Tag Archives: Aerial Photography

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Two of my passions are photography and aviation so it’s only natural that I’ve often combined the two over the years.  To be honest, my initial efforts were not particularly successful.  I learned the hard way that techniques learned for landscape and wildlife photography often just didn’t apply to aerial work.  In this article, I intend to to help you avoid that same learning curve by sharing my hard-earned aerial photography tips and how-to guide.

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Images like this one of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast are the best argument I can offer to give aerial photography a try!

1)  Before you Fly

The most critical determinant of taking high quality aerial photos is to avoid photographing through a window.

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Typical small plane with removable doors. Once you fly like this once, you won’t want to ever do it any other way!

Windows cast reflections, magnify glare and tend to reduce color saturation and contrast.  You can avoid all these issues simply by choosing an aircraft that has windows that open or, better yet, flying in one that has removable doors.  Not only will you get better photographs, but it is a lot more fun!

So…when you call to book a flight, your first question should be :  “Does your aircraft have removable doors or windows that open?”  If they say no, then tell them “Thanks but no thanks!” and call the next company on your list.  Some tour operators will tell you that you can take fine photos thru their big expansive windows which were designed with photographers in mind.  Don’t believe it.  It’s not impossible to get a good shot thru a window, but a significant percentage of your shots will be flawed.

Okay, so what if you don’t listen to my wonderful advice and try to photograph thru a window anyway?  Then here are four things you need to know:

  1. Clean the windows, inside and out before taking off (ask for the pilot’s permission first),
  2. Wear dark-colored clothing (this will reduce reflections)
  3. Keep your lens close to the window when taking photos.
  4. Cut a 3 inch wide strip of black foam rubber and tape it around the end of your lens with painter’s tape (to visualize this, it will look like a donut attached to the end of your lens where the lens cap would be.  This will allow you to put the foam up against the canopy and eliminate any reflections.  (Thanks to my friend Wes Gibson for this Navy Combat photographer tip).

Helicopters vs Small planes, which is best?

  • Helicopters
    • If you have a choice, a helicopter should be your preference for aerial photography because of their superb visibility and their ability to hover, which means you can stay in a particular ‘sweet spot” (rather than have to circle around). Unfortunately, this comes as a cost, you will likely have to pay bit more (but it is worth it!)
    • Four seat helicopters are often your best option since they usually have easily removable doors and you always have a window seat.
    • Don’t fly in a helicopter that has more than 4 seats UNLESS the operator will guarantee you a window seat and that the window opens. Many tour operators fly 6 or 8 seat choppers which means you might end up with another customer between you and a window…this will dramaticallyreduce your opportunities for good photos.
      • Since seats are assigned based upon weight to ensure the chopper is balanced, most pilots will NOT guarantee you a window seat.
  • Small Airplanes
    • Many small airplanes can also be great photography platforms…but only if it has wings mounted to the top of the aircraft (high-wing aircraft.)   Don’t waste your time with bi-planes or low-wing aircraft, since a wing will be in your way much of the time.
    • Like choppers, the two other things you need to verify is that you will get a window seat and a window that opens (or they will remove the door).

If you are in a tourist area (Grand Canyon, New York, Hawaii, etc.) you can easily find aerial tour operators on the internet.  In more isolated locales (or if you want to save some money), do a web search for “Flight Instruction.”  Many of those businesses will take you up for $100-$200 per hour.  Just tell them you want to fly around and take photos (don’t tell them you want to ‘charter’ a plane, that term has a  specific legal meaning that can result in you paying more for the exact same service) .

Do some research before the flight

Like most types of photography, ‘the more you plan; the luckier you get.”  If you are going on a tour, check out You Tube and Trip Advisor to see photos taken by previous clients.  I often review Google Earth and Flickr to see what is in the area that we might be able to overfly.  And certainly ask for your pilot’s input…some of these guys have flown a lot of photographers and have great insight to share.

What time of day should I schedule my flight? 

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Sunsets can be even more beautiful at 3,000!

Like most photography, early mornings and late afternoons feature the best light and color.  Additionally, the long shadows seen at those times make for more dramatic shots. Also keep in mind that some locations look best at one time of day or another.

If everything else is equal, fly in the morning since the air tends to be clearer and the ride a bit less bumpy.

A few thoughts about safety

  • Always use a secure camera strap so your camera doesn’t decide to give skydiving a try.
  • Don’t bring anything that could be pulled off by the wind whipping by your window (lens hoods and hats are examples).   Helicopter pilots get down-right ornery when something flies out of the cabin and hits the tail rotor:)
  • Keep your camera and attachments inside the aircraft and out of the wind stream.
  • Wear warm, tight fitting clothing.  It will be a lot chillier in the air than at the airport and loose fitting clothing (hats, collars, hoods, etc) will flap around and irritate the heck out of you.(especially if you are flying ‘doors-off’.
  • I’ve seen some folks get queasy after looking through a viewfinder on a bumpy flight for over an hour.  If you are so inclined, you might want to take preventive medication ahead of time.
Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Denali Range

A DSLR is ideal, since you can take multiple shots in quick succession without filling up your buffer.  Don’t get me wrong, a good quality point-n-shoot (PNS) can do fine work, but you’re paying serious money for the flight, so why not take a serious camera?

If you have a second camera, then by all means bring it along. If your primary camera craps out while you are in the air, you can forget about getting a refund from the pilot. This also allows you to shoot with a second lens without trying to change glass in the air.

Lenses

On a full frame camera, I find that nearly all of my aerial shots are taken between 28 and 135mm (if you have a cropped APS-C sensor camera, then the equivalent would be 18-84mm)

The longer your zoom, the more issues you will likely have with vibration.  Rather than use a long lens, just ask the pilot to get closer.

Really wide angle lenses (10-30mm) aren’t necessary unless you want to include the aircraft in your shots.

Fast Glass.  If you have a f2.8 zoom, bring it.  If not, even a f5.6 zoom will be fine in most circumstances unless it is a very dark day.

Memory Card

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas

Bring the largest, fastest memory card you can afford.  You will take a lot of photos and changing memory cards during your flight is something to be avoided.  Besides, you certainly don’t want to use your precious time in the air reviewing and deleting bad photos!

Battery

Put a fresh and FULLY changed battery in your camera before you take off.

Camera Settings

The camera settings for aerial photography are probably much different than from those you typically use.  Coupled with the fact that it is easy to get excited and forgetful when you are in the air, it’s a good idea to take care of the tasks listed below BEFORE you get to the airport.

A) Shutter Speed.   This is the single most important camera setting for good aerial photography.

Depth of field isn’t an issue, so set your camera on Shutter priority.  Select between 1/500th to 1/1000th of a second (1/750th of a second freezes most blur with lenses up to 100mm in length on a full-frame camera).

B) Image Stabilization /Vibration Reduction

If your camera/lenses have this option, make sure they are enabled.

C) ISO

This waterfall is on private land in Kauai, so you can only photograph it from the air.

This waterfall is on private land in Kauai, so you can only photograph it from the air.

Take some practice shots with your camera once you set your shutter speed and determine how low of an ISO you can use and still get a good quality resolution.  If you have good sun, you can often use as low as 200 ISO.

D) Set up your camera’s viewfinder so it shows a grid or artificial horizon.

If your camera has this option it will help you keep things horizontal in your photos… which can be a challenge when your aircraft is constantly changing its attitude

E) Exposure Settings

If you have a good quality DSLR and you are shooting in RAW, then exposure bracketing is something you don’t have to mess with unless you shooting scenes with a truly dramatic dynamic range.

Set your camera on Auto-Exposure.  Most photographers are too busy during an aerial shoot to consider using manual exposure.

F) Metering

Use an “area” or full-frame rather than “spot” metering mode to reduce exposure issues.

G) Focus Mode

Most modern cameras have quick and effective auto-focus capabilities.  I leave my camera on auto-focus for aerial photography.  On the other hand, if your camera’s auto-focus function has a tendency to ‘search’ and takes an eternity to lock-in, you could use manual focus and set it for infinity’.  If so, use this old tip:  Before your flight, manually set  focus on infinity and use  blue painter’s tape (no residue) to hold it in position.  This way, even if your focus ring gets bumped during a flight…you won’t find out later that you have a bunch out-of-focus shots

H)  RAW file format

If you are a pro or serious amateur, I’m sure you already shoot in RAW mode.  If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should.   RAW shots contain a lot more data than standard jpegs and will give you a LOT more flexibility in post processing…and even if you currently don’t do much post-processing, you might in the future.  If so, those RAW files will be ready and waiting!

I) Circular Polarizer

I always use a circular polarizer for aerial photography.  It reduces glare (very helpful when shooting over water) and intensifies colors, especially blue skies.  However, know that polarizers reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor, so to maintain your high shutter speed, you will likely have to use a slightly wider aperture and or ISO setting .

