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Guest post: Aerial photography

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Today's guest post on aerial photography is by Matt McCarthy (more aerial photos can be found on flickr):

We may not all get the chance (or want the chance) to shoot from a small plane someday, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, it will probably be over before you know it and there will be a lot of things you wish you'd thought of while you were up there. Here are a few tips that apply to a typical high-wing Cessna (click on image for larger view):

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The best viewing is actually from the back seat. The front has a deep dashboard, a lot of cowl to look over, and a lot of open sky in front of you. It's also very cramped up there and you won't be able to see much out the pilot's side. The back affords views on both sides and the fuselage is a little narrower so you can move to either side with little effort (I have no comment about the seat belt.) I've found an altitude of no more than 2500ft above ground level (AGL) works well on a clear day. Lower is often better, but not always an option. Haze and a lack of subject/composition become issues at higher altitudes.

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One factor that you might not be anticipating is speed. You don't get much sense of speed in the air, and things do seem to move along somewhat slowly, but you are definitely moving at a pretty good clip and your viewpoint changes suprisingly fast. When you see a pleasing alignment of foreground, mid-field, and background elements… shoot! The foreground barn on your left will soon be on your right… and now it's gone out of frame! You really need to be on your toes. You just can't circle back for everything.

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Most planes are not equipped with a photography window port. The reality is that you'll be shooting through a window for 99% of your shots. It is possible to open a window during flight (preferedly at speeds below 100kts.) and the blast of wind is not actually as bad as you might expect - though it does get cold. The main issue is that it requires pre-planning and coordination with the pilot. Hinged windows are only found in front doors, so you'll need to lean forward to get the clear view. You'll also need to remove your headset because your mic will pick up constant wind noise and render radio communication useless. Even with your mic essentially turned off, the wind noise in the cockpit will make it harder to hear the radio. Open window shots have to be very deliberate and applied sparingly. You also need to keep your lens inside somewhat because you'll never be able to hold it perfectly steady stuck out in a 90kt breeze.

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In fact, you can almost never hold your camera perfectly steady in a small plane. Some amount of turbulance is to be expected, so I shoot with shutter priority at 1/1000 or faster. It's not that you're constantly getting knocked around up there, but… it's a little like trying to shoot while you sit on a basketball. When you need to shoot at slower shutter speeds, you'll need a LOT of patience.

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As usual for through-the-window shots, you want to keep the lens as parallel to the window as you can, not just to help reduce optical distortion, but to reduce color shift in backgrounds. You can't set your lens right against the window because it will pick up vibration and also skate all over the place as you try to "sit on the basketball." Cup your hand around the end of the lens and use it as a shock-absorbing hood. Most pilots are just looking for a chance to make a maneuver, so they are very willing to put the plane into a nice bank to help you get the angle you need to shoot and still remain parallel to the window. Everybody wins (except you, trying to shoot through the window like that. You should be shooting from a helicopter and using a gyroscopic head).

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But beyond any of this, get the shot! Who knows when you'll be up here again?

All of these shots were taken through the window and most have had contrast or levels adjustment.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • Msmoto

    The aerial work is nice. I hope he was not the pilot as well. Years ago I know a photographer who flew the plane himself and shot out the window with a Graflex, 4×5.

    • http://www.facebook.com/htmlspinnr Rick Johnson

      I’ve shot with a P&S while piloting a Cessna 152 doing turns around a point 1000ft AGL. Photo quality was “good enough” for the purpose, but I couldn’t imagine operating a D-SLR in full manual mode w/o a safety pilot in the right seat.

      For most Cessnas, the one screw removal is to remove the limiter that allows the window to only open 15-20°.

      While 95 KTS may be typical, a competent pilot can slow a 172 or 182 down to as low as 45-50kts for “slow flight” (flaps extended) with shallow turns if need be. Just ask – it’s yet another maneuver like a steep turn.

  • KnightPhoto

    Thanks Matt, lots of practical tips in there!

  • J.R.H. Law

    For reference, my former professor, Emmet Gowin, mounted his Hasselblad on a stabilizing gyroscope when shooting his aerial landscapes. For example, http://www.geh.org/ne/str085/htmlsrc5/m199000120001_ful.html

  • MrMister

    Kudos for the useful tips Matt. Hopefully I get the opportunity to go on a plane (Commercial/private) and take photos.

