon, at the time of this writing, incorporates IS into more of their cameras. I prefer VR in the lens, as it seems more logical to have different VR mechanisms for particular lenses (especially huge zooms) rather than “one size fits all” in the cameras.
Zooms are harder to handle and keep still, so you really have to decide for yourself what you’re capable of and what you’re really shooting for on an expensive flight. If you’re shooting wildlife or specific smaller subjects like houses, people, etc., then it might be worth it to bring the larger zoom. However, I would opt for the smallest zoom you think you would need, unless you’ve been shooting aerials for a while.
From shooting sports, wildlife and other unpredictable subjects for a long time, I’ve learned that it’s better to pull back and make sure you got the subject in best focus, even if it’s smaller, than try for the closest possible shot. You can always crop a bit in post processing, and it’s better to crop a sharper image than try for the closest shot with your huge lens that will probably produce a slightly softer image.
That is exactly how the elephant shot above was done. About 1/4 of the scene was cropped out evenly all around in this case. Leaving the wider shot would also be good to emphasize more of a sense of place within the Okavango.
(If you’re deciding between buying a longer lens or a better camera, see Size vs Resolution)