Aerial Tips on Photographing from Planes and Helicopters
© Ron Levy 2020
Iditarod dogteam crossing frozen pond, Alaska
If you’re spending serious money to shoot from the air, you want to maximize your chances of getting great shots in the short amount of time you’re playing Superman. Here are some vital aerial photo tips from 30+ years of shooting from planes, helicopters, and ultralights.
Before you get in the cockpit, check that your camera is on, and take a few shots. Check the viewfinder, check your battery, and bring a spare. You don’t want to have to change batteries or memory cards in flight, especially with doors off, but if you do, those spares will be lifesavers.
Double check that any filters or lens hoods are securely screwed on, and, as mentioned before, possibly taped on as extra insurance. A friend of mine had a polarizing filter fall out during an assignment over the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. It was a critical filter that controlled reflections off water to see the oil better. I happen to have a spare one and gave it to her. Filters take up no space, so remember Murphy’s law and bring duplicates of the small stuff.
Bring warm clothes and gloves or liners that allow you to shoot with dexterity. A light wind shell that stays close to your body is ideal.
When to fly
Depending on where you are and what you are shooting, the choice to shoot at different times can have a drastic effects on your results. Morning is normally best for wind, when it is non-existent or minimal (unless it’s one of those all-day windy days). It is also a time when early side lighting can really highlight relief on subjects that have a lot of it – canyons, glaciers, forested hillsides, ocean waves or spray, etc.
However, for this exact same reason, morning side light will restrict shots of deep canyons or other objects that are shadowed by land or buildings. Sometimes this is unimportant, as the drama of side lighting is what makes the shot, and other items that are perhaps dark or “buried” in a canyon don’t matter.
Mid-day light will usually give you the most light and least problems with shadows. But of course that really does depend on what you’re after.
If there is one particular land, water or man-made feature that looks better with the light from one side, you should try to time your flight for the best shot of that feature, and do the best you can with the other shots that come up.
Mid-day light can still come slightly from the side, especially in northern latitudes, so you can still great lighting in your aerials.
Afternoon light, similar to morning light but usually warmer, is also excellent for giving aerials that extra impact, which may or may not be enhanced by longer shadows. Colors can also be more saturated on nicer days. Again, it depends on what your primary, “gotta-have” shot(s) will be, and whether you can time your flight for those ideal places.
The only consistent drawback that I’ve encountered with afternoon flights is wind. Be prepared to bounce around, and check/adjust the security of your gear periodically.
Aerial from ultralight, southcentral Alaska
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)
Should you use a lens hood?
The decision is relative, in my opinion, to several factors:
1) Will the doors be off? If so, you run the risk of the hood being bumped off or blown away at any time. Even if it’s screwed on, it can be bumped or fly off if not on tight. Also, the pilot may not allow lens hoods (they bump glass). You might want to tape it on with wide black tape.
2) Will you the benefit be worth it? Unless you’ll be flying in one particular angle or direction most of the time where the light will be in front of the camera, there may not be much benefit in clarity and contrast.
3) Will you be using a polarizer filter? Depending on the hood, it may be harder to rotate or remove a filter. But if the hood is the type that screws into the filter (rather than sliding over it from the lens), it can make it easier to rotate the filter.
4) The one benefit I do agree with is to protect the lens. It will get bounced around a lot, and the ability to protect the glass may be well worth the cost and hassle. I’ve banged around tons of lenses. A short hood has saved a few repair bills and kept me shooting. (Not to mention dropping the camera or lens). I’ve broken a few hoods this way, but kept shooting with a perfect lens.
One trick I do almost all the time is to keep one of my fingers at the edge of the lens between the window or door frame and lens. This works only if you have autofocus, as it’s impossible to do this and accurately focus manually or zoom the lens. But it gives you a feel for how much the lens is moving and banging around, plus lets you keep a cushion of about 1/2 inch between the lens and frame.
Autofocus — Single or Continuous?
The main uses of Continuous AF are in sports, paparazzi and with fast moving subjects like running wildlife, etc.
On land, I generally shoot with single shot focus, so that I know that shutter will not release until the subject is in focus. This doesn’t matter quite as much with aerials, as most everything will be at infinity (unless including some of the cockpit or passengers), so Continuous AF may yield more usable shots. On the more advanced cameras, check your focus points in the viewfinder — setting more points will give you some insurance against high structures or foregrounds biasing the focus.
