Help From Above: Aerial Photography For Science

Aerial photography makes it possible to collect data for conservation research that would be difficult, if not impossible, to get on foot or by other means
Aerial photography by Christopher Boyer

Red Rock River flowing through the sediments of the unfilled Lima Reservoir, Centennial Valley, Montana.

It’s still dark when I climb into Red Plane, Four-Six-Bravo. As it is with my cameras, vision is not necessary to operate the buttons, dials and switches—muscle memory guides me through the startup sequence: magnetos, mixture, throttle, master, prop, starter button. The engine catches after the third revolution, oil pressure climbs into the green, and moments later I’m ascending southbound over Montana’s Gallatin Valley, a faint glow on the eastern horizon.

My GPS displays a tortuous path through some of the highest, most remote and most beautiful terrain in Montana and northern Wyoming, where I will locate and photograph 145 high-elevation ice patches scattered through the Teton, Gros Ventre, Hoback and Wind River mountain ranges.

Finding Archaeology Through Aerial Photography

I’m flying and photographing for Dr. Craig Lee, archaeologist and principal investigator with INSTAAR, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. At the heart of the project is the fact that these ice patches are shrinking and disappearing. As they melt, important artifacts—baskets, weapons and other cultural objects—are often uncovered and begin to decompose once exposed to the elements. Dr. Lee’s mission is to find and map potential artifact-bearing ice patches in the hopes of helping federal land managers and Native American tribes intercept, understand and conserve these artifacts before they are lost.

Aerial photography by Christopher Boyer

Finding and mapping melting ice patches above the dense smoke of nearby forest fires, it is not difficult to imagine a world transformed by global climate change.

Before I brought my cameras and airplane to the project, Dr. Lee visited these patches himself, either on foot, on horseback or by aircraft. Travel by ground took weeks to accomplish for just a handful of sites. Going by air resulted in a mixture of anxiety, nausea and incomplete data as Dr. Lee shot low-resolution photographs through a scratched plexiglass window while scribbling notes on a map as he passed over each site at 80 mph. By contrast, with a 20-megapixel camera and an economically operated Cessna, I can in just a few hours capture all ice patches from several angles, and at a high enough resolution for Dr. Lee to make a thorough assessment of each site.

The sun is up when I arrive at the first patch. I reduce power, add 10 degrees of flaps, and slow the aircraft to 70 mph—comfortably above the stall speed. Maneuvering at just 300 feet above the rocks and ice, I remind myself that an aerodynamic stall/spin would not be recoverable. After evaluating the area for hazards—potential downdrafts, dead-end canyons, and other aircraft—I scan the surrounding topography and ask myself, as I do countless times each flight: “Where do I go when the engine quits?” With the assessment complete, I unlatch the window and start photographing.

I return home with hundreds of images, the best of which blend useful data on ice patch conditions with the alluring intrigue of maps and the fine art of aerial landscape photography. They show annual dust layers and elements of organic matter in the ice. They allow for comparison with previous years’ imagery to determine melting rates. They capture landscape context that, to a trained archaeologist, hints at the purpose and frequency of use for hunting or other activities. The photographs are geotagged with data from my GPS and delivered with a Google Earth file showing image numbers as coordinates on the map. From these images, Dr. Lee can prioritize research efforts for the coming season.

Aerial photography by Christopher Boyer

UL Bend, National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri River, Montana.

How I Got Here

Projects like this are a validation of my seemingly misguided faith in the profoundly flawed business model of combining two very expensive hobbies—photography and aviation—into a revenue-generating enterprise serving the historically low-income fields of conservation and environmental research.

Despite the flaws, I have been guided by two unwavering principals. The first is that the aerial view combines data, art and narrative into a singularly engaging and intuitively accessible form. The second principle is my belief that environmental and landscape science do not suffer from a lack of good data—they suffer instead from a lack of good stories about that data. Photographs represent those stories, providing a compelling visual narrative that can make complex data relevant and meaningful to those who may not be fluent in the academic language of charts, graphs and statistics.

These concepts came to me during a graduate program in fluvial geomorphology while I was simultaneously earning my pilot’s license. Struggling with the complex math of river dynamics in an unfamiliar landscape of PowerPoint slides and chalkboards, I gained a view from the cockpit that allowed me to observe these chaotic processes sculpted into Oregon’s mountains, deserts and coastlines. I realized that we don’t experience our landscape as a manifestation of orderly data but more as a blend of stories, experience, aesthetics, ethics and logic.

Aerial photography by Christopher Boyer

An inversion traps cold air and clouds against Montana’s Bridger Mountains.

Later, during my first career in landscape restoration, I used aerial photographs to educate my clients, tracing quantitative analysis of landscape science onto a bird’s-eye view of their own familiar habitat. The narrative ability of the aerial view was apparent as they became captivated by the imagery, seeing their own stories operating alongside the complex processes of erosion, deposition and vegetation secession.

After designing a vertical camera mount for mapping, I saw enough interest and potential in small-format photography and light-fixed wing aircraft that I retired from the restoration business, earned commercial and instrument pilot ratings, and purchased the perfect aircraft for my work, a 4-seat 1957 Cessna Taildragger with removable doors, an oversized engine and a hole in the floor.

