Ember Razement ________________________________ The Fine Art Photography of Malcolm Smith




I have done a bit of aerial photography on my travels and these notes are to record my findings for the use of others.  All the comments refer to photography from (usually specially chartered) small aircraft and not through fixed windows of medium to large passenger aircraft.  My comments also refer to the aircraft I have used and my comments on a particular model may not cover the entire range of options provided by the manufacturer.

Aerial image of desert Cantral Australia

Aerial Photograph near Lake Armadaeus
in Central Australia © M.Smith

Some small aircraft are suitable and some not.  Some factors are:

  • There needs to be direct clear view of the landscape not through glass or plastic windows.  Some small aircraft have windows that open (make sure the opening is large), some can have the window taken out and most can have a door completely removed – you need to be strapped in and have your camera strap securely around your neck and bits and pieces (cards, film, filters etc) well secured in jacket pockets.  Make sure you don’t drop anything out the door that might hit the tail plane or hurt somebody on the ground and not forgetting the almost zero chance of recovering it or in any kind of working order!
  • Aircraft are charged by hourly rate from takeoff to landing and never, in my experience, as a fixed quote.  The transport supplier can estimate the flight time given a flight itinerary but you may have to circle around (see note on helicopter below) etc. to get images you missed or mucked up.  Aircraft with windows open or doors off usually can not fly at their maximum speed so factor this in when working out flight time to get to the shooting location (a point for windows that open and close).  Also if getting there you are flying at 7000ft it takes time to get down to under 1000ft so plan with the pilot to go down before you get to the location.
  • Another aspect is parts of the aircraft blocking part of your view.  In fixed wing aircraft I have found that high wing is better than low wing particularly if the door is above/below the wing.  For a high wing model having retractable undercarriage is preferable as is not having wing struts.  For example the Cessna 210 has retractable wheels and no wing strut whereas the Cessna 208 (apparently a cheaper model of the 210) has fixed wheels and wing strut.  The only low wing aircraft I have used was a Piper Cherokee (I think) where the door was a fair bit back from the wing but still limited vision on forward looking shots.
  • I have used helicopters on several occasions which had doors that could be removed or large windows that could be slid open.  There seems to be more vibration in these aircraft than fixed wing so go for newer well looked after machines with less vibration than older ones.  They have the advantage that they can hover or go back so a missed shot can be retaken a lot quicker than a fixed wing aircraft.
  • At this point shutter speed is worth noting.  It must be high enough so that movement of the aircraft and vibration are minimized.  Usually this means using minimum shutter speeds of around 1/800 of a second.  To achieve this it may be necessary to use a higher ISO setting on the camera and lens apertures f8 (or sometimes even wider).  Such a wide aperture reduces the depth of field but this is generally not a problem at aerial photography altitudes.  Sometimes focusing is not needed and can be turned off but I don’t do this often as the Canon cameras I use have very fast and accurate auto focus.
  • A good altitude for most of the work I have done is between 500 and 1000 ft which can be done out in the bush – I don’t think you would be allowed this height over built up areas (but I don’t really know) and, in the bush, some game parks (Kruger in South Africa and Otosha in Namibia for example) had minimum flying altitudes of several thousand feet.  It was amazing flying 500ft from the glaciers on Mount Aspiring or Mount Earnslaw in South Island New Zealand (and bloody cold with the door off so dress appropriately)!
  • Lens focal length is another factor medium length is better than telephoto which can be difficult to use.  Much of the work I have done was using the Canon 24-70 f2.8 L but have also used the 24-105 l IS lens.  I have taken some photos with image stabilizer lenses but my feeling is that the vibration is too great or too rapid for them to compensate so I now switch IS off.
  • Time of day has several factors to consider – as with most landscape photography early in the day is best as the landscape is lit obliquely to highlight the natural texture of trees, rocks, scrub, dips and hills etc.  Another aspect for early morning (as opposed to late afternoon and indeed, in the middle of the day) is turbulence – as the sun heats up the air turbulence builds up and adds to the movement of the aircraft.  Turbulence is particularly critical when flying over desert areas such I encountered in Central Australia and the Namibian desert.  Probably aim to start taking photographs half an hour after sunrise as the very early light is low and exposures can prohibit short shutter speeds.
  • If you are travelling from location to location with your luggage in a small plane the weight limit is usually less than accepted on a commercial airline passenger jet.  Also the best luggage is in soft bags (barrel bags etc) which pack into the aircraft better
  • Usually the pilot provides a set of headphones with microphone so that you can communicate with him over the aircraft noise although if you are beside him hand signals are also good (go down, veer left, go around again etc.).  If you are behind the pilot, say in the rear of a low wing aircraft, the intercom is vital.  If you have an assistant who also has an intercom or by hand signals you can get them to look after film/cards for you handing blank ones to you when needed and taking and storing used ones.
  • Last, you can use (particularly helicopters) to transport you and your equipment but check landing rules.  A fixed wing aircraft needs a runway (but this may be very rudimentary eg a reasonably smooth beach) and you may need a source of fuel.  Helicopter can land on a wider range of surfaces but expect the pilot to be very careful landing on rocky ground.  I used a helicopter to carry me and equipment (and water for drinking in the heat) to the top of Kings Canyon but had to arrange a permit to land from the Northern Territory Government.  In a trip to Central Australia I would have liked to land at Lake Amadeus but couldn’t because it was Aboriginal land and I didn’t have the required permission (or permit etc.).

Sand dunes Namibia

Sand Dunes in Namibia © M.Smith