  • Spy Black

    Thanks for your information. Hopefully sometime I’ll get back up in a small plane and try some shots. Years ago I was going for my pilot’s license, although I never finished my training. I was so caught up in my flight training that I never thought to bring my Nikon gear with me on the plane! I am familiar with much of what you refer to here however. Thanks again for your insight.

  • Terry

    A couple of things, I think the front seat is way better. In a high wing Sesna you can unscrew the window hinge and the window will open all the way. The air flow will hold it securly to the wing. You can close whenever you want. You never want to stick the lens out the window, even a little, the air flow is about 125 mph. And my best advise, if you can afford it, is a helicopter with the door removed. One door, if both are remover, you are in a wind tunnel. I shoot both commercial aerial stills and landscape aerials. It is truely a great experience EVERY TIME, try it.

  • Chuck Clark

    Commenter Terry is correct about the window (obviously). A large percentage of C172s have only one operable window, on the left/pilot side. One phillips screw removed and you have an open window. Better yet take the door off. It’s actually faster than taking the screw out. Even when it’s cold you can fly for quite a while with the window open. I usually fly from the left seat as it’s easier to control the camera so get an instructor to fly you as they don’t mind the right seat. C172s cruise at 95 knots, for a pilot that’s dog slow but for us that’s bloody fast. ADMIN is right, shoot quickly and shoot lots. When in doubt shoot. Many C172s don’t have a window brace at all. Some even have operable windows both sides. The 95 kt airstream fouls up the autofocus on every lens I’ve used, I don’t know why. ADMIN’s advice is again critical, keep the front of the lens (hoodless) inside the airstream. You’ll know it when you feel it. Especially when you reach out to close the window!!!! Snowcovered runway or big crosswinds sometimes mean the pilot wants the left seat so take what you get. It’s great any way you cut it. Never shot from a chopper or at night. Two things to look forward to.

  • Matt

    Thanks, all. These were taken from a Cessna 182, by the way. Hinged windows on both sides, and the swing up reasonably wide and out of the way. The set in the Flickr link were all taken from the front seat. I find the front seat mostly frustrating because of its limited view, and I can still shoot out the front windows from there. I would love to shoot from a helicopter someday… in the summer.

    • Matt

      The back… I can still shoot out the front windows from the back.

  • 103david

    By the way…perfectly obvious if you think about it…whether in a Cessna, a Huey, or a 747, when shooting through a window, wear black clothing unless you want a nice reflection of yourself or a lovely reflection of the inscribed data from the front of your lens in all your photos.
    Don’t ask me how I know this.
    You might also try using an old school big old honkin’ rubber wide angle lens hood if you’re going to press the lens right up to the plexi.
    But in any case, it’s a good excuse to wear that cool black leather jacket languishing in the back of your closet.

  • Terry

    Oh ya, one other thing. For those of you who aren’t sure where to get a pilot and plane. A lot of airports (large and small) have flight schools. The instructors are a great resource for photo flights. Costs are not as high as you might think…do it.

  • Pat Mann

    An open-cockpit biplane (often used for scenic flights) also works pretty well, you just have to deal with shooting with your camera and part of your head out there in the wind – slower velocity than a Cessna, but still enough to blow back any zoom-creeping variable-aperture Nikon AF-S VR zoom totally out of focus and zoom you had intended. The pro zooms are probably resistant enough to work OK, the 70-200 is IF-IZ so no mechanical advantage to the wind there. On the 12-24 DX and probably some others, the zoom mechanism can be protected from the wind by a filter so there’s no wind force on the zoom, and it’s IF. I think most of the AF primes probably have a long enough and damped enough focus throw that they’re probably OK. The 50 f/1.4 G can be protected by a filter like the 12-24.

    • Spy Black

      I think that you would be far better off with Nikkor Ai manual optics. They are calibrated for infinity stop, pretty much where your lens is going to be focused at anyway.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    haze removal technique is so important

  • 103david

    And a couple of other suggestions… Try soaring. This really a treat with no engine vibration and you’re likely under a bubble canopy which is hard to beat for unimpeded viewing. Think flying around in your bathtub a couple thousand feet up…except you’re probably not naked. (If you are naked either you’re dreaming or something is seriously wrong.)
    The other possibility is to check into some of the touring warbird organizations. While not cheap it’s pretty thrilling to fly through the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge while neatly tucked in the nose turret of a WWII vintage B-24. Collins Foundation has a B-17, a B-25, and B-24 you can fly in. Always remember, whatever happens while pressing your nose to the very tippy tip of the plexi nose of a B-17 in flight, you’ll be the first to get there.

