Photography From The Air

Whenever I am travelling somewhere in a small plane,  I always keep a camera handy in case there are photo opportunities to be had from the air.

Although hiring a plane just for photography is perhaps the best way to get good pictures from the air, this doesn’t mean that you cannot get good images on regular transfer flights, and of course, this doesn’t cost you any extra money!

In this text I share some practical suggestions that might help to make the more casual approach a little more effective.

Delta from above, Canon 5Dmk2, Tokina 16-28

Delta tree island Okavango. Canon 5Dmk2, Tokina 16-28 f2.8 lens. S/speed 1/800sec at f/4.0, Iso 800

I seem to get my best results when shooting at focal lengths anywhere between about 16mm on the wide end, and perhaps 100mm on the long end of the focal length range.  This means that wide-angle zoom lenses like the Canon EF 16-35L f/2.8, the EF 24-105L f/4.0 is, and the Tokina AT-X 16-28 f/2.8 are good choices for this type of photography.  The ability to change focal length quickly is important.  Compact cameras also work well, if used properly.  Shooting with wider focal lengths mean that I am always looking to include strong shapes and textures into my composition.  In this image of the Okavango Delta, the strongly curving shape of the tree island caught my attention, as did the bright leaves of the fan palm trees.  The picture was taken just moments after a rainstorm had swept through, and the colours of the earth and vegetation were richer for the rain.

Namibia Grant Atkinson

Mountain range and riverbed, Namibia. Canon 7D, Canon 10-22mm lens. Shutter speed 1/2500sec at f/5.0, Iso 400

It is also important to shoot at fast shutter speeds, to stop vibration from the aircraft from causing blur in your shots, and to freeze your own motion in the moving aircraft.  I try to keep speeds upward of 1/1600sec, and below 1/3200sec when the light allows.  I also shoot images like this with my camera’s focus mode set to Ai Servo which is for moving subjects, or in this case, a moving photographer.  On Nikon and Sony cameras that equivalent setting is called AF-C (Continuous).  Being so high up, and far from your focal point, which is usually the ground, means that you don’t need to close down your aperture for too much depth of field, and apertures ranging from wide-open at f/2.8 ranging up to about f/6.3 work well enough for me.

Okavango Delta from above.  Canon 350D, Canon 17-85mm lens.  Shutter speed 1/800sec at f/5.0, Iso 400.

Okavango Delta from above. Canon 350D, Canon 17-85mm lens. Shutter speed 1/800sec at f/5.0, Iso 400.

A challenge that can make it a little difficult to take good images from the air are the reflections caused by windows in the aircraft.  Look carefully for these reflections when composing in your viewfinder or rear screen, as they can easily ruin an image if you don’t take note of them at the time.  Sometimes just changing the angle of the lens slightly can reduce them or move them to a less important place in the image.  I also always remove the lens hoods and filters from my lens for this type of shooting, so that I can get the lens as close as possible to the aircraft window, which helps with minimizing reflections.  Try to choose your seat in the aircraft so that you have the clearest view out of the window.  Looking ahead for possible framing opportunities is also helpful, as does pre-focusing your lens on the ground.  The ground below usually passes by pretty quickly, and any extra lead time you can create for yourself will be helpful.

If the air is dusty or hazy, or the plane flying very high, it can be very hard to take good pictures.  However, there are often opportunities to be had just after take-off, and again, just before landing, when the lower altitude minimises how much air you have to shoot through.  If you have the time, make sure the window is clean before you take to the air, that can save you having to deal with misty spots on your image afterwards.

Photographing from the air can be rewarding, and a good way to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

About the Author:

I am a guide and a photographer, with a deep interest in all things to do with nature. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa, but travel often to wild places whilst leading photographic safaris, and enjoying the outdoors.

6 Responses to “Photography From The Air”

  1. Etienne Says: January 28, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Grant, you just lucky to have found your self in the air above these beautiful places … super green with envy

  2. Grant Atkinson Says: January 28, 2013 at 9:57 am

    I agree with you Etienne, I am very fortunate to do what I do :-). Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. Morkel Erasmus Says: January 28, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Stunning shots and great advice, Grant.
    I would presume a polarising filter would assist with reflections and glare from the plane windows? Though that would force you to use an even higher SS…

  4. Grant Atkinson Says: January 28, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Thanks very much Morkel, interesting question with the polariser, I haven’t tried to shoot with a polariser from the plane myself but I am sure there must be lots of aerial photo enthusiasts that would have….I am unsure how much it would remove the reflections from the plane windows, as the thing is that the further away from the plane window your front lens element is, the more noticeable the reflections become. I can sometimes eliminate them almost entirely by removing lens hoods, and even protective filters, and getting the lens to almost touch the plane window. Somebody will have to test it I guess 🙂

  5. fred von winckelmann Says: January 28, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    An advice I can use Grant. Thank you! One of the first times I went to Botswana I booked a one hour scenic flight over the Okavango in one of those Piper Cup- like little airplanes that flew much too high and dived way too fast. I was totally inexperienced with this so I believed it was possible to photograph animals from above. No way Fred! The pilot told me to stick the lense out of the window (that was really dirty) that could open a few inches, stuck out the lense and the wind was so strong the lense was screwed reverse out of the camera. Before I found out what lense to use and adjust myself in the seat the flight was over. A lesson learned for 200 USD. Would be nice ballooning over the Okavango, but it’s too dangerous and thus not allowed. Helicopters I think are really disturbing for wildlife and people that watch them on the ground.
    Next time I will use your advice Grant. Grts. Fred 😉

  6. Grant Atkinson Says: January 29, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Hi Fred, that is an interesting story, and I had to smile when reading it as it reminded me of some photography I did with no window in Namibia…the wind force is so strong! I had to use ear plugs, and the guys in the back of the plane with me got blown around so much, they were not photographing and couldn’t wait for the flight to end 🙂
    For sure some of the air charter companies may have pilots that don’t really understand what will help a photographer, as you describe, Fred.
    Also, I really prefer to look for landscape opportunities over trying to photograph animals from the air. I dislike seeing images from the air of running animals that have been scared by aircraft or helicopters flying too low just for a photograph. For me, aerial photography is about landscapes. If you do get a herd of elephant, or giraffe in the distance, and they can be included without approaching closely, that is a bonus.
    Thanks for sharing your experience here Fred..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *