In July of last year, on a hot day at the height of summer, I seized an opportunity to photograph the active eruption of Hawaii’s Kīlauea Volcano. A river of molten lava, glowing neon red, pulsed from the chasm known as Fissure #8. Generating huge explosions of noxious gas and steam, it flowed through once-tranquil neighborhoods and forested terrain into the sea.
You don’t get near to this kind of action on the ground, so I worked from a small helicopter, doors removed, at the closest distance allowed of 3,000 feet. The experience of photographing this incredible phenomenon activated and exhausted all my senses. The sights were surreal, the heat extreme, the noise and vibration of the rotorcraft intense. While I love aerial photography and I’ve photographed from open helicopters, small aircraft and balloons many times before in a great variety of environments, the uniqueness of this opportunity, coupled with the limitations of access, challenged my skill, knowledge and concentration. It was so…cool!
Preparing for this project prompted me to review my strategies for aerial photography with respect to safety, visibility, cost, equipment and technique. These elements (along with the variables of weather, air quality and light) combine to define imaging success from the air in crafts ranging from balloons to jetliners. So in case you’re thinking of an aerial photography project, here are some ideas to consider.
Hot Air Balloons
A relatively stable platform that moves slowly in the air is ideal for photography, and while hot air balloons are not regularly available to most people, they offer an amusing opportunity for a unique perspective at venues as diverse as balloon festivals and African safaris. Balloons are whimsical, of course, so where they go is where you photograph. Your zoom lenses will give you “altitude” and framing options. If you’re with a group, the other balloons can be your subjects. Be sure to safely stow your gear, because balloon landings are rarely soft, and if the basket drags on the ground a bit, loose gear can be damaged. I really do prefer to photograph balloons from the ground but have gone up a number of times when the opportunity presented itself.
Helicopter tours are increasingly available at national parks and other scenic venues. Sharing with other photographers works great, as long as everyone has a window seat. The ideal situation is to rent your own helicopter and pilot, as this offers ultimate control over the positioning of both photographer and aircraft, but helicopters cost significantly more than fixed-wing aircraft, so I only use them on assignment when there’s no other way to accomplish the task.
When possible, I insist upon removal of the doors. Shooting through Plexiglas is less than ideal, as you are likely to have reflections even though you are right next to it. (It’s not good when every image features the logo “NONAC” or “NOKIN” or “YNOS”.) If you are able to prepare in advance, use black tape over the camera name and a black magic marker to cover any white lettering inside the front of the lens. The closer you can get to the window, the better, but don’t put the lens up against it as it will scratch and transmit vibrations. Hands and fingernails will reflect, too, so bring some lightweight black gloves along.
If you’re able to work from a smaller helicopter with the doors off, here are a few safety pointers. If anything falls out of the helicopter and hits the rotor behind you, the flight is over, and so are you. You’ll need to wear all your gear; if you have two camera and lens combos, wear both straps around your neck, one high and one low, so that you can get to both. Nothing loose is allowed: No lens hoods or caps, no bags at your feet or on the seat, no hats, no changing lenses during the flight. Keep your body and camera(s) in the cabin and out of the wind.
Zoom lenses are very useful in aerial photography, as they quickly change your elevation without having to change altitude, and, depending on the environment, altitude restrictions are likely to be in force. Typically, helicopters are limited to 500 feet, but we had to stay at 3,000 feet over Kīlauea. For that project, I carried two setups, one with a 100-400mm lens and the other with a 24-105mm, but in fact I only used the 100-400. Due to the vibration associated with helicopters, fast capture speeds are critical, so practice ahead of time to utilize combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO that give you the best possible quality with your particular camera and lens combination. The lava photograph shown here was taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which has excellent ISO capability at 1600, enabling exposures at 1/3000 to 1/8000 sec. at ƒ/6.7 and ƒ/8.
I must add an important additional caution here: If photographing wildlife from helicopters and small aircraft in remote locations such as Africa and Alaska, instruct your pilot to keep a respectful distance and do not pursue animals. Even if you do get a close-up of a giraffe’s behind as you chase it across the Serengeti, that evidence of your harassment will not be marketable, nor will it win any awards at the camera club competition.
