Webb Aviation

How to take aerial photographs

 byJonathan C K Webb BA(Hons), DipM, ARPS

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The question I am most asked is how do you shoot aerial photographs, what aircraft or helicopter should one use and what sort of camera equipment is suitable for aerial photography.

Which aircraft to use: The first thing to decide is the choice of flying machine. Fixed wings aircraft are generally cheaper and safer but often have struts in the way of the view out of the window so much coordination with the pilot is needed to ensure a suitable view. Helicopters are more expensive but afford a wonderful view with no strut in the way so you are free to photograph at all angles which is a big benefit especially if you are not used to taking aerial photographs. Helicopters are also more stable which is not so important for daytime stills photography but by night or for video means that a Heli is de rigueur. Where there is a choice of helicopters then I always prefer a turbine helicopter as these are much safer. I'm happiest in a Jet Ranger or MD500 although we have to use a much bigger twin engined helicopter over big cities. I'm not keen on very small piston engined helicopters as they do not have such a good safety record. If money is an issue then a small aeroplane is better. When working in Germany my most used aircraft is a Cessna 152 aerobat which is very safe and perfect for the job as long as you keep the wing out of the shot. Unfortunately differing regulations in the UK mean there are non available to charter for aerial photography so in many areas you have no choice but to use a helicopter.

Image courtesy of Thurston Helicopters, Kent

Safety: The most important thing is that you and those beneath you remain safe and for that reason as you can see from the photos when I am working with the doors off I am strapped in with both the seat-belt and a safety harness and also every piece of equipment has a separate lanyard attaching it to my harness so that nothing can fall out. ( So in the image above the camera has a strap, there is a lanyard on the lens and also a lanyard on the gyro stabilizer. The second and third cameras were also all lanyarded up so when ready for action I often look like a birds nest sitting in the aircraft! You cannot change lenses when working with the doors off so I normally carry 2 or even 3 cameras, each with a different lens. That`s not shown in the photo as the second camera was used to take the image! Typically I will have a wide to mid zoom on one camera and a mid to long zoom on the other so I have everything covered. If light levels are low then a zoom lens may not be up to the job in which case a fast prime lens is the order of the day but you are limited in how you can shoot. If you fly in enclosed flying machine then things are much easier as nothing can fall out and you can use one camera and swap lenses. I have read on internet forums about people opening the door of their aircraft in flight particularly in relation to aircraft such as the C42. This is not a safe practice and should not be done. Anything which you open up into the slipstream could separate from the aircraft and if its something big like a door the next thing it will do after it has separated is take your tail off and then your flight will be ended much quicker than anticipated! If you really must use such a machine then the safe way would be to remove the doors before flight but always check with the Pilots Handbook if such operations are allowed.

Most important for safety is use an experienced pilot and in fixed wing aircraft  keep your speed up. Many people slow down to take photographs but this is both necessary and reduces safety. In a fixed wing aircraft if you fly slower and slower then you will reach a critical point where the air is not flowing over the wings enough to create lift and at this point you are said to have "stalled" and in effect you are no longer an aeroplane but half a ton of metal  sitting in the sky. Its best to fly with a large margin of safety over the stall speed. NB If you are in a stalled aircraft, the recovery is straight forward but counter intuitive. The pilot will push the stick forward so the nose is down, that will cause the airspeed to increase until a point where the wings start to generate lift and your pilot can then gently ease the aircraft back into a climb. If you are a passenger in a stalled aircraft then keep quiet and let your pilot recover and keep your feet and hands well away from the controls. Scenes of pilots pulling back  dramatically at the controls are only for the moves with no basis in real life, pulling back on the stick would hold the aircraft in the stalled configuration and cause it to crash, recovery is only possible by pushing the stick forward and getting the aircraft in a (gentle) dive. Stall recovery is usually straight forward and if you are at a sensible height ( you are at a a safe height aren't you? ) it will be done without too much loss of height. If you have been unfortunate enough to enter a spin as well then you will need much more height to recover.  That`s why we fly reasonably high up: the higher you are, the safer you are, and always keep the speed up. Helicopters are very different but also benefit from height and speed. If a helicopters engine fails then theoretically it can "auto-rotate" which is effectively gliding. However to auto-rotate the pilot must very quickly reverse the rotor blade angle. If he is too slow and the rotor blade slows beyond a certain point then it is irrecoverable. Height and speed make attaining auto rotation much easier. Below certain height and speed combinations auto-rotation is not possible and this is referred to as "dead mans curve" .  Bigger helicopters are also safer as the rotating blades have  greater mass and momentum which allows for an easier transition into auto-rotation. Conversely certain tiny two bladed helicopters have a second or less for the pilot to detect and react to an engine  failure. While this is possible during practice it is almost impossible when the engine failure is unexpected and for this reason I will not fly in very small helicopters at all. Anyway, all you need to know as a photographer is that whatever the flying machine, the higher and faster you are, the safer you are.

What camera equipment to use for aerial photography: Well the first thing to say is ignore any Canon vs Nikon arguments, they both have strengths and weaknesses and if you carefully identify which one is best this year then sure as eggs are eggs next year the other one will be better. Surprisingly also the price of the camera is not the be all  and end all, its the choice of lenses which will have the biggest impact on your photography. I can take a really good image using a top of the range lens on a bottom of the range camera but not the other way round so if you are on a limited budget spend most on the lenses and buy the best you  can afford. Prime lenses are much better than zoom lenses but are much more difficult to use, especially in the air where effectively the aircraft becomes the zoom mechanism.  I mainly use prime lenses but I am weird ;o) and few other, if any, professional aerial photographers do the same. A range of lenses from 24mm to 200mm will cover most things. I use my 300 quite often but for many subjects its too long. I also use 600mm but that's just showing off!

Camera equipment for
                  aerial photography

Camera settings: Speed is the key. If your bouncing around in a flying machine then to get a sharp image you are going to need a fast shutter speed. Exactly which shutter speed is best will vary from camera to camera and lens to lens but at least 1000th is a good starting point. I use a gyro stabilizer which holds the whole camera still and allows a lower shutter speed but most people will not have anything like that. Beware of "image stabilization". When using it in the air sometimes they work and sometimes they make things worse so you may need to turn it off. Only trial and error will allow you to find out for sure. I always shoot aperture priority or shutter priority so cant comment on the latest automatic "action" settings but would suspect manual will be better even for beginners. Try TV 1000th and see how you get on. Remember " do as I say, not as I do" ;o) I shot this next image at 60th of a second with a 300mm lens:


Composition: as an aerial photographer you are very much a type of landscape photographer so many of the same rules apply, however as you also need to fly and keep safe many of the tricks of landscape photography are not available to you. Stormy weather looks great on a photographic print but not very great through the window of a light aircraft where you will be more concerned with getting to the safety of an airport as soon as you can. Perhaps unexpectedly fog can be a problem too. It looks great on a photograph seeing sheets of fog with a few buildings sticking through it but just think, if your engine quits, how are you going to land as you will not be able to see a safe field to put down on. I'm a coward so I don't fly in any sort of weather at all.  For me a sunny day and clear sky is my preference although the time of day presents a choice. Many stunning landscape images can be taken just after dawn or just before sunset, however if you just want a clear image of a building with not too much intrusive shadow then midday is better. The other thing to bear in mind with shooting late is if your pilot has a night rating and if your destination airfield is still open. Most close at a particular time so flying just before sunset may not be an option. Lighting is everything. This following picture went from good to perfect because the sun angle meant its reflection was exactly symmetrical:

Der Rhein

Keeping a good look out for anything unusual can reap rewards such as this unusual rock formation which looks like a dinosaur :

Kent Dinosaur

but also remember while looking out to keep an eye out for other aircraft for safety reasons so don't just look at the ground.

The weather we live for: every now and then we get a wonderful cloud free day with good visibility which can make for some stunning photography:


Note the composition. We don't get many day like that in England so I like to make sure that I have a bit of blue sky covering about a third of the image. Cityscapes too can benefit with a little thoughtful composition:


And if you are new to aerial photography then one big thing to watch is that your horizons are level. It sounds simple as when you are on the ground horizons are always level but when shooting from the air you are very likely not to be level with the horizon as you take the photograph.  There is no special technique to overcome this, its just practice. After a while it becomes automatic to line the camera up with the ground and not with how your positioned in the aircraft. The above was taken in a light aircraft while turning as we were under strict air traffic control orders not to cross the river.


and remember .... the most important thing to do while shooting aerial photography is ......

Have Fun !

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