Get Airborne

With some advance planning, the striking results of aerial photography are within your reach

Maria Island near Tasmania, Australia, from 1,500 feet. Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II at ISO 200, 1/1000 sec., ƒ/11

I’m not a pilot, but I love flying. Any flying device that can send me into the sky for a bird’s-eye view, no matter how precarious, I’ll give a try. The opportunity to take to the air in a plane, balloon, glider, ultralight or any other flying contrivance is one I’ll drop everything to do. That’s because aerial photography opens up an entirely new perspective. Most photographers consider chartering a plane for a photo outing to be too costly, but it can be cheap and easy to arrange. I did just that following a recent magazine assignment in Tasmania, Australia.

The objective of my first charter flight in Tasmania was to photograph tiny Maria Island. To keep cost and flying time low, since this flight would be on my own dime, I planned every aspect of the flight right down to when, where and for how long I would be in the air shooting, but like many successful photo outings, the outcome of this trip was nothing like I planned.

Tasmania is promoted as “The Natural State” because much of the island is unspoiled landscapes of ancient forests, rivers and mountains. But it’s the remoteness of Tasmania that has struck a chord with me, and I can’t seem to stay away. On my flight I wanted to see Maria Island, which is just off the coast and was once a convict settlement. It’s now preserved as a national park. I estimated the round-trip flight would take about 45 minutes from Hobart.

Arranging a private flight is actually a simple process and the same almost anywhere in the world. Chartering can be costly if you’re randomly flying around for hours. But with some advance planning, to keep the flight time to the minimum, a private flight can be done inexpensively. My first step was to find an airport nearest the island. For the cheapest deal and to find some of the best local pilots, I often look for airports with flying clubs that offer instruction. This may not be at the local big commercial airport or the place that hosts the local scenic flights, but a smaller airport that caters to private planes. Depending on the size of the plane, you usually can get a flight from $100 to $300 per hour. The least expensive planes are the tandem ultralights called microlights by the Aussies. These little guys have an open windowless seating arrangement with a rear-mounted propeller. Ultralights can fly very slowly, and most have a cruise speed of around 30 to 40 mph. For aerial photography, slow flying is best and shooting through a window is bad, so the ultralight may be the perfect photo platform. The main drawback of an ultralight is the limited range. If a photo destination is far from the runway, a faster plane may be more efficient.

After checking Tasmania’s fickle weather and choosing the morning I wanted to fly, I phoned the Cambridge Aero Club, a local flying club in Hobart. In minutes I had arranged a flight with pilot instructor Shane Kelly. For my flight, a microlight was out because the round-trip to Maria Island is about 75 miles. Instead, Shane and I would fly a Cessna 172. The 172 is a great photography plane, as well as being stable and reliable. It’s a wingover design, meaning the wing is over the cabin and has a large window that can be opened for photos. The 172s have a fixed wheel assembly just below the cabin window, but you can shoot in front of or behind this easily. Shane offered to remove the door for the flight, but this creates two problems: The plane can’t fly as fast to reach more distant destinations, and it gets really windy with a 100 mph wind whipping through the door opening.

The day before the flight, Shane and I met to look at a map and plan our route and photo objectives. Shane had piloted photographers all around Tasmania so he knew how to position the plane to get just what I wanted. We decided that my best shooting position in the plane would place me in the pilot’s seat—the front left seat! Shane was able to accommodate this request since he often sits in the right seat when teaching students. This is the kind of pilot you want to work with!

Tasmania’s weather, given its location in the Roaring 40s, changes quickly. Although our takeoff the next morning was into a perfect sunrise, the clear skies weren’t to last. We flew north, climbing to 2,000 feet, flying above the Tasman Sea and the eastern coastline. Within minutes after leaving Hobart airspace, we were flying right toward a cloud bank. I was afraid we would have to abort the flight without seeing Maria Island.

Shane informed me that the cloud ceiling was at 1,500 feet, which meant he could fly the plane under the clouds and still stay above the 500-foot flight minimum. But flying under the clouds meant no sunlight for the island shots. The photo I wanted was of the land bridge linking Maria’s north and south islands. I had seen this potential photo on Google Earth when researching the island flight, and as I visualized it, this photo needed sunlight on the water, otherwise the sea would look dark and lifeless. I had to make the call; we were five minutes from the island, and if we turned back now I would have nothing to show for the time and money invested so far. I gave Shane the thumbs up to continue. I was holding out that the changing weather might offer its own kind of beautiful light.

We lost a thousand feet of elevation and the sun faded as we slipped under the dark clouds. In the gloomy light, I wondered if I had made a bad call. In moments the small island came into view, but before we reached the edge of the island, rain began falling. With visibility getting worse and the cloud ceiling dropping fast, Shane had to turn the plane back toward home. Just after we completed our turn, I sighted beautiful golden light sweeping under the storm clouds, illuminating the water at the same location I had originally planned to photograph. I asked Shane to slow the plane so I could open the window. I had half a minute to frame and shoot photos as the storm light played over the island coastline.

The unplanned for clouds and rain only accentuate the nature of this primordial landscape, and I love the mysterious layering effect in this photo. By flying 500 feet above the Tasman Sea in that bit of airspace, for that exact moment, I got my shot. The total cost for the flight was $236—not too bad for a priceless experience.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. A regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside, his images have appeared on the cover of 40 magazines. Visit his website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.

1 Comment

    Bill, you obviously know a lot more about photography than aviation. I am a pilot and can tell you that looking for the “cheapest” alternative when chartering a flight is really, really risky. What a prospective charterer should be looking for instead is decent, airworthy equipment flown by a sufficiently experienced and qualified individual. Something you obviously had going for you on your flight in Tasmania. Ask how long a pilto has been licensed, how many hours he or she has (don’t fly with anyone who has fewer than 200 hrs). And for lord sake, stay out of ultra-lights and other home builts. Neither the equipment nor the pilots meet the same criteria as a “real” airplane, and the record is filled with their tragic results. Flying is not like driving a car. Anyone holding a license is not similarly qualified and capable.

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