How to Take Aerial Photos: Drones, Helicopters and Planes
For more than half my life, I’ve been a professional airline pilot. If there is a better office view, I am unaware of it. The dynamics of constantly changing weather combined with the radical change in perspective means that every flight offers something totally unique to look at. Long before I became interested in landscape photography, I was appreciating the fantastic light, colour, and atmosphere from 40,000 feet. Once I picked up a camera, it was only natural to try to capture some of the amazing vistas I was seeing out the window through aerial photography.
I quickly discovered what many of you already know: airplane windows are awful to try to shoot pictures through. The thick, angled glass on the flight deck creates massive amounts of distortion and loss of quality, and the windows in the cabin are typically scratched.
That’s not to say that you can’t make interesting pictures while traveling on a commercial flight, but it’s certainly challenging considering the plane is going to a fixed destination and you are merely along for the ride.
So if it’s nearly impossible to take aerial photos on your next airline flight, what’s the point of this article? Expand your horizons a bit, literally and figuratively, and an entirely new genre of photography opens up for you.
There are several options that will allow you to gain a birds-eye perspective of your subject, depending on your budget and sense of adventure. Let’s examine the three main options from most to least expensive.
Shooting aerial photos from a helicopter
If high quality aerial images are what you are after, you simply can’t beat shooting from a helicopter.
Usually, in a scenic area, there is a helicopter outfit offering tours. In places like Hawaii, tourist helicopters are constantly buzzing around the islands whisking visitors over locations. These are relatively cost effective, but less than ideal for serious photography.
Many of these larger jet-powered choppers seat 6 passengers, and you are not guaranteed a window seat. Even if you’re lucky enough to score one, the windows cause distortion and limit your ability to frame a shot. The flight plans are set, so there is no manoeuvring to get the perfect angle.
If you are serious about getting the best images possible, you need to be in control of the time and itinerary of the flight.
Luckily, small piston-powered Robinson R22s (2 seats) and R44s (4 seats) can be found for hire around the world. The best feature of these helicopters is that the doors can be easily removed.
If you have the stomach for it, being able to lean out the open door of your helicopter and tell the pilot where you need them to hover offers an uncompromising opportunity to make the best possible picture.
Now that you’re on board and cleared for takeoff, there are a few unique considerations for your aerial photography expedition that must be taken into account. Safety needs to be paramount in your mind, and it’s critical that you don’t get so wrapped up in the experience of shooting that you lose track of your responsibilities.
Primarily, you need to keep hold of your equipment. Wear your camera around your neck with a strap and don’t bring any loose gear with you. You should never change lenses, so I recommend bringing two bodies with two different lenses hung around your neck. A 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 will serve you well for most flights.
Depending on the subject, an 80-400mm or 100-500mm might be more appropriate. Although it’s bulky and expensive to carry two camera setups around your neck, if you happen to drop a lens during turbulence and it bounces out into the slipstream, it could easily end up in the tail rotor. Let’s just say this would end the flight in a hurry for both you and your pilot.
Additionally, it’s tempting to want to stick your lens out of the open door while cruising along. You will quickly find out that a 100mph slipstream and a long lens don’t mix well. Wait until you are in a hover or at slow speed to lean out and get the shot.
Helicopters are expensive. You don’t want to be experimenting with settings while you are hovering over your subject. Time is money, and you want to make sure that you are getting sharp, properly exposed shots from the moment you arrive above your subject. Allow me to pass along some techniques that have worked for me during my helicopter outings.
If you haven’t been up before, you will very quickly discover that these little flying machines vibrate… a lot. Vibration is death to a sharp image, so you will need to keep your shutter speed fast. 1/500th is as slow as I would go in a helicopter, and 1/750th or 1/1000th offers you more insurance that your images will be tack sharp and of high quality.
Since the same rules of light apply in the sky as on the ground, you will typically be chartering your flight around golden hour when the light can get rather dim. If you are shooting my favourite subject, which is lava, you want very little light on the landscape to make the bright red glow more dramatic.
Read more: How to Photograph Volcanos
This is why I recommended the lenses that have a maximum aperture of f/2.8. From above, depth of field will not usually be an issue, so you want to shoot wide open to allow as much light in as possible.
So, if I’ve set my shutter speed to 1/750th, and my aperture is set to f/2.8 in manual mode, that leaves ISO as the only adjustable component of the exposure triangle. For that reason, I set the camera to Auto ISO and let the computer figure out the correct exposure.
But if the camera is essentially deciding the exposure, what metering mode should I use? Usually, matrix metering mode produces the most natural results, but my preference for aerial photography is Highlight Weighted. This mode gives the greatest weight to the highlights, and reduces the loss of detail in the highlighted areas.
