Aerial Photography

[by Fritz] Some stories can only be told by getting into the air. A good example is the Alberta tar sands. If you only work with what you see from the ground, you’d guess there’s not much going on. It’s only when you get up high that you realize the vast scale and impact of all of the open pit mining.

I like the fresh perspective from up high. You get the big picture, and often it’s an uncommon view of something that’s commonplace. Aerials can be really helpful telling stories about complex systems. You can describe concepts like connectivity, habitat fragmentation or urban sprawl better with photographs.

Aircraft are expensive to charter, they move fast and often you only get one chance to get a specific shot. For a helicopter, you’re paying around $1,500 per hour, so to justify that kind of money you need a clear idea of what you want to get from the flight. Here are some aerial photography tips:

  • Thorough research and planning. I try to pre-visualize my images. I used to pore over topographical maps, and now Google Earth is an amazing tool to help with this. You can even frame your photographs in advance and get 3D coordinates to plot your flight path. I save a flight path and imagine images from perspectives that I think are interesting. Then I share those ideas with the pilots, and I work closely with them to plan the route. I want to make sure they’re comfortable with what I’m asking for.
  • Getting the right conditions. I spend a lot of time watching the weather, and thinking about light and air quality. Dusty or grubby air can have an interesting effect, but it also makes images look soft. Air turbulence is also a concern – often the air is calmer in the morning.
  • Preparing my equipment and the aircraft. I try to visit the aircraft the day before to check things over. Having my gear well organized reduces surprises during the shoot and results in better images. I make sure I have access to a large slider window or can have the door removed from the aircraft for a wide unobstructed view. You can’t shoot through Plexiglas.
  • I also spend a lot of time planning my safety gear. If you’re leaning out of the aircraft with the door off, you need to have a harness in addition to your seatbelt. I tape the lenses at focus infinity, so I have one less variable to think about in the air.
  • Getting sharp images. Shooting with the new digital cameras has revolutionized aerial photography. You no longer have to change film constantly, and you can get very clean images at high ISO settings that even just a few years ago were science fiction. I set the ISO as high as possible, but not so high that noise degrades image quality. During the flight I attach the camera to an external gyroscope to reduce vibrations. I handhold the camera, and I’m very careful not to lean any part of my upper body against the aircraft. Good pilots also work with you to minimize aircraft vibration for short periods when you have an important shot coming up.


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