Fixed Wing Aircraft
Other than using a personal drone, the least-expensive way to accomplish aerial photography is to get a ride in a private single-engine aircraft. I’ve been fortunate to work with friends who have pilot’s licenses and are always happy to have the opportunity to stay current by flying me around for a few hours, just for the cost of fuel. Friends or not, you always want to know the qualifications of the person to whom you are entrusting your life, so ask about their experience before you make the deal.
If you have to hire both the plane and the pilot, you can find air service at nearly any small airport in the country. Many of these pilots make their livings teaching other folks how to fly, so there’s usually a plane available. A flight instructor is pretty much the safest person to take you up. They’ve seen it all, and when I ask for tight circles around my subject area with my window positioned just right, they don’t have a problem with that.
When choosing a plane, I prefer the Cessna 172 over the 150 or 152 because there’s more room in the cabin to turn and work out the window. Low-winged airplanes like the Bonanza and Navion are fast (too fast), don’t have windows that open, and the wing is pretty much always in the way.
When renting a plane, it’s important to ask about opening windows; not all planes have this feature, and many will open only a small amount for ventilation, but these can be fully released by removing a cotter-pin from the arm that holds the window in place (do this before you take off). Keep the window closed until you have taken off and begin to photograph; once released, the wind vortex will keep the window frame up against the wing. Don’t waste your money on a plane without an opening window, because photographing through Plexiglas will degrade your images, and the windows are likely to be scratched and have a color cast.
Keep your camera, lens and body inside the plane as much as possible. Anything in the airstream will be buffeted and cause camera vibration. Don’t lean against the plane structure while photographing; your arm or elbow against the doorframe will transmit the vibrations. Traveling at 100 mph or more adds to the buffeting and makes it very difficult to get photographs, so the pilot needs to slow down over the subject area and keep the plane just above the stall speed. Usually my pilots stay around 70 mph or even slower. As with helicopters, the pilot will be required to maintain a minimum altitude. It will help to discuss your objectives and subject areas of interest before you take off, because communication in the plane is not the best, even with headphones and microphone.
You will have a wing strut in your way when photographing out the window of the Cessna aircraft. The answer is to photograph to either side of the strut, and a zoom lens will help with that. The pilot needs to position you so these angles are possible. I usually get the airplane into position by giving the pilot hand signals. Wide-angle lenses are not really useful, as they tend to bring structures of the plane into the image. The lens I most often use is the 24-105mm or the 100-400mm zoom when I want to get closer shots of something on the ground. For sharpness, stop down one or two apertures and choose the fastest shutter speed that the selected ISO will allow. If you’re looking for maximum detail and are going to make big prints, an ISO of 200 to 400 will be necessary to minimize noise in the images. If you are using a camera with excellent ISO characteristics, 800 or even 1600 might be an answer for very fast shutter speeds. If shooting at 400mm and a low altitude, it may be necessary to use a 1/2000 to 1/4000 sec. shutter speed to stop movement.
Over the years, I’ve scored some pretty interesting images from airliners, but considering how many miles I’ve flown, the pickings have been pretty slim. Of course, you need a window seat, in front of the wing, and the window needs to be clean and unscratched. Try to shoot straight out the window, as an angle will cause the multiple layers of Plexiglas to be even more of an issue for sharpness.
When the conditions have been right, I’ve used my iPhone, a smaller camera body with a 24-105mm lens (anything wider pulls in the windows, and anything longer loses sharpness), and even a DSLR converted to infrared. I keep the camera in my carry-on just in case all the planets line up and I can get some images from 30,000 feet. Several times I’ve taken a GoPro along, with either a clamp or suction cup to stabilize it, and have captured interesting time-lapses out the window. So far, the flight attendants haven’t had an issue with my photography. But if a video of me being escorted off the plane goes viral, at least you, faithful readers, will know what I was up to.