Modern DSLRs (particularly Nikon) do an outstanding job of allowing you to recover detail in the shadow areas provided you are shooting in raw, while blown highlights are pretty much impossible to recover. Make sure that after a few shots you check your histogram and see how your exposure is doing. If you are overexposed, stop down your aperture or bump up your shutter speed until the exposure comes into a range the Auto ISO can handle.
Using planes for aerial photography
While the ability to hover in a helicopter allows for maximum control of your shooting environment, it isn’t the only way to shoot effective aerial images.
Light aircraft are more common, faster, and have better range than helicopters. As an added bonus, they are substantially less expensive to rent. In almost every town in America, there is a small airport with a local flight school that has pilots looking to build time. With a little leg work, it’s not hard to set up a flight at your desired location and within your desired timeframe.
In Europe and the rest of the world, general aviation is more expensive and less common – but with some persistence, you should be able to procure a flight just about anywhere.
At this point, I should mention that all airplanes are not created equally. If you are planning a light aircraft photography flight, the actual plane manufacturer is important.
Piper and Cirrus both make excellent aircraft, but they are low wing. This means that shooting down will be next to impossible due to the fact that you are sitting over the wing itself which will obstruct your view.
Cessna aircraft have a high wing, which is attached above you, so you only have a thin strut and landing gear to contend with. If you are planning to shoot straight out at a passing mountain, for example, the low wing aircraft banked slightly will offer largely unobstructed views.
These smaller planes are seldom equipped with air conditioning, but they do have windows that open to allow for some airflow. We photographers can use this to our advantage by shooting through the open window for the cleanest possible shot. Additionally, some operators may be willing to remove the door altogether to give you even better access. Just be sure to avoid sticking your lens out into the slipstream.
The same principles and settings that work for a helicopter photo tour work in an airplane. If the shutter speed is fast enough to deal with the vibrations of a helicopter, it’s fast enough to freeze the horizontal motion of a small plane.
How to take aerial photos with a drone
In 2013, a company called DJI (heard of them?) launched the Phantom 2 drone, which revolutionised aerial photography. With a sensor in the integrated digital camera – that was sophisticated enough to capture workable images – photographers everywhere clamoured to get their hands on one.
With each successive model, the image and flying quality of these consumer drones has improved, allowing for incredible video and stills drone photography.
The relatively low cost and conveniently tiny size of today’s drones means everyone can explore limitless perspectives from the sky. With great power comes great responsibility, however, and regulations and drone flying restrictions are struggling to keep up.
In the United States, for example, it is illegal to fly a drone in any national park. There are rules that go far beyond the purview of this article for how high, how far, and how close to people you can operate these nifty little gadgets. There are countless videos and tutorials on how to safely and effectively operate your drone. Rather than slog through the technicals of menus and flight modes, I’ll share with you the tips and techniques that I’ve found to be most helpful in capturing effective aerial photographs.
The raw files that come out of my DJI Phantom 4 Pro and DJI Mavic 2 are astonishing. I’ve come to expect excellent detail and clarity, even on windy days, and rarely am I disappointed. One shouldn’t, however, expect the same file quality as you get with today’s modern DSLR cameras. So I’m careful in how I shoot images to make sure that I’m maximising quality.
For example, my Nikon D850 produces totally useable files at ISO 9000. Drone files fall apart quickly above ISO 400, and I try very hard to shoot at ISO 100 whenever possible.
Both my drones have adjustable apertures, and after some experimenting I’ve found the sharpest images occur at f/5.6, which makes sense as it’s near the midrange of the lens’ aperture.
Shutter speed can be widely adjusted depending on what effect you are trying to accomplish. Several companies make ND and CPL filters for drone lenses, and I’ve had excellent results with Polar Pro filters.
The newest drones are amazingly stable, and it’s possible to shoot exposures of several seconds in a reasonable wind.
Even with these highest quality settings, I usually shoot multiple identical exposures so that I can stack and average them together during post processing. This significantly reduces noise without sacrificing quality.
While dynamic range is excellent for such a tiny camera, it’s not as rich as what you can expect from a DSLR and so I usually bracket exposures as well to guarantee I have data in all tonalities.
Once you pull the files off the card and begin to process them, you will find that a gentle hand works best. The pixels fall apart quickly when pushed or pulled too hard in either colour or luminosity. Speaking of colour, I almost always have to reduce the amount of cyan saturation in my drone files, so be careful your eyes don’t “adjust” to the cast before you correct it.
No matter your weapon of choice to get a camera into the air, I highly recommend you take the plunge and give aerial photography a try.
Ansel Adams famously said: “A good photograph is knowing where to stand”. Perhaps today’s interpretation of his words should be: “A good photograph is knowing where to stand… or fly”.