  • Borneo Pilot

    Taking out the screw and opening the window all the way is good advice, and I agree with others that if you do this the front seat is WAY better than the back. Unless, of course, you’re in something like a 206 or Bonanza (I think) that allows you to remove both doors. I’ve shot with the doors removed (very fun) and been the pilot with photographers/videographers in the back with the doors removed doing formation flights. Getting a plane like that is the best way to go, and what the pros do.

  • Borneo Pilot

    One other thing, shooting with a higher shutter speed is good advice EXCEPT if you’re trying to shoot other planes (like in formation), and if that’s the case shooting in the 1/60 or so range will give the prop blur that you see on the covers of Flying magazine and such. Shooting at higher shutter speeds freezes the prop and it just looks unnatural IMO. Of course, this is more difficult and many of your shots turn out blurry, but having a lens with VR set to Active (if available) helps.

  • proudgeek

    Love this article. I live near most of the stuff shot here and thoroughly enjoyed the different perspective.

  • Jeff

    I own and fly a Cessna 172R. It’s always best to take aerial photos with the window open. It’s very easy to take the screw out of the window brace and the window will remain totally up and out of the way in flight. I find an altitude of 1,000 to 1,500 feet above ground level to be ideal for most shots. The most frequently used focal lengths are from 50mm to 120 mm for an FX camera. Fast zoom lenses are ideal. A 100 knot airspeed is probably best close to the ground. Never stick the lens out the window into the slipstream of wind, it’s much too strong too hold the camera steady. For autofocus lenses it’s important to have it set for taking photos from a moving vehicle.

    A 1000th sec minimum shutter speed usually works well unless there is significant turbulence. Even on the smoothest of air days expect frequent bumps, therefore always shoot bursts of frames for every thing you point your camera at. If ground winds are in excess of 15 knots pick another day. Rough air usually occurs a day before weather frontal passage as well as the next day after. Hot humid days in the summer will often produce extreme haze and usually unfavorable conditions for pictures. My favorite season for aerial photography is in the fall during agricultural harvest season. The clear, crisp fall air is hard to beat and the geometrical patterns are often quite fascinating.

    In aerial photography there’s really not much foreground or middle ground. It’s pretty much all background. The highest resolution cameras and lenses produce the best results. Shoot at ISO 100 to 400, lower the better if able to maintain 1000th sec shutter speed. All the ground subjects are small and require sharp focus and high resolution for optimum results. The best light of the day usually begins about two hours before sunset. Be alert for interesting shadow patterns. Overcast days are best avoided. Some of the most interesting pictures can be had on a partly cloudy day near sunset as the sun slips below the clouds to illuminate the ground. You get a combination of specular and diffuse light and if it involves a body of water the effects can be magical.

    If I’m traveling without my own plane and want to do some aerials I’ll find an airport with a flight school and hire a flight instructor and rent their plane. Even non-pilots can do this. The instructor knows the area and can recommend interesting landscapes. Most flight instructors have flown their share of aerial photographers and know what the photographers’ expectations are. For passenger photographers always keep your communication headset on to communicate with the pilot. The boom mike easily swings up and out of the way when necessary.

    For those pilot/photographers who are instrument rated; always have your camera ready when flying cross-country flights between cloud layers near sunset hours. These situations can really capture the beauty of flight much more intimately than sitting in a pressurized airliner. Aerial photography allows me to simultaneously enjoy two of my favorite pastimes, fly and photography.

  • Lumenatic

    It’s kind of a basic tip, but I neglected it on my first aerial photography shoot and got airsick as hell. I shot with a telephoto lens and only looked through the viewfinder. Bad mistake. The long focus length and the vibration of the plane result in a very shaky viewfinder image which is bound to get you airsick. To prevent this: Take breaks. Take a photo, put the camera down, relax. It also helps to keep the second eye open when you shoot. The other open eye gives you a reference of the scene and your brain is not so easily confused. This worked very well on my second trip. I got the same amount of usable images without the airsickness.

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