Tuesday, May 15, 2018


As a pilot-photographer, I’m privileged to see the world from above, on an almost daily basis. Since the early days of aviation, the view from above has fascinated people all over the world but we tend to forget that a large portion of them has never seen such a thing!

This blogpost about aerial photography, coincides with my appearance on the Travel Image Makers podcast; a production by Ugo Cei and co-host Ralph Velasco.

Aerial photography, the art of making images of the surface/water from an elevated position normally not supported by a ground based structure, is almost as old as photography itself. It started in the mid 19th century from balloons and kites, and then eventually changed to shooting from heavier-than-air aircraft-like airplanes and helicopters. Over the last 10 years, drones (UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have taken over a large part of the aerial photography scene but have also somehow stimulated this specific genre of photography. For the purpose of this article, we will stick to the original form of aerial photography, all done with our beloved Fujifilm X-Series cameras!

First of all, what follows is specific to aerial photography flights on light(er) aircraft. I’ve kept a separate section at the end for those that want to shoot through airliner windows. In most countries, you can still take to the air relatively easily, even if you don’t know somebody who has a Private Pilot License (PPL). Normally an instructor should be able to take you up for a flight. Prices will vary, but expect to pay around $200,-USD (similar amounts in EUR or slightly higher) per flight hour. To avoid disappointment, it is definitively worth checking if your pilot has specific experience in aerial photography trips. Although helicopters are very popular for aerial photography, they also come with a few disadvantages. 

Helicopters tend to be three to five times more expensive compared to their fixed-wing counterparts. A lot of people assume that shooting from a helicopter is easier since it can just hover (technical term for keeping a steady position over a point on the ground). While this is possible, most pilots will not want to do this as the fuel consumption increases drastically and, more importantly, it limits the options in case of an emergency landing. As pretty much all turbine (jet engine) helicopters have the exhaust of the engine(s) on top of the cabin, the exhaust gasses are blown down by the rotor wash and will distort the image quite heavily another reason not to shoot during a hover in a helicopter. Often people tend to think that removing one of the passenger doors is limited to helicopters only, but this can also be done on a lot of the light aircraft used for aerial photography.

If one plans on using a fixed-wing airplane for a shoot, you will want a high wing airplane’, contrary to a low wing where the cabin is mounted on top. Four seat single engine Cessna airplanes (C152, C172, C182, C177) tend to be popular as one can normally open the side windows quite easily. Check with the aircraft owner whether you can fly with the door removed. If this is the case, you will want a safety harness. Although hard to find, one of the best Cessna 4-seater for the job is the C177 since it doesn’t have struts below the wings, which makes for a clear, unobstructed view. Personally, I do a fair bit of shooting out of my own personal Piper Cub, a 1954 2 tandem seat vintage aircraft, which allows to be flown with the door flapped down. 

Especially when flying with open doors, make sure you can communicate with the pilot through a headset and intercom as it will get very noisy. Also, Microlights (sometimes called Ultralight aircraft –ULM) should not be overlooked. This category of aircraft is much lighter (and cheaper) while providing good visibility for aerial photography. The only disadvantage is that they are more sensitive to turbulence and high winds. Lastly, don’t exclude shooting from hot air balloons! Although you are obviously guided by the wind direction, it makes for a great stable platform. A lot of countries have companies that organize balloon flights at a pretty reasonable rate of about $150-200USD per person. Beside the fact that you’ll come home with some great images, it is also an amazing experience. Balloon sunrise flights over tourist destinations, such as wildlife safaris in Kenya and Tanzania or the temples of Bagan (Myanmar), can become very pricey, however!

For starters, one should exclude changing lenses in flight. First of all, the airflow in the cabin will be perfect to have your sensor covered in dust. Secondly, when flying with a door/window open, one will want to make sure that nothing is being dropped! Leave the lens hood home, as it will likely come off with the airflow and will make handholding very difficult. The focal length depends on the subject to be photographed and of course the altitude you’ll fly at. In most countries pilots cannot fly lower than 500 feet over unpopulated areas and 1000 feet over built up areas. These altitudes will be considered low for most non-pilots. I personally rarely shoot at more than 100mm on my X-Series cropped sensor bodies, so it is no surprise that my most-used lens for aerial photography is the XF 18-135mm lens. While it is not the fastest (f3.5- 5.6), the focal length will cover most of my scenes and the OIS comes in handy when the light is low. If you want a faster lens with even better image quality, consider the XF 50-140mm f2.8 lens.