2)  While you Fly

Talk to your Pilot

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Mendenhall Glacier: If I hadn’t asked the pilot to go around for a second pass, you wouldn’t be looking at this shot now.

If you are supplied with a microphone & headset you should take advantage of it!  Most pilots love what they do and will bend over backward to ensure that you have a good time. For example, I noticed the rhythmic patterns in this Alaskan glacier (see below) after we had already overflown it.  However the pilot was happy to make a second pass. Even tour pilots will often be flexible if you ask nicely.  And even the surliest captains are often thinking of a tip at the end of the flight, which gives you a bit of leverage

Your Shooting Position

Do not rest the camera or your upper body (including arms) on any part of the aircraft.  Doing so will transmit vibration to your camera.

Review your LCD!

It is normal to be so focused on your NEXT shot that you neglect to check your LCD to see how your LAST shot turned out.  Once over the Grand Canyon I somehow bumped my camera and never noticed that my shutter speed had changed to 1/8000th of a second…which ruined every single remaining shot I took on that flight .   One of those lesions learned the hard way.  Check your LCD often.

Shoot wide

When I’m taking a landscape photo, I sometimes spend a full minute making sure the shot is perfectly framed before I click the shutter (my wife says I take an hour).  This isn’t a habit you want to bring along on an aircraft. Frame your photos a bit wide and crop later.

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

One of the few shots I got of the Grand Canyon…

Take Multiple Shots of each subject.

  • Even with vibration reduction and high shutter speed, you will likely find that a number of your shots are not in perfect focus. You can usuallyensure you get at least one perfect shot by taking 3 or 4 frames of every subject.
    •  Nearly all DSLRs have a ‘burst’ or continuous mode, Use this feature.
    • This will also help take advantage of another feature of aerial photography, the fact that shots taken even a fraction of a second apart can look very different due to the speed of the aircraft.  For example, the following shot over the Grand Canyon was one of 5 taken in a burst, but it looks significantly better than those taken just before or after it.
    • Finally, you will occasionally get a propeller blade in your shot.  By taking a burst of shots, you will end up with at least one that is clear.

Keep your eyes open for the unusual and unexpected

No matter how much you preplanned, you should be ready for the unexpected!  For example,  I was on a flight to photograph Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas when we flew over this wreck…which made for a cool shot.

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

“3 Hour Tour?”

And once, flying near Disney World, the pilot pointed out “Mickey’s Magical Forest” which I had never heard of, even though I’ve lived near Orlando over 40 years!

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

only here in Mickeyland….

 Be aware of Haze

Haze can be a real problem and not just over polluted cities.  Even worse is that you often don’t notice how bad it was until you get home and review your work on the monitor.  Here are some strategies that will help:

  • Use high quality UV filters.  Frankly, I’m not positive that they visibly reduce the effects of haze but they certainly provide an extra layer of protection…which is a good insurance policy when photographing in a bumpy aircraft that has a lot of hard surfaces.
  • Shooting toward the sun will often emphasize haze..try to keep it to the side or behind you.
  • Haze will increase with distance and altitude.   So you don’t want to get too high (I prefer altitudes of 500 to 1,000’).  If it is a hazy day, don’t  concentrate on distant, vast panoramas, ask the pilot to get closer and shoot subjects not near the horizon

3)  After you Fly

Tip your pilot

If your pilot did his/her best to ensure you got good shots, then spread the wealth baby!

Post-processing

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

The clarity filter helped me salvage this irreplaceable image of the World Trade Center.

My photoshop workflow for aerial work isn’t significantly different from normal.  However, there are two exceptions:

  • Clarity
    • If you do notice haze in your shots, use the clarity slider in Photoshop a bit more aggressively than usual,   This tool can often dramatically reduce the problem..
  • White Balance
    • If you had to photograph through a windshield, be aware that this often gives your images a blue-cast.  You can fix this with the white balance tool (eyedropper).
    • Plexiglas also desaturates colors, so you will likely have to increase the vibrance or saturation slider as well.

Now, I know this seems like a lot of information and it might seem intimidating.  But the paybacks can be incredible…unique perspectives and locations you simply couldn’t photograph any other way. Expand your photographic horizons and give aerial photography a try!

…and remember…photography is about more than just pretty pictures!

Jeff

PS:  If are going to try aerial photography under very low light conditions AND you have money to burn, you might want to consider using a Gyro Stabilizer.  Frankly, I’ve never used one…they aren’t cheap ($1,500 and up) and you really don’t need one under normal lighting conditions…but if you’ve hit the lotto and can rent a chopper to take photos of the milky way rising over a volcano spewing lava in Hawaii, then give it a shot!

