October 7, 2010
A few years ago I flew around Southern Africa in a beaten up old Cessna that was even older than me. The pilot was a mate, with only 60 hours on his pilot’s licence. The plane was parachute-equipped so we could open the door in-flight to take pictures. We flew in a big loop around South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and then Mozambique. During this time I learned a lot about shooting from a plane.
The first problem you’ll encounter in a plane is vibration, which will cause camera shake unless you use a fairly high shutter speed. A fixed-wing plane has less vibration than a helicopter, but you have the problem of subject blur – but if you go slower than a certain speed the plane will crash! I would suggest using at least 1/1000 second if you can – even if you have to increase the sensitivity (ISO) to achieve this. Be sure to never rest the camera or lens against the side of the plane or window, as this will magnify the vibration. You won’t need such a narrow aperture if you’re photographing the ground from the air; depth of field won’t be such an issue unless you’re trying to get the plane and the ground in the same image.
If you’re shooting through non-opening aircraft windows, they’re very susceptible to showing reflections of anything that’s brightly lit by the sun. To minimise the issue, consider wearing dark clothes and even making a shade from dark cloth. Never use a polarising filter if you’re photographing through windows; this will cause any stresses in the glass to show up as multicoloured patterns.
You don’t need your own plane to shoot great aerial shots. There are enough places where you can take a commercial sightseeing flight, either in a helicopter or in a fixed-wing plane. Unless you’re travelling great distances, I’d have to say that a helicopter is probably a more stable platform for photography – especially if you can direct the pilot.
There’s always a lot of debate about whether it’s worth trying to get the pilot to take the door off a plane, or shoot through an open window. I’ve shot both ways and personally prefer using an open window – in part because I don’t like heights. An open door can be useful for shooting video, where you have to be able to pan the camera, but a good open window is better for stills. If you lean outside of a plane – especially a fixed-wing – then you’ll often be so buffeted by winds you’ll get a lot of camera shake. Shooting through a window also means you don’t have to worry about lenses (or indeed yourself) falling out!
Commercial flights can also be great for aerial photography, just make sure you don’t have your camera shut away in an overhead locker. It’s also worth trying to make sure at check-in that you’re not on the sunny side of the plane. If the sun is shining at you directly through you’ll get excessive reflections, no matter how much you clean the inside of the window. If you’re flying at altitude then you’ll often experience massive haze: the best pictures will be when the plane is closer to the ground.
Don’t just shoot the ground from the plane. Include parts of the plane and even other nearby aircraft if you can, to give context to your pictures.
To learn more then check out Steve’s book Footprint Travel Photography.
Learn travel photography with Steve Davey in some of the most photogenic parts of the world. See https://www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours