Earlier this year, just before my water broke, I had the incredible opportunity to foray into aerial photography with a flight over downtown Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma State Capitol. It’s not every day a pregnant lady tackles aerial photography! (And, I paid the price…let’s just say the pilot’s airsick bags came in handy.)
Aerial photography required me to totally rethink my typical approach to photography. Since I’d only have about 30 minutes and 1-2 passes over town to capture quality images, I prepared and studied rather extensively. I consulted with experienced aerial photographers like former ASMP President James Cavanaugh and researched technique and gear on my own. Here is what I learned!
Best Gear for Aerial Photography
- Camera Body: Full frame is a must, since post is often challenging. Make sure you have a secure neck strap, as well, and use it!
- Lens: Zooms offer the flexibility you need. A longer lens like a 70-200mm will offer the most variability and attractive compression, while a wider lens such as a 24-70mm will provide more context and allow you to fly extremely close to your subject without the distortion of a wider lens such as the 14-24mm. In my flight, we circled once with my 70-200mm then again, closer, with my 24-70mm. The results were dramatically different but equally useful. Finally, use VR lenses (Vibration Reduction; Nikon’s term).
- Memory: Large, fast-writing cards are necessary because you will take so, so many shots in such a short time. Keep extras in your pockets within reach.
- Filters: Haze and/or UV at minimum, for obvious reasons but also to protect your lens from flying debris/dust. I always have filters on my lenses but in this case they are extra important. 🙂
Best Camera Settings for Aerial Photography
- File Type: RAW is a must, since extensive corrections may be required (lens/vertical distortion, removal of distracting elements, etc.). I always shoot RAW, but for this project it was particularly important. The day was extremely hazy; I had to remove missing windows in the still-under-construction Devon Energy Tower; etc. Post was quite challenging. Jpgs would have been a disaster.
- Mode: Shutter Priority. This was a dramatic shift for me; it’s been years since I shot anything off Manual. But for aerial photography, Shutter Priority is paramount.
- Shutter Speed: 1/1000+ if possible, never below 1/250.
- Aperture: Will vary due to shutter priority but on a sunny day, should default to a smaller aperture which naturally ensures good depth of field. If it’s cloudy, just watch this and adjust your preset shutter speed and ISO if your aperture is too wide. (Of course, the greater distance you are from your subject, the less this matters.)
- Focal Length: Wider is better, to reduce jiggle.
- ISO: 200 if sunny, 400 if cloudy/hazy, which eliminates noise and ensures the high shutter speed/smaller aperture combo you need for sharp photos with good depth.
- VR: Remember to turn on the VR!
- Other Settings: I used Matrix metering and Dynamic Area AF set to 51 points (this may not make sense if you don’t shoot Nikon). Both of these ensured that the exposure and focus were calculated based on as much information in the scene as possible, which turned out to be extremely important since we had variable sunlight.
Other Aerial Photography Tips
- Lens and Memory Card Changes: The key is being proactive and anticipating natural breaks in shooting (like on any shoot). Minimize lens changes to avoid missing a shot or dropping your gear out of the aircraft (nobody wants that lawsuit). Change memory cards at natural breaks like while turning, rather than waiting for them to fill up (which in fact is my rule on any shoot).
- Focus on Composition: Putting your camera on S will allow you to trust your exposures so you can focus all of your energy on framing the shot in the best possible way to showcase your subject, which is the most difficult aspect of shooting from a moving object! Most importantly, watch your verticals. This particular aspect of aerial photography is so, so much harder than it sounds. It took a great deal of concentration and muscle coordination for me!
- Dress Appropriately: It will be windier and chillier in the plane than on the ground. You’ll need pockets (preferably with zippers) for lens caps, memory cards, lens wipes/cleaner, etc.
What did I miss? What tips do you have?
Post links to your aerial work below! I’d love to see it.