Aerial photography allows us to present a totally different perspective of nature to the viewer. Complicated habitats and ecosystems are simplified into patterns, and the world looks to be a series of graphic designs. Some are well-done, and some are not, and finding scenes that combine light and composition is the challenge of the aerial photographer.
I’ve had the chance to photograph from a helicopter, from an ultralight, and from a gyro plane. Each has its pros and cons, but all will get you up above your scene and offer the chance to capture stunning images. For the image featured here, I was shooting from a Gyro. The freedom of shooting is great since there are no struts, and it’s easy to shoot out either side. But, these things bounce around like a rubber ducky in a bathtub! I shot the whole first session while fighting back nausea. Of course, the motion sickness is made even worse when one is looking through the camera viewfinder than fixing on the horizon. The second day I took a dramamine, and that was much better!
During these sessions, I was photographing the tropical dry forests of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. In addition to some wider scenics, I wanted to produce an image or two that had really strong light and would make the viewer think twice about whether they were actually looking at a picture from Costa Rica. If the image could also tell a story, that would be the icing on the cake. The image below, which depicts a scrubby patch of ground at last light, looks like it might be from another planet or maybe another continent to me. But desertification is exactly what happens over time when tropical dry forests are cut down for cattle and then overgrazed, an all too common story in northwest Costa Rica.
TECH NOTES: Canon 5DII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens, polarizer, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO 1000, handheld (duh!)
PROCESSING NOTES: Full-frame/no cropping, standard tweaks and a bit of vignette in Lightroom, cloned out one small bush at the top right of the frame. I couldn’t avoid this bush in-camera so, unfortunately, this makes this image a no-go for contests but I think it’s still a success for my coffee table book.
GEAR & SETTINGS
For aerial shooting, it’s good to have two camera bodies with different lenses. Generally, you’ll want to have coverage from about 30 mm to 300 mm (in full-frame sensor terms) in my experience. Going much wider than 30 mm often means including aircraft parts in the frame, and going longer than 300 mm just has never seemed necessary. For this reason, I chose to pair my Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens with my full-frame Canon 5DII body. I then used my 17-40 mm L wide angle zoom with either my Canon 1D Mark IV or my son Chris’ Canon 60D, giving me the equivalent of 22 to 52 mm and 27 to 64 mm coverage, respectively.
Image stabilization (or VR or OS, depending on your lens brand) is helpful, particularly at longer focal lengths. At wider focal lengths (where subject magnification is less), I don’t think it’s as important. I’ve found that keeping my shutter speed above 1/500 or so was fine for most situations. If zooming in tight, however, I tried to keep the speed a little faster because any shake/vibration would be more visible at higher magnifications, though I still was taking advantage of the very good IS on my 70-300 mm zoom.
A controversial issue surrounds the use of polarizing filters for aerial photography. Some argue that the loss of light (2 stops with most polarizers) and/or the potentially uneven polarization effects across wide areas of skies makes use of polarizers problematic. Nonetheless, I’ve found that the benefits in removing reflections, cutting atmospheric haze, and saturating colors outweigh the aforementioned drawbacks.
I choose to shoot in manual mode when doing aerial photography for two reasons. First, it’s what I shoot most of the time, so it’s the most automatic for me in terms of manipulating the dials and buttons. Second, though aperture priority or shutter priority could have merit in maintaining basic parameters even while light changes, I liked the consistency of manual mode. In most cases the light falling on my scenes was constant. Once I had set my exposure via partial metering (partial seemed best to me to meter off larger tonal areas than spot would allow) off of some reference point (forest, ocean, etc.) I would not have to change my settings except in a gradual fashion as the sun rose in the sky (for morning shoots) or began to set (for the afternoon shoots). The exposure situation did change radically, however, depending on whether I was shooting into the sun or with the sun behind me. To deal with this issue, I simply knew that I could dial in a set number of clicks on shutter speed when shooting into the light. Once I resumed shooting on the other side of the craft, I would dial the shutter speed back down. Of course, in some instances I would work ISO or aperture as needed for different framing situation (e.g., due to changing magnification when zooming in or out) but in general, I was pretty well set with my configuration for the two basic scenarios of sun in my face or sun at my back.
Another consideration with aerial photography surrounds focus. I actually like the old AI focus mode for aerial shooting as it’s somewhere in between servo and static shot modes. But, many camera bodies these days don’t have this choice. As a result, I tend to use servo focus mode, particularly when zooming in for tighter shots as movement is magnified. I used expanded points around the center point, and this has always worked out fine. I shoot in continuous low burst mode and fire off a controlled burst with each shot I’ve lined up as I’ve found that at least one out of three is likely to be tack sharp.
When shooting from the air, your space is often limited. In addition, anything that is not strapped down can fly out of the craft, meaning you will lose it but more importantly, creating a possible safety issue. Take only what you need (no lens hoods!) and make sure everything is easily accessible but secure. Here’s me below looking like a dork but actually quite well-prepared for my aerial photography session over the tropical dry forest. In my little hip pack I also had rain covers for my cameras and a rain jacket for me.
When doing aerial photography, you’ll have a nice headset communication with the pilot. The pilots with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work have all been great at getting me into the position I want and super patient when I’ve asked them to go around and around again when I see something I really like. For the image featured here, I wanted be absolutely straight above my scene to avoid depth of field issues (light was fading fast as you can see from the long shadows) but also to keep a flat perspective for this graphic shot. Great positioning and a quick tilt by my pilot allowed me to get the shot.
With my exposure dialed in and with the Gyro positioned to taste, it was now time to think about composition. I knew I wanted a pleasing arrangement of scrubby bushes and shadows and after a bit of zooming in and out, I was able to find a patch of ground where these elements conformed loosely to an S-curve. I think this really helps the viewer’s eye to move through the frame from bottom right to left middle and then up again to the top right.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. Successful nature photography is all about previsualizing an image (even when shooting action or capturing a fleeting moment), analyzing the technical tradeoffs that your previsualized image entails, and then making choices. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time that you’re out in the field (or up in the air!).
EJ Peiker wrote a great article a few years ago on photographing from a helicopter. The suggestions are great for any type of aerial photography. I suggest youcheck it out at NatureScapes.
Vincent Laforet’s awesome aerial work is always an inspiration. I just love his eye for design from the air. For some examples, check out this gallery.
You can see more of my own aerial work here on this website.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders.