Photography is the constant struggle to find new perspectives, right? Well, taking images out of an airplane certainly gives you ample chances for new perspectives. It is an experience you won’t soon forget. I want to help you make sure you will walk away from your own aerial photography adventure not just with great memories but also with great images that make you stand out from the pack.
I recently went on an aerial photography shoot with Andy at Boulder Air Tours. All the images you see here are from that trip flying over the iconic Flatirons to the West of Boulder, Colorado, as well as the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains, with incredible views of Mt. Evans. (If you are interested in purchasing any of my aerial images, please visit my PRINTS page or click on the image you like right in this blog post!)
1) It’s all about the shutter speed
It may not seem that way, but that airplane you are sitting in is moving fast. Real fast. Everything is shaking, and then there are those winds that you will feel exponentially stronger the smaller the airplane is. All of that is to say: Everything moves, which makes nailing that focus more challenging than in most other nature and landscape photos you might be taking.
Nothing kills an aerial shot like blurriness. So your exposure triangle (ISO, f stop and shutter speed) should be configured in a way that gives you maximum shutter speed. Ideally, you will get it as high as 1/2000 of a second. That, of course, depends on the available light and how fast your glass is (more on that in a minute), as well as the low-light capacity of your camera. If you are shooting during the golden hours of sunrise or sunset (which you should, as I will explain in more detail below), the amount of light available is going to be limited. Know your camera, and know how high you can push that ISO without losing too much image quality. I shot all the images you see here with a Canon 5D Mark III. It worked well for me, but the Canon 5D Mark IV certainly could have given me even better performance at higher ISO levels.
When it comes to choosing your shooting mode (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual), this really depends on your preference. I would argue that your first aerial photography shoot should not be the time to experiment with that particular setting, meaning use the mode you are used to and check your exposure triangle parameters often. I am mostly shooting in Aperture Priority mode, so I kept that setting for this shoot as well. If you like Shutter Priority mode, then you can lock in that 1/2000s value and only have to worry about adjusting ISO, letting your camera pick the aperture. Or, if you have lots of experience shooting in manual mode and don’t want to give up any control over your camera, go with Manual!
An extra tip: Think about renting equipment for your shoot if you don’t own that high-end DSLR. Places such as borrowlenses.com offer great service at affordable rates.
2) More hacks to help you nail that focus for tack-sharp images
To further increase your odds of grabbing that tack-sharp image, here are a few more focus-related hacks:
Use Area Focus
Use Single Shot rather than AI Focus or AI Servo modes
Use back-button focusing. That way, you can lock in your focus and then recompose.
Shoot a lot: Make sure you have enough memory card spaces and then fire away. Usually, if you make every exposure a series, the second or third shot tend to be that tiny bit sharper than the first one where you might still have a bit of shake or movement in your camera.
Check your focus often! Don’t just trust that things look great on the tiny LCD screen on the back of your camera — zoom into those shots and make sure they are truly in focus. That way, you can adjust your settings accordingly and will still walk away with great images. Imagine the horror of opening up your images in Lightroom and only there realizing that your LCD screen tricked you?!
3) Leave the prime lens at home and grab the workhorse instead!
Changing lenses mid-flight is a major hassle — and one that you want to avoid if at all possible. If you are reading this, chances are you have not done a ton of aerial photography — so rather than taking that extra-sharp prime lens, you want an allrounder that gives you great performance in various circumstances.
I’d recommend a 24-70 mm f/2.8L II or the 24-105 mm f/4L. Both these lenses are well suited to capture that wide and stunning vista but also have some room to zoom in and extract some detail out of that sweeping landscape. But be aware: The longer your lens, the higher the shutter speed needs to be in order to give you the best chance at tack-sharp images. If your lens has image stabilization, make sure it is switched on. Keep your lens hood off — it is one less thing the wind can catch and introduce extra shake. If you are running into any issues of lens flare, see if you can position your hand in a way that blocks those sun streams.