If you do bring a second body, the 14mm f2.8, 16mm f1.4 and 16-55mm f2.8 are good options to shoot those wide-angle shots which include part of the aircraft itself. If you don’t have a lot of space (like in my own little Piper Cub), I recommend sticking to a single body. Although I’m a big fan of prime lenses for most of my other photography, they don’t work as well since ‘zooming with your feet’ is hard to do when flying along at 500 or 1000 feet! The only exception is when you know your exact altitude and size of your subject before the flight. Whenever you are shooting through an open window or with a door removed, make sure to use a practical camera strap. Two good solutions that come to mind are the Peak Design Leach Strap and Black Rapid straps. Others will, of course, also work!

Aerial images sometimes seem to come out looking two-dimensional and lacking in contrast. Even more so than for other genres, the time of the day is vital. Try to shoot during the golden hour as much as is practical, and use shadows and patterns to make those spectacular images. My preferred season for aerial photography is, without doubt, autumn (or fall for fellow Americans!). Most non-pilots overestimate the visibility and even a little bit of haze will spoil your image with a dull look. On most days, flying early morning is preferred to just before sunset as the air is generally calmer.

When I’m not shooting specific landmarks or buildings, I’m always looking for interesting patterns and textures. Check out the work of Yann Arthus Bertrand, one of the masters of aerial photography. Just like in other genres of photography, it is more about what you exclude than what you include. Shoot both in landscape and portrait mode.

First of all, I recommend shooting RAW (or RAW+JPEG) as you might have to do more extensive contrast adjustments than what you are normally used to. Aircraft (especially helicopters) are not vibration-free so make sure to use a proper handholding technique and don’t rest your camera on any part of the airplane itself. Especially if the air is not smooth, use the rule of thumb (if possible) to shoot about 3 to 5 times faster than what you normally would. For example, when shooting at 135mm (200mm, full frame equivalent) most will use 1/200s as a minimum shutter speed but you will want to use a minimum speed of 1/1000s while airborne for best results. Because of this, I use shutter speed priority mode (or manual) and recommend using auto ISO to allow the ISO to float up if needed. If there is enough light, I will shoot at medium apertures (f5.6-11) to protect against small focus imperfections, but remember that depth of field won’t be such a big problem as your subject will be 500ft (150m) to 1000ft (300m) away from you.

If the light is low such as for night shots, I will not hesitate to shoot wide open. AF-S (Autofocus Single shot) works best with Continuous Low (CL) to allow for short image bursts. In order to focus faster, use Zone AF Mode. Lastly, even a seasoned flyer like myself might suffer from motion sickness when looking through a viewfinder for extended periods. Consider using the LCD screen to avoid needing to use the sick bags!

Beside the images made from the cockpit, I’ve also shot a large variety of images from a passenger seat in the back of an airliner, including some dramatic images of thunderstorms and the Northern Lights during long night flights. If you can choose your seat, try to sit either well ahead of or behind the wing, except in the instance of your wanting the wing to be part of the image. While the outside layers of the passenger windows are made of glass, the inside is normally plastic and often not very clear. Companies like Lenskirt make specific hoods to get rid of reflections when shooting against glass but trying to block the reflective light by using a rubber lens hood and wearing black will already go a long way. 

The camera settings stated above are, of course, still valid with the only exception being the recommendation to use manual focus to avoid focusing on the window itself. Be ready to shoot whenever the plane is banking to the side you are seated in as being perpendicular to the window will give you much better image quality.

Even though drones are able to capture some amazing scenes, nothing beats being up there yourself while trying to capture the world below you. I’ve found the X-Series cameras to be perfect for my aerial photography needs, especially since the increase in sensor resolution of recent cameras like the X-Pro2, X-T2, and X-T20. If you have never experimented with this genre of photography, consider renting an aircraft for an hour or book a balloon flight. It is very rewarding but be warned: it can be very addictive! 

To quote Amelia Earhart: “You haven’t seen a tree, until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” 


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