PSS:  If you would like to see more of my aerial shots of Na Pali, click on this link.

 

Photos from airlines will lack sharpness and contrast but post-processing can help camouflage those flaws.

Photos from airlines will lack sharpness and contrast but post-processing can help camouflage those flaws.

 

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

Aerial Photography Tips and How-To Guide

 

 

Posted in Aerial Photography, Photo Tips and Guides

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Flying in a helicopter is a rare and expensive extravagance.  Dropping $300-$600 for an hour’s entertainment might not be a big deal for CEOs or professional athletes, but for the rest of us, that amount of money leaves a big hole in the old budget.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Anita and I with our chopper pilot. I think the Hawaiian hand gesture we are making means: “Look at us…We just spent a ton of money!”

And, truth be told, I’m a bit of a tightwad: (I can hear my kids laughing now as they say:  ”A bit of a tightwad?  Heck Dad, you make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a Saudi Sheik throwing money at a Vegas roulette wheel!”)  Be that as it may, I’ve long been fascinated by flight and aerial photography… so over the years I have occasionally coughed up the bucks for a chopper ride.

I’ve enjoyed all of those flights…heck, its FUN to hover and zip around like a big hummingbird.  But strictly as a photographer, I found that the expense was rarely justified.  Why?  Four reasons:

1)  First of all, aerial photography has its own unique rules and techniques.  None of it is rocket science, but until I learned the  basics, my results were often disappointing  (I’ll write an in-depth article next week providing you with all you need to know about aerial photography so you don’t have to learn the hard way).

2)  Second, most helicopters are not well-suited for aerial photography.

  • Typical helicopters have large, curved windows which create wicked reflections/distortions in your shots.
  • Many of these choppers have 6 or more seats.  Which means that some seats are NOT by a window.  In other words, you can end up in a middle seat and be unable to get a decent shot the entire flight.
    • Some tour companies will tell you that their helicopter was designed for touring and ALL the seats are great.  Don’t believe it.
    • Since seats are assigned  based on your weight to ensure that the chopper has proper balance, most companies will NOT guarantee you a window seat.

3)  Third, flights are relatively short…so unless there is a lot of great stuff to photograph in a compact area, you can only get shots of one or two locations.  This this makes it really difficult for most photographers to justify the cost.

4)  Finally, the cheap-skate that lives somewhere in the back of my head would tell you that most of the locations flown over by helicopters are accessible via cheaper (but less fun) methods.

Well, now that I’ve burst your bubble about helicopter photography, let me tell you about the one exception I’ve found so far.  A flight that is so incredible that it is worth the money even if you don’t take your camera along (which is a heck of a statement for a photographer).  The location is the island of Kauai, the oldest and, in my opinion, the most photogenic of the Hawaiian islands

So, why is Kauai the exception?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

The legendary Na Pali: One of the most spectacular vistas on earth.

1)  The only way avoid the issues I described with typical choppers is to fly in a 4 seat helicopter that has removable doors.  These choppers are not commonly used by tour operators because they (understandably) want to maximize profits by taking as many paying customers as they can on each flight.

  • There are at least two tour operators on Kauai that use small 4 seat helicopters. Mauna Loa Helicopter flies the Robinson R44 and Jack Harter uses the Hughes 500).
  • Four seats mean that EVERY seat is a window seat
  • Both of these choppers have removable doors, which eliminates reflections & distortion (and makes for a much more exciting ride!)
  • Note: Some of the 6+ seater choppers do have sections of their windows that slide open.  That is better than nothing, but it pales in comparison to having the entire island at your feet (literally) in a doors-off aircraft.

2)  Kauai  has three world-class photographic subjects that you can easily reach during a typical one hour tour:

  • Incredible waterfalls (including the Wall of Tears on Mt Waialeala, the Five Sisters, Manawaiopuna Falls…aka Jurassic Falls),
  • Waimea Canyon, (the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’) and
  • The Na Pali coast (the Pièce de résistance..totally breathtaking)
Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Manawaiopuna Falls (seen in the movie Jurassic Park)

3)  Most of Kauai is inaccessible by road (the estimates range from 65-90%) and many of the most photogenic waterfalls are on private property, so you can only see them from the air.

  • You can hike Na Pali and Waimea Canyon.  However, Na Pali’s Kalalau Trail is a strenuous 22 mile round trip thatwillrequire two days.  Hikes in Waimea Canyon are less challenging.
    • Although both hikes offer good views, they aren’t incredible views like the ones you can see from a chopper.
  • There are small boat tours to Na Pali and I recommend them highly.  These tours are certainly cheaper than a helicopter and the photography can be very good. Again, just not quite as good.

Decisions, Decisions:

What time of day should you schedule your tour?

If your heart is set on Na Pali, then you will need to fly in the afternoon when the cliffs are illuminated by the sun.

If waterfalls are your primary focus, then mornings are usually best since many of them are shaded in the afternoon.  The air is usually calmer and clearer in the mornings as well.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

At first I was disappointed when we flew into Waimea Canyon and saw that it was shrouded in fog….but the mist was actually a blessing

Waimea Canyon often gets pretty foggy/cloudy in the afternoon which washes out colors, but the clouds can make for dramatic photos (see above).

Personally, I was excited about Na Pali, so I flew in the afternoon.  Now, if I had won a Powerball, I would have taken a morning flight too, but…

What Lens?

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Nawiliwili Light Station. You will see this moments after leaving Lihue airport..

You are not allowed to change lenses while in flight (some silly concern about things flying out of the chopper and hitting the tail rotor), so you will want to have a full-range zoom lens on your camera.  On my full frame Nikon, I found that nearly all of my shots were between 28 and 135mm (if you have a cropped APS-C sensor camera, then the equivalent would be 18-84mm)  Since you will be shooting with a fast shutter speed, you will want to use the fastest zoom you have that covers this range.  (I have written a detailed  blog about aerial photography that provides details on your other settings and gear.  Click this link to see it.)

What time of the year?

The winter is best for waterfalls.  Kauai gets a lot of rain (Mt. Waialeale is sometimes referred to as the ‘wettest spot on earth’ with 461” per year!)  December thru March are the wettest…which has a dramatic impact on the waterfalls.  For example, the shot below on the left is of the ‘Wall of Tears’ taken during the winter, compare that to the same shot on the right I took in September.

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Each company offers a lot of different helicopter tours, which should I choose?

Nearly all the tours follow the same clockwise path around the island and follow a pretty rigid schedule with very little flexibility in what you will see and how long you will see it.  In other words, if all the waterfalls are covered by fog and not worth seeing but Na Pali is bathed in glorious sunshine, the pilot won’t spend less time at the waterfall and more at Na Pali.

However, there is at least one exception:  Mauna Loa Helicopters offers a “Photographer Tour”  With this option, you basically charter the chopper, so the pilot will go nearly wherever you want, spend more or less time at particular locations, swing back for a second pass, etc.   This was the best option for me.  Surprisingly, this tour isn’t significantly more expensive than the standard tours. The cost is $660 per hour.  So if two of you are going on the flight, it is only $110 more than paying $275 each for the standard island tour.  Heck, if you are already blowing over $500, then what’s another C-note, right? And if you have two friends with you, it is actually cheaper.  By the way, I don’t get any kind of compensation or free flights  from Mauna Loa or anyone else for that matter.

Weather

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kahili Falls (one of the “Five Sisters”)

A significant number of flights get cancelled due to weather,  If you are going to be on Kauai for a few days, be sure that your flight is scheduled on your first day…so if there is a cancellation, you will be able to reschedule.

One other thing, even if the weather is great at the airport, there is a good chance that it won’t be perfect everywhere on the island.  On my flight, Waimea Canyon was socked in by fog, but the waterfalls and Na Pali were beautiful.  Be flexible.

Safety

I can’t avoid this topic.  After all, it seems like there are reports about a tourist chopper going down somewhere every six months or so.  While it is true that the accident record for private helicopters is higher than for commercial airline aviation, statically your chances of getting injured in a car accident on the way to the heliport are a lot worse than while in the air  But everyone has their own tolerance for risk and if you are uncomfortable flying you probably won’t enjoy this tour no matter what the numbers say.

Final thoughts

Personally, I thought this flight worth was every penny.  I got some incredible shots that simply couldn’t have taken any other way.  Additionally, the scenery was beautiful and the feeling of the wind zipping by the open doors was really quite a rush. If there is a Hawaiian trip in your future, a helicopter flight over Kauai should be on your itinerary!

And remember, photography is about more than just pretty pictures.

Jeff

Justifiable Extravagance: Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Is that a view or what? Afternoons are usually best for lighting at Na Pali….clouds often build up later in the day as well which can have dramatic results

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

Kauai Helicopter Photo Tips

 

Posted in Aerial Photography, Hawaii, Landscape Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Also tagged , , , |