The Red Plane and I now fly projects for conservation, government, academic and corporate clients. With a handheld camera, I shoot the human and landscape stories surrounding environmental issues, oil spills, sprawl, wildlife migration corridors and resource extraction. I locate and document banded trumpeter swans, persistent pools of water in drying prairie streams, and migrating antelope. With the belly-mounted cameras, I make orthorectified maps and 3D models, and use hyperspectral and infrared sensors to map crop dynamics, leaky industrial roofs, weed infestations and experimental underground carbon releases. For other professional photographers engaged in conservation and landscape efforts, I provide a platform from which they can document their own projects from above.

Aerial photography by Christopher Boyer

Chemical-laden discharge flowing from oilfield containment ponds into a natural wetland.

Photographing And Flying For A Cause

I am a pilot with a camera, not a photographer with an airplane. In fact, it never occurred to me to pick up a camera until I saw how the landscape revealed its secrets from above. Startled at how quickly the face of the planet was changing below me, I started to point my cameras at those stories.

As I was connecting cameras to conservation, I learned about two great organizations—LightHawk and SouthWings—based, respectively, in Wyoming and North Carolina. These groups connect volunteer pilots with conservation projects, providing the aerial view to scientists, decision makers, journalists and photographers. By vetting the conservation projects, they ensure that a pilot’s donated hours go to serious, respected efforts that deliver measurable outcomes. By requiring advanced experience and training for their pilots, they ensure the missions are flown by highly qualified pilots in very capable aircraft.

Flying conservation photography missions has given me the joy and privilege of teaming up with photographic luminaries from National Geographic and the International League of Conservation Photographers as they make important images to be shared worldwide. I have heard their stories of shooting through scratched plexiglass windows, of accidents and close calls, and of the frustrations of communicating their needs to pilots unfamiliar with the nuances of angle, light, framing and composition.

During the harsh winter of 2011, hundreds of pronghorns, seeking refuge from deep snow on the elevated railroad tracks, were killed by passing trains.

During the harsh winter of 2011, hundreds of pronghorns, seeking refuge from deep snow on the elevated railroad tracks, were killed by passing trains.

The synergy between photography, conservation and aviation became clear after a mission with National Geographic’s Michael Melford over Idaho’s remote and beautiful Owyhee River. The article described the important ecosystems preserved by The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and when it was published, I realized that for a moment, this combination of art, data and purpose allowed 10 million people worldwide to sit in the noisy, windy cockpit of the Red Plane, thinking about conservation.

The Things I See

My work has allowed me to become a full-time student and chronicler of a changing planet. Between my professional and volunteer projects, I am afforded the freedom to search for stories and patterns revealed in gorgeous and tragic landscapes throughout the country. From extremely low altitudes, my mapping cameras conflate the characteristically impersonal vertical view with alarming and amazing detail—as in the image of pronghorns killed by a passing train on Montana’s Highline or a ditch draining mineral-rich water from Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. I find landscapes that could not be described in even the most gifted verbal narrative and juxtapositions that would remain unbelievable unless demonstrated with imagery.

There is an inherent objectivity to aerial photography that prevents carefully selective framing, capturing instead the context of a subject and reminding us of the exchange of influences between natural or managed processes and their adjacent landscapes. At a time when language about how we integrate our cultural and ecological systems is marked by shrill exaggeration, I feel that photographs present important quantitative and ethical principles with quiet, irrefutable dignity.

Aerial photography by Christopher Boyer

Drainage Ditch, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah.

Want To Go Aloft?

Aerial Photography is an expensive pursuit—arguably more expensive if you’re the poor fool who owns the airplane. If you’re interested, here a few notes to help you get aloft efficiently, legally and, above all, safely.

  1. Many articles on the subject tell you that it’s easy to find a pilot because anyone with a private pilot license loves to fly and may be willing to take you for free. Don’t do this. Find an experienced pilot, who has a thousand hours or more at the controls, with a good reputation and impeccable judgment. Photo flights often include low altitudes, slow speeds, high distractions and aggressive maneuvering. Wisdom and experience may not be obvious when everything is going perfectly—but it will save lives when good fortunes turn bad.
  1. Spend a half hour on the ground with your pilot. Sit in the aircraft, practice pointing the camera without seeing parts of it in the frame. Consider access to your gear, and discuss a strategy to communicate exactly what and how you’d like to shoot. Finally, discuss risk tolerance and emergency procedures.
  1. Find a high-wing aircraft with windows that open—the thick and often scratched plexiglass of aircraft windows severely degrades your images. Piper Cubs and many middle-aged and older Cessnas have windows hinged at the top that will stay wide open during flight. Some aircrafts have waivers for operations with the door removed.
  1. Keep your kit simple. Because my primary interest in the aerial view is context and the uniquely expansive view, I find that all of my most compelling images are made at under 70mm. I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III using Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lenses. My mapping camera is a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM.
  1. Remember where “up” is. Because you are often circling and banking, it is easy to lose sight of the horizon and produce images that are awkwardly angled in multiple directions. I orient my images to a visible or imaginary vertical line at the center of my frame so as not to induce vertigo with my photographs.
  1. Finally, shoot everything. Open the window as soon as your pilot allows, and shoot everything. It’s loud, distracting, exciting and chaotic as amazing scenes are unfolding and passing below you at high speeds. Shoot for composition and let the aerial view be the subject. I have discovered innumerable nicely composed treasures that I wasn’t expecting but have been able to salvage very few poorly composed images of my intended subjects.

Christopher Boyer is a commercial pilot and aerial photographer providing flight and imaging services to natural resource and conservation projects throughout the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. In combination with training in fluvial geomorphology and hydrology, the aerial view has taught him landscape process, informed his conservation ethic and inspired his art. See more of his work at