Aerial photography, although challenging, can be extremely rewarding and provides photographic perspectives that are seldom viewed. It is however not as easy at it might seem and given the costly nature of this type of photography and the speed that your photographic platform is moving at, it is best to be well-prepared so as to ensure successful image capture. Below is a list of tips that can help with the capture of good photographs.
Pre-flight preparation is essential and the first thing that you will need to do is to familiarize yourself with the topography that you will be flying over. Google maps give a good idea of what you will be likely to expect on the flight. Start making notes of key features that you can keep an eye out for and for images that you would be keen to capture. If you are working on a specific story, it is important to make a list of the images that you will need. By pre-planning, this will help you when time is limited and the aircraft is moving fast over the subject. Also be prepared for airsickness as this may be enhanced by constantly looking through the viewfinder and consider taking airsickness tablets before the flight and keep a plastic bag close at hand, together with a bottle of water.
In terms of equipment, I use two Nikon D3s camera bodies with a Nikon 17 – 35mm f/2.8 wide angled lens and a Nikon 70 – 200mm f/2.8 medium zoom lens. Both bodies have their straps on and I keep these around my neck at all times. I remove the lens hoods, as any wind can rip these off in flight and potentially cause an accident. I wear a “shooting-jacket” with numerous pockets where I pack extra batteries and numerous memory cards. I personally tend to load all of this on the right side of the jacket and then place used cards and batteries in the left-side pockets so that I will not become confused in mid-flight.
To minimize vibration, I set my ISO to 1000 and use an f/stop of between f/5.6 and f/8. The one thing that you will not really need to worry about when flying is depth of field and I keep my camera on auto-focus mode, taking numerous shots of the same image (this is why I carry many memory cards). To further minimize vibration, try to hold as little of your body as you can against the aircraft and be careful of leaning out as this will pull your camera into the jet-stream.
As the day of the flight nears, monitor the weather to ensure that you have clear visibility and be sure to be aware of the suns position in relation to the flight path. This may determine whether you sit on the port or starboard side of the aircraft. Try and photograph early or late in the day so that shadows become accentuated and create depth in your images and the use of a polarizer provides better contrast and richer colours.
I always prefer sitting directly behind the pilot so that it will be easier for the pilot to view the perspective that I need. I also always ensure that I have a good head-set available so that I can constantly communicate my needs with the pilot. Wherever possible, try and photograph through an open door or open window, as the windows of aircraft tend to distort and blur photographs and if you are fortunate enough to be able to fly with the doors off, make sure that you are well strapped in. Be prepared to get cold with open doors or windows. Aerial photography is exhilarating and the rewards are well-worthwhile when the proper preparation has taken place and below are examples of some of my own aerial images.
1 of 15: The cold waters of the Benguela current crash against the shoreline creating interesting patterns as seen from the air.
2 of 15: The white dunefields of the De Hoop Marine Protected Area provide a striking contrast against the deep blue of the ocean.
3 of 15: The Heuningness River flows into the sea and the use of diagonal lines help the image to stand out.
4 of 15: Using leading lines and contrasting colors, that in this case is the Breede River Estuary, helps create depth in aerial images
5 of 15: This aerial image of a pod of Humpback Dolphins shows how they swim in close formation.
6 of 15: An aerial image of this mother and calf Southern Right Whale gives a good perspective of the massive bulk of these 40 ton animals.
7 of 15: Aerial photography gives the opportunity for giving a different perspective to commonly photographed subjects. In this case, I photographed downwards over a flying Kelp Gull that is usually photographed by looking up at the flying bird.
8 of 15: Aerial photography can give excellent perspectives of size and isolation as is shown with these two bathers swimming in the De Hoop Marine Protected Area
9 of 15: When flying, always be on the lookout for patterns and shapes. This aerial image of the wetlands and salt marsh of the Langebaan Lagoon in the West Coast National Park provides an interesting image that if seen from ground level would be difficult to capture.
10 of 15: During flooding over the Agulhas Plain, the extent of the actual floods was best captured fromthe air. Backlighting helped accentuate the flooding waters.
11 of 15: An aerial perspective of the flooded lands on either side of the roadway between Cape Agulhas and Bredasdorp.
12 of 15: This images was taken above the ridge of a small mountain range overlooking the Cape Agulhas coastline.
13 of 15: This aerial image of the refurbished lighthouse at Cape Agulhas provides different view of this commonly photographed subject.
14 of 15: Aerial photography is a good way of showing the extent of destruction and is a commonly used form of photography for highlighting conservation issues. In this case a bulldozer excavates for building sand along the fragile coastline.
15 of 15: When flying, always be on the lookout for interesting subject matter. The trianglular shape of the farm fence line separates a tractor and trailer from a small herd of horses.