With continuous mode, you can shoot more freely, but of course that depends on altitude and speed. Shots taken at low altitudes (a few hundred feet) may still have out of focus areas if there are tall trees, hills, buildings etc. sticking up. You can always take a few seconds to verify focus while on continuous AF, or change to single-focus when you change back to your longer zoom.
Unless there’s a lot of activity going on in the scene, the decision about which focus mode to use is the same as everywhere else. Do you want to make sure a specific subject is in focus before tripping the shutter, or is/are the subject(s) static enough or in the same plane of focus to trust the camera/lens focusing ability? Although the higher end cameras have fantastically accurate Continuous AF algorithms, as mentioned above, I usually use Single AF anyway because I want to know that whatever caught my interest, even in the split second of awareness, is in focus. There is usually enough time to verify.
RAW or JPEG?
I shoot everything in RAW. Raw takes more time to process in the camera, but with better cameras and better “burst rates” (# shots you can take before the camera has to wait for images to record on the memory card), you will hardly notice any waiting time between shots.
The advantages of RAW shooting are that you have lots of original “information” from the shot to play with in Photoshop or Lightroom or whatever, without compression and any loss in quality. If your camera doesn’t shoot RAW, then see if you can set it for some other lossless mode such as TIFF, or a JPEG setting with minimal compression.
You will get bigger files, so be sure you use memory cards with at least 16-32GB that will generally hold hundreds of images at a time. You don’t want to waste valuable airtime changing SD cards or losing them in the process!
Other General Tips
Farm designs, Agra, India
Brace your camera with your body parts, not the helicopter or airplane frame.
If you’re shooting with doors off, be mindful of the boundary between aircraft frame and open air. If you lean too far forward, the wind WILL whip your camera/lens combo in any direction.
Wear a wide, strong neck strap, but be aware that most of the time you will be shooting down, so it could easily slide off. It is a bit clumsy using a neck strap when you’re wearing a communication headset, but it’s still good insurance (put the strap on before your headset).
Keep everything tied down or attached to something, preferably with a second tether. Don’t wear hats or any clothing that is not tucked in, buttoned or zipped.
Keeping a tight grip at all times is mandatory; attaching a second tether is not mandatory but great insurance. Use a carabiner or other strong attachment to your belt or possibly a cockpit frame part.
Consider a wrist strap as well (Peak Design makes a cool “Cuff” that snaps on easily and securely).
Also consider a vest (still my favorite for traveling and shooting anywhere in the world) rather than a photo bag. Much easier to grab from a pocket than mess around with a bag, especially if doors will be off. Space is tight; having what you need in pockets rather than in a bag is easier, faster and less likely to fall out if the plane/helo makes a sharp turn.
(More useful tips on photo gear while traveling can be found at What to Bring on a Photo tour)
If shooting through windows, be mindful of zoom lenses at their longest range. As you bounce around, they will hit the window, which may not only scratch it, but piss off the pilot.
You can cradle your lens at the tip in a way that keeps the bac of your hand or fingers on the window as you shoot, stabilizing the lens without touching the lens to the window surface or frame. If it’s very windy or bumpy, this technique might not work, as it may be better not to touch any cockpit surface and just shoot freehand.
Shooting through windows also presents a few other obstacles. The first is reflections. Get as close to the window as possible. Wear dark jackets, vests or other upper body clothing to reduce reflections as much as possible.
Distortion is another issue. There will be increased distortion from the window. Not much you can do about this one, except to perhaps check out the window ahead of time to find the sharpest, cleanest part to shoot through. Distortion can sometimes be fixed a little in post processing with a tweak in contrast and possibly a little sharpening.
Contrast will also be reduced through the window. Again, not much you can do except to check out ahead of time for the best spot or perhaps the best window in the plane/helicopter, and tweak what you can in the computer. Buying the best lens for your money will also give you the best contrast and resolution, which will really come in handy in aerial situations where the doors aren’t off.
Happy shooting and flying!
© Ron Levy 2018
Ron Levy started leading tours back in 1980 when he was stationed as a Park Ranger on San Miguel Island off the coast of California. He has guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years. His images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide.