Professional Aerial photography tips.

Aerial photography tips for everyone

With my experience in aerial photography, I thought it would be timely to write a tutorial to provide some assistance for those who are interested.   I really need to clarify though that this is not an area of expertise for me. Rather it is an area that I have had experience with out of necessity in my role as a Luxury Hotels & Resorts Photographer. Over the past 5 years I have utilized aerial photography whilst using a helicopter a minimum of 20 times. It is with this experience that I am able to share some aerial photography tips, though I would welcome any input from photographers who would consider this, their area of expertise.

The particular tutorial covers the type of aerial photography tips that are relevant when using a helicopter or small plane. I shall not discuss drone photography in this post, but rather save that topic for a post of its own at a later date.

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  • In the air all the locations look similar, especially in cities such as London, Paris or Miami Beach where most of the buildings have similar architecture and heights. It is always recommended to use google maps prior to embarking on any aerial assignment to ensure that you are very familiar with the location you are photographing. Use landmarks to make sure you can clearly identify the building when you are in the air. This may sound obvious, but many photographers assume that because they can easily find things in the aerial section of google maps, it will be just as easy whilst you are in the air. So unless you are photographing a very obvious landmark you want to ensure that you can clearly identify the location of the building you are intending to photograph.   Otherwise, almost certainly you will miss the building and be forced to return to the air after familiarizing yourself with the location on the ground. Aerial photography will then become a very costly exercise for you as a photographer.

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  • Be sure to get a quote from the pilot before you write an estimate. There are many variables that need to be accounted for when a helicopter pilot is providing a quotation for your job. The cost of this special vehicle can vary depending on the distance from the subject. Sometimes what is in between also matter, locations such as airports can cause massive delays that should be accounted for. It is also really important that you are able to communicate clearly what your expectations are with the pilot, especially if you are flying with a pilot with minimal experience with aerial photography. They need to have a very clear understanding of how you operate and what you require. As an example, I usually like to go around the subject four times. I also like to be able to see the subject at a low altitude both from a close perspective and from a perspective of more distance. I do this also at a high altitude. This is vital information that your pilot needs to be aware of in order to be able to provide an accurate quotation.

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  • A helicopter is always a better choice than a plane for many reasons. The main one being that helicopters can fly at lower altitudes and can come to a complete stop at desired locations. Additionally, the FAA will not allow planes to fly under 10,000 feet in congested locations but helicopters can. Helicopter doors can come off leaving you with ample room to take your shot and not have to work around the wing of a plane that will always be in the way. There is always so much more versatility with a helicopter.

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  • Check the weather before you confirm your flight. A few clouds are acceptable and can work but an overcast sky will not provide a successful shoot, unless you are doing land surveys where to a certain extent, weather is somewhat irrelevant. Most helicopter companies require a non-refundable booking refund so this step is crucial.

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  • Take a jacket with you. In order for you to take the best photographs possible, it is likely the pilot will remove the door of the helicopter. It will always be cooler at 8000 feet than it is at sea level.   Also remember, that you will be flying with no door at 120mph while you arrive at the location.

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  • Early light is not always the best for aerial photography. Unless you have a very clear idea of what the best angle would be for your subject and how early light can affect, I would strongly recommend shooting 2-3 hours after sunrise or 2-3 before sunset. Early morning sun can create difficulties due to massive flares caused by the sun being so low on the horizon. I recommend using apps such as light track to ascertain what the light will be like at certain times of the day. If it turns out that the sun positioning works for what you want to achieve, nothing beats shooting at the first and last hours of the day. (See examples bellow)
Bad use of early morning light

Bad use of early morning light

  • Take memory cards with ample disk space. You do not want to be switching memory cards whilst in the air and wasting valuable time. Additionally, riding 5000 feet in the air on a Robinson Helicopter with no door is not the best environment to be doing so and there would always be the possibility of dropping it.
  • If possible, take two cameras with two different zoom lenses. If a client is choosing to pay you to go on a helicopter to take photographs there is the assumption that you are professional or close to being so. You should have a backup DSLR camera with you. If not, borrow or rent one. If you use 35mm format, I recommend using a 24-70 lens and a 70- 200 lens for close ups. You want to provide your client with many different options and again, 5000 feet up in the air is not the right environment to be switching lenses. I personally use two Hasselblad’ One with a 35mm (24mm equivalent) fixed and the other with a 50 -110mm. This usually has me covered for all shots required.

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  • Watch your shutter speeds. One of the most important aerial photography tips you can take on board is to have a great understanding of shutter speeds. You should definitely try to keep it above 1/500 of a second. And by no means go slower than 1/320 of a second, even at wide angles. Surprisingly, aperture is not as important since you are at great distance from the subject and most likely everything will be sharp. However, I would recommend going lower than f5.6 and try to keep a low ISO. It can get tricky with photography taking place at dusk or in the evening. In this case, depending on the distance of the subject, I would open up a little bigger and raise the ISO to comfortable levels depending on the camera. But always remember to keep a fast shutter speed.
  • Do not rely on the camera auto focus. Set the camera to manual focus and aim for infinity. A lot of times with early morning shots, the sun will get in the way and prevent the camera from accurately focusing. Sometimes you are forced to shoot thorough a window. After the flight is completed you may well find out that all your images were focused on the window dirt and not your subject. Always be cautious of focus.
  • Do not go out and purchase expensive video stabilizers if you are shooting stills. Contrary to what some blogs might suggest, you will not need any additional gear to stabilize the camera. A shutter speed faster than 1/800 second will freeze a helicopter blade without the need for any stabilizer. You would be much better off saving your money than purchasing unnecessary equipment. Out of all the aerial photography tips this is probably the most irrelevant but given the cost of video stabilizers, probably very important to mention.

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There is nothing like going up in a helicopter for the first time to take photographs. Especially if you have a client with enough faith in your ability to be paying you to complete this job.   These aerial photography tips have been accumulated over many trips in the sky during the last 15 years in my role as full-time Luxury Hotels & Resorts Photographer. I hope that these aerial photography tips will be of assistance when you are looking at completing your first aerial photography assignments.

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About the Author

Portrait tono hassyAerial photography tips post was written by Antonio Cuellar a Luxury Hotel photographer who has been in the business for over 15 years. For further questions don’t hesitate to post a comment and I will be happy to reply.

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About Antonio

Antonio Cuellar is a commercial photographer who specializes in capturing the architecture and lifestyle of the world's most luxurious hotels and resorts.