Tips for Aerial Photography
Shooting photos out an airplane window
Some of my favorite photos have been ones I've shot out of an airplane window. From 1000 to 3000 feet up in the air, you can get some amazing views, and smaller aircraft travel slow enough that you have time to prepare and compose your shots. Here are some general tips for taking photos in the sky.
- Use a small aperture number. The lower the f/stop the less distracting dust and reflections from the window will appear in the photo, and the faster your shutter speeds will be, minimizing blur from camera shake.
- Try not to fall out of the airplane. When shooting photos, make sure to not fall out the aircraft. Doing so will prematurely conclude your aerial photography experience and you'll miss out on some of your locations. That said, if you do find yourself attempting a personalized unpowered descent, document your journey thoroughly through photography. The contents of your memory card could then be sold to tabloids to finance your burial.
- Use an optically stabilized system. Even if you consider yourself to have a steady hand, flight in a small aircraft will teach you the true meaning of turbulence. Even in bright sunlight, keeping shutter speeds as fast as possible and using an optically stabilized system will ensure that your photos are as sharp as you expect them to be.
- Fly with a qualified pilot. The quality of your pilot can be determined by how nice their radio headset is. Features evolve rapidly in the world of radio headsets, but a quick way the uninitiated can determine quality is by the headset's price. If it's under $500, find a new pilot. In the $500-$1500 range, you're probably in safe hands. But if the headset is over $2000, the pilot must be very qualified indeed.
- Use a zoom lens. This is coming from someone who doesn't use zoom lenses: you should suck it up and use a zoom lens. The view changes way too fast, and the plane's cabin is way too cramped, and the flight way too bumpy to be fumbling around changing lenses on your camera.
- Determine the skyworthiness of the aircraft prior to landing, or even better, prior to takeoff. Ask the pilot when was the last time the plane has crashed, and how many crashes it has seen in its lifetime. Make sure the plane has all the required key equipment, such as wings, propellers, and radios (your pilot should be able to help identify these parts if you're unsure).
- Smaller equipment is better. Cessna 172 cabins are cramped, much more so than that of a small car. Large, bulky lenses, such as a Canon white-barreled zoom lens, are not good choices in such a confined area. A more compact super-zoom lens will be much easier to use.
- If you become airsick, do not use your camera bag to receive your vomit. That is a problem you seriously want to avoid. Most planes are equipped with emergency bags, or failing that, ask another passenger to hold out their hands in a cup shape.
- Discuss the flight path with your pilot prior to departure. It is important to understand what terrain and sights you will be traveling over, if you will be violating any foreign nation's airspace, and generally making sure that the pilot has maps of the area.
- Check the weather morning of. Stormclouds make for the most interesting skies in landscape photography, and aerial photos of lightning and tornadoes can be especially exciting!
And that's pretty much it. Have fun up there!