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Shooting From a Plane: Composition, Lenses, and Shot Choice

From the turquoise shores of Mozambique to the verdant waterways of the Okavango Delta, Southern Africa is a kaleidoscope of ever-changing contrasts. Boundless, vast, and teeming with life; it is a world of infinite richness, beauty, and complexity – and one I never tire of photographing from above. Each time I explore these lands of water and dust from the air, there is something new and beautiful to be discovered.

Entering the world of aerial photography can seem a little daunting for the uninitiated, but I think for the most passionate wilderness and wildlife photographers, the allure of getting into an aircraft and seeing their world from an aerial perspective will – at some stage – become an adventure one cannot pass up.

Plane flying over dunes
Flying low over the ancient dune fields of the Namib is one of life’s great privileges.

Aircraft and pilot

I have photographed from fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, microlights, and gyrocopters over the years. For professional and comfortable aerial photography, it is essential that one has access to the correct aircraft. A high wing aircraft or helicopter with photographic windows – or with the door removed – would be my recommendation.

Having an experienced pilot that has done prior photographic work and has local knowledge is an absolute must. The pilot not only acts as a spotter, but also needs to have experience in putting you in the right place at the right angle for that perfect aerial shot.

The scene is passing beneath you at an average of 100mph, so you need to be able to converse with the pilot and make split-second decisions if you see something interesting you want to photograph.

Helicopter flying over deserts
Flying over the dune fields of the Dorob National Park in a helicopter. Namibia.

Location

Aerial photography is as much about planning as it is about the actual process of photographing from above. You should have a clear plan of where and what you want to photograph, and at what time of day, and then embark on the grand treasure hunt to find the shot.

It is all about maximising your time in the air and ensuring you come back with some great images.

Fishermen photographed from above
Fishermen pulling in their nets on Banque Island. Bazaruto Archipelago. Mozambique

Working with light

Always aim to be in location when you are guaranteed to get the best light. Even if you are in the most spectacular location on Earth, if the light does not do the scene justice then you will likely be disappointed with the results.

The best light is always early mornings and late afternoon: those golden hours are where the light turns into magic. I find the still morning hours my favourite time to shoot, taking off with the dawn and being back down on the ground by no later than 10am. My advice is that, for the most part, do not even begin to think about taking photos until the sun is low in the sky.

Elephant in water photographed from above
An elephant wades through the crystal-clear water of the Okavango Delta at dawn. Botswana.

Aerial photography is the only genre of photography where you move through and around light.

For example, when orbiting a subject such as an elephant in the crystal-clear water of the Okavango Delta, you will be able to photograph that elephant as front lit and back lit within a matter of minutes. You will need to compensate for the changes in light rapidly by altering your settings… and whatever you do, do not stop shooting when you are flying directly into the sun… I have taken some of my most beautiful images by going against all the rules.

Flying above a lake
Flying at dusk over the vast Gariep Dam in South Africa.

Contrast

Play with light and shadow; be on the lookout for unusual lighting conditions that add mood or dramatise the scene, such as a storm rolling across the landscape or light pouring through a break in the clouds. High contrasts add drama and mood.

Dusk on the desert
As dusk settles over the desert, the contrast between shadow and light on the ancient dune fields of the Namib is breath taking. Namibia
Lesser flamingo photographed from above
Lesser flamingo wade through the black brine pans south of Walvis Bay. Namibia

Composition

When viewed from above, the world is all about shape, colour, and perspective. Harness these aspects and you will create artistic and intriguing images.

Think about composition as much as possible and try to perfect it in the field. There is only so much you can do in post-production. There are certain techniques one can use to help in composition such as rule of thirds, but ultimately you need to train your eye to see the scene. If it does not look right in your viewfinder, then it will not look good in the final output. Practice will make this become second nature.

  • Look for strong, solid lines such as roads or coastlines. Shoot directly above them to emphasise shapes and create abstract scenes.
  • Compose your scene symmetrically by looking for recurring patterns and ‘balanced’ scenes.
  • Isolate your subject against a uniform backdrop to emphasise its shape and size and draw the viewer’s eye.
  • Exploit long shadows created by your subject when the sun is low to form dramatic scenes.
  • Include a recognisable object such as a person, animal, or vehicle to accentuate the scale of your aerial image.
Dried up desert river
The shadow of an ancient camel thorn tree reaches out to the delicate tracings of the Tsauchab River. Deadvlei, Namibia.
Boat photographed from above
A dugout canoe paddles its way across the turquoise waters of the Save River estuary. Mozambique.
Eduard Bohlen shipwreck
The Eduard Bohlen, one of Namibia’s most alluring wrecks lies forgotten in a mausoleum of sand at Conception Bay.

Camera and settings

I use high shutter speeds of 1/1000th and above to compensate for the speed and vibration of the aircraft. I shoot with a Canon 5DS R and a Canon R5, with my favourite lenses being the Canon 100-400 for wildlife and a wide-angle 16-35mm for those sweeping landscape shots.

Being technically proficient with your camera is important, but I am also a huge believer in learn the rules and then forget them all! It is good to learn your camera and the basic rules of photography, but do not let them limit you and stop you from thinking outside the box.

Photography is an intuitive art form which reflects what we find beautiful or interesting in this world. Some of the most beautiful images I have seen go against all rules. Get out there, have fun, experiment, and find your own style.

Orange sea photographed from above
An upwelling of nutrients from the sea floor provides sustenance for a psychedelic display of algal bloom on the coastal waters of the Skeleton Coast. Namibia

Shoot in raw format

If your camera can capture photos in raw format, then shoot in raw. The files contain much more detail and information, and give you far more possibilities in post-production without losing quality.

Also, if you are wanting to enter wildlife or landscape photography competitions then the judges will often request the raw files.

Read more: Don’t Delete Your Raw Files for DNG Format

Giraffes photographed from above
A herd of giraffe wander the floodplains of the Okavango Delta. Botswana.

Post-production

Even the most brilliant of photos require a little tweak here or there to give them that special something. No matter how advanced your camera is, it will not be able to capture the nuances of colour and light that the human eye can.

It is worth going on a photo editing course, either in Photoshop or Lightroom, to bring all those beautiful images up to par.

Flamingo flying over the emerald ocean
Flamingo flare over the emerald ocean in a surge of pink and white. Quirimbas Archipelago. Mozambique.

In conclusion

Getting the right aerial image requires time, patience and experience for sure, but it also takes a little luck. The funny thing is that your luck seems to increase the more you stick your neck out to get that perfect shot. 

The most important step to getting fantastic images is to get out into the world, embrace your passion and connect with your subject matter. Getting a great shot often involves stepping out of your comfort zone and trying different things.

If you keep at it, a certain magic and intimacy will start resonating in your images.

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Visit Jay's website

Jay's critically acclaimed photographs of Africa’s grand wilderness spaces have been featured in press all over the world including GEO, National Geographic Travel, BBC Wildlife, CNN and Wild Travel. Jay is represented in galleries locally and abroad, and her fine art prints feature in private collections internationally.

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