Now, with all that somewhat sage advice on those two lenses, I will tell you that a majority of the images you see here I shot with my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. I am in love with that piece of glass — its quality as well as its ability to really hone in on those details you will see from above are outstanding. My 70-200mm also has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, which in turn allows for that faster shutter speed. The great thing about aerial photography is that most often you do not need a large depth of field. Unless you shoot mountain landscapes, your subject will be in focus even at f/2.8. Generally, the higher you fly, the shallower a depth of field is required. If you are shooting mountains, I recommend not going much lower than f/5.6, to be on the safe side — instead sacrifice a bit more image quality by increasing ISO to get to that necessary shutter speed. If you are flying close by a range and have a lot of depth in the shot, you might need need to up that f-stop even more to make sure everything from front to back is in focus.
Which brings me to my next point: Your best chance of keeping everything sharp and nicely in focus is by shooting down as straight as possible — but without sticking any part of your camera out of the airplane (remember, you want to minimize wind impact!).
If you desperately want to bring more than one lens on your shoot, consider renting a second body. That way, you can just quickly switch between setups rather than go through the tedious process of changing lenses in a crammed space — which costs precious time, seconds during which you might miss the best angle!
Also make sure you bring extra batteries and have a fast and large memory card. Your card will fill up quickly as you fire away. And you will want to shoot in RAW mode to give yourself maximum flexibility to edit your images after the fact in Photoshop, Lightroom or Camera Raw, for example.
BUT: If you have to change lenses, or batteries, or memory cards, be super careful not to drop anything — it’s a massive security risk!
4) What to consider when choosing the Golden Hour for your aerial photo shoot
Just like with any type of landscape and nature photography, your best shot at outstanding imagery comes during Golden Hour, those first 30-60 minutes after sunrise and before sunset. The quality of the soft light comes with many advantages, but also with one major tradeoff: Close to sunrise and sunset, the overall amount of available light will not be quite as high — so depending on your camera’s ability to perform in lower light situations, this is something to keep in mind as you still have to get to that ideal shutter speed range I mentioned above. And yet, the soft contrasts and enhanced colors of Golden Hour are almost impossible to pass up if you are serious about your nature photography.
My personal preference generally in my landscape work is to shoot during sunrise rather than sunset. There is an old adage in my home country of Germany, “Morgenstund’ hat Gold im Mund” — which loosely translates to “The morning hour is the golden hour”, or, even more loosely, to, “The early bird gets the worm.”
But depending on what you plan on shooting while in the air, your subject might be in the shade during the morning hours, or your pilot may not be able or willing to fly that early. Use an app such as Photo Pills to see from which direction the light hits your subject(s) right after sunrise or before sunset, and then make an informed decision accordingly. In my case, I knew that the east-facing Flatirons in Boulder are always catching that beautiful early morning light whereas in the afternoon, with the sun setting behind them, those iconic rock features can look, well, flat, and certainly less than stellar. Since I really wanted to capture them at their prime, though, I decided that the morning hour was right for me in this instance. As is so often the case in landscape and nature photography: Do your research in advance to drastically increase your odds of success!
5) Talk to your pilot as much as you can!
Communication with the pilot is key — and it starts long before takeoff. As you reach out to your preferred operator about booking a session, ask a lot of questions. You don’t want any surprises on the day of the shoot! For maximum results, you for example want the pilot to be able to either take out the window or even the whole door. Make sure the pilot knows in advance that you plan on taking more than snapshots! Also, do your research on where you want to go — and clear your plans with the pilot before so that you are not running into any airspace restrictions the day of. Once in the air, time will — pardon — fly by. You also want to make sure the pilot is good to go during your preferred time of day. Ask them how flexible they are in case of weather and cloud cover.
