From On High

Up In The Air • The Most Important Technique • For Outdoor Photographers

George Lepp captured this four-image panorama of central Oregon's Mount Washington from a Cessna 172 using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L lens at 85mm, 1⁄1000 sec., ƒ/13, ISO 400.

Up In The Air
At my recent Canon seminar in Chicago, folks expressed a lot of interest in the lenses, camera bodies and supporting equipment I use for my aerial photography. There's a lot more to aerial imagery than the photo gear, however. Here's some of the information I shared at the seminar, and more.

Safety First. The very first consideration for aerial photography is a qualified pilot. I usually hire a flight instructor at a local airport after discussing what it is I'm trying to accomplish during our flight. The point here is that it's just not a good idea to trust your life to a friend of a friend who occasionally rents a plane and flies. Sometimes, you really do get what you pay for. Serious aerial photography requires the support of a pilot with advanced skills who can position the plane precisely at lower altitude and unusual attitudes.

The next consideration is the plane itself. You'll want a high-winged plane, such as a Cessna 172, that has a passenger window that will open. Trust me, you want the window open. Some small planes have only sealed windows, and shooting through Plexiglas isn't the best way to work for maximum sharpness and true color. The windows that do open will nicely stay up against the wing when you're in position over your subject.

For me, the ideal platform is a slightly larger high-winged plane, such as a Cessna 210, with a removable rear door that offers much greater access and an exhilarating experience. Strap yourself in, and be sure you have a communication link to your pilot! Small helicopters are stable, slow-moving and easy to position; unfortunately, they're also considerably more expensive. With the door removed, the photographer has a nearly 180º view of potential subjects. One very important safety note is that if you drop anything out the door, it has the potential of hitting the rear rotor and taking you down.

Dress appropriately if you're photographing in a cold environment. And handle your equipment with extra care: Dropping a lens overboard means it's gone forever and it could injure a person or animal below. I have friends who have lost expensive lenses in the air; I'm not mentioning names here, but you know who you are.

Photo Gear. Now to the camera info, and rule number one: More megapixels = more detail. Cameras such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III or 5DS (coming soon!) are ideal. For Nikon users, the D800 or D810 make the most sense. The lens depends on what your subject is all about. If you have small subjects, such as a unique land formation, on the ground that you're keying on, use a 70-200mm zoom. For aerial landscapes, I would use a 24-105mm zoom. It's easier to use the zoom to reframe the composition than it is to reposition the airplane. For landscapes that benefit from the special interpretation of infrared capture, I'll use a camera converted to IR. I seldom use filters for aerial work except for an occasional polarizing filter; the drawback is that it will cost you about two stops of light. These days, postprocessing in the computer should render the polarizer unnecessary.

Technique. I once insisted on using a Ken-Lab gyro to keep the camera free of vibration when working from a plane, but in the digital age, with advanced cameras, I find it's no longer necessary. That's a good thing because hauling and working with that thing was a pain. Still, you need to take care to mitigate the effects of plane vibration and wind stream from the open window. Don't lean against the airframe because this transfers vibrations directly through you to the camera. Choose the lens' best aperture for sharpness, usually ƒ/8 or so. Choose a fast shutter speed, 1⁄1000 sec. or better. A higher ISO will assist in achieving the fast shutter speed and ideal ƒ-stop. I'm generally shooting aerials at a moderate ISO 400 as a compromise. Noise in the image shouldn't be an issue at that ISO.

You can take horizontal or vertical aerial panoramas if that helps the project. Take a quick series of images that overlap by some 30% to 40%. Even though you're moving, the panorama will go together because of your distance from the subject.


Drones (quadcopters) still can't take the place of a good aerial session from a fixed-wing airplane for higher altitudes and when covering a lot of area. It's really nice to be looking through the camera and making the decisions using a quality DSLR and lens. But that doesn't mean there isn't a place for a wisely operated drone! I'm about to embark on learning to use a Blade 350 for a bit of close aerials.

Aerials At 30,000 Feet. A more accessible aerial photography platform for most of us is the commercial airliner. I always have an iPhone and/or a GoPro in my briefcase, and sometimes I even have a camera converted to infrared with me when I fly. But a lot of factors, most uncontrollable, have to come together to get good images from a commercial airliner. First, you need a window seat in front of the wing. Next, you need that window to be clean and unscratched. Good luck so far! The position of the sun relative to the airplane is important. When choosing our seats, we try to position ourselves on the dark side; looking into the sun doesn't work for good air shots because haze is emphasized and flare becomes an issue, although a camera converted to IR (lifepixel.com) will cut through haze in a surprising way.

Then there's the weather: You can't control it, you can just praise it, use it to advantage or complain about it. I have to say that watching and photographing light on cloud formations is a very nice way to spend an hour or two, especially at dawn and sunset, even if such photographs are far from unique.

The iPhone (or other smartphone) is pretty good for taking aerials. Learn to set focus and lock exposure to get the best results. To hold the phone in position for video or time-lapse, I use an 11-inch articulating friction magic arm clamp made by Sevesto, and a MeFOTO clamp for smartphones, both available from Amazon.com. I actually have two of the Sevesto clamps in the studio because they're so useful. The iPhone comes with an app for time-lapses, but I suggest the iLapse app from MEA Mobile in the Apple App Store for $1.99. I often use the GoPro to capture time-lapse videos from planes; I use a suction cup, a GoPro accessory, that safely mounts the camera to the window. If you're using a small point-and-shoot or DSLR for your airliner photography, please don't put it up against the window; it will scratch the Plexiglas and make me mad when I sit in that seat next time!

The Most Important Technique For Outdoor Photographers
A frequently asked question: What aspect of digital technology most significantly improves my nature/outdoor photography? I would have to say that it's the technique of "stacking." Focus stacking gives us complete control of depth of field in landscapes and close-ups, as well as extended range of sharpness in high-magnification photography. In the film days, we could only dream of unlimited depth of field; we did everything we could to expand the range of focus, sometimes to the detriment of sharpness due to diffraction when we stopped down too far. With digital equipment and advanced compositing software, such as Zerene Stacker (www.zerenesystems.com), the photographer controls the capture, the process and the presentation.

It's a great time to be an outdoor photographer. We literally own depth of field, contrast and the final look of our images, which is limited only by our knowledge of the imaging programs on our computers. We have access to every beautiful place on the planet. We can make color prints in our homes that will last for generations, with more color and sharpness than we ever imagined. More people are participating in nature photography as amateurs and professionals, using a broad spectrum of equipment ranging from smartphones to sophisticated DSLRs and telephoto lenses that cost $17,000. The not-so-distant future of photography is probably some type of hybrid camera that captures video of such high resolution that any single frame can be made into a print. That sounds almost too easy; but it won't take away the most important aspect of outdoor photography, which is witnessing, experiencing and sharing the natural world. Let's hope that all that attention also helps to preserve it.

I'm feeling a bit nostalgic today because, with the completion of this "Tech Tips" column, I've communicated with nature photographers through Outdoor Photographer Magazine for 30 years, in every issue since the very first, published in June 1985. It seems a good opportunity to thank you all—students, colleagues, audiences and correspondents—for your great questions, your loyalty, your appreciation, and your shared love of photography and nature. Keep at it, and the best tip I can give you, in the digital or any age, is: Be there, and it doesn't have to be ƒ/8!

See George Lepp's website for upcoming workshops and seminars at www.GeorgeLeppImages.com.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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