Once the day of the shoot is actually here, you will most likely wear a headset to communicate with the pilot in flight. Remember: You are paying the pilot to get you into the best spot to capture that aerial image you always dreamed of. This is important: Don’t feel bad to ask the pilot to take another loop, maybe a little closer, or a little farther away. You are likely paying a substantial amount of money for this shoot, and there might not quickly be another opportunity like this. Ask for what you want to get!
6) To minimize shake, use your body as insulation
Shooting out of a moving airplane is even trickier than it sounds — and holding your camera steady is a real challenge. You are probably used to taking most of your landscape photos from the safety of a tripod. Well, that ain’t gonna happen in an airplane, obviously. So basically, you will want your body to become the insulation system against shake and vibration. Make sure you tuck in your elbows, and don’t lean against the plane as you shoot. As I mentioned before, also leave off the lens hood and don’t stick any part of your camera out of the plane and into the wind stream.
7) Don’t blow out your highlights — literally
This is another important one: Set up your camera in advance as much as possible, but once you are in the air, check your histogram often and make sure you are not blowing out your highlights! Shadows often add additional drama particularly to a sweeping aerial landscape. Yet if there’s clouds or snow, it is easy to clip those highlights — and you will not be able to recover them in post-production. So in other words: Yes, you want to make sure your overall exposure isn’t too dark. But it is particularly important that there will be information in every part of your image that you consider important. If this gives you trouble in flight, don’t fret. There’s an easy fix. Use exposure compensation to make slight adjustment and then check the results in your histogram on the LCD screen on the back of your camera!
8) Don’t forget to zoom in on the details and capture the whole experience
As photographers, we see the world differently. We seek out color, light and details that inspire us. When you get up in an airplane to take photos for the first time, though, you will inevitably be blown away by the grandeur of the sweeping landscapes that unfold below you. And while you will definitely want to make sure you capture those, don’t forget about the details. Force yourself to take the same approach to your images as when both of your feet are securely attached to the ground — force yourself to really see, to not just look. If you do that, you will find many, many detail shots worth your lens’s zoom function. Not every shot needs to have the horizon in it — in fact, depending on how interesting the sky is during your shoot (think clouds, color), you might not even want all that dead space in your image at all. Instead, look for examples for shapes, or for how the light and shadows shape certain pockets of the landscape particularly interestingly. This way, you will capture a wider variety of images and get more out of your experience!
Another word of advice: Getting in an airplane to take photos is an incredible and (for most of us) not that common experience. Capture that experience! Get shots of the airplane, of the pilot (if he consents!), closeups of the dashboard etc. Those will not be the images you put up on the wall (most likely), but they will take you back inside that plane time and again and become cherished memories — and as such will be just as important as any shot you take that day.
9) Dress accordingly!
As you can tell from these images, there is snow on the ground — I took them during winter. The higher you fly, the colder it gets. Makes sense, right?! Now add to that equation taking off the door of the plane, and the ensuing winds. In short: Be prepared to freeze your rear end off — an effect that you can mitigate as much as possible by dressing up in really warm clothes. Like, really warm clothes. Also, if you don’t have them, consider getting your hands into a pair of gloves with flippable finger tips (like these!). They will come in really handy — not just on aerial shoots, but during all your winter photography endeavors! (He who hasn’t suffered near frostbite just to get that one last shot cast the first stone!)
10) And lastly, take in the views!
It is not every day that you get to go up in a small airplane and take a scenic flight. Make sure you enjoy the experience! It is super easy to get really caught up in all the technical details, and they are certainly important. But you also want to enjoy what’s unfolding right in front of you. Because ultimately, no matter how hard we try, no photograph will ever be able to fully do justice to the beauty of Mother Nature in real life. Appreciate that!
If you are interested in purchasing one of my aerial images, including some of the ones you see here, simply click on the images or visit my PRINTS page. If you think this blog post was helpful, please consider sharing it with your friends and follow me on Instagram and Facebook. If you have any questions, please get in touch.