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Aerial Photography

by Philip Greenspun, February 2007

Aerial photography is an important commercial skill. Real estate is a big portion of our economy and usually the best way to illustrate the value of a building or piece of land is with a photograph taken from a helicopter or airplane.

Aerial photography is an important artistic skill. A lot of the world's most interesting patterns are only apparent from the air.

There is only one thing that aerial photography seldom works for: conveying the experience of being up in the air. When you're sitting up front in a light plane or helicopter, you look up at a panoramic view of open sky. You look forward and sideways at a 180-degree stretch of horizon. You look down and see interesting features on the ground all around you. An aerial photograph that isolates a shopping mall is a useful thing for shopping mall developers, but it doesn't remind a pilot of flying over that shopping mall.

Airplane or Helicopter?

Airplanes are easy to borrow from friends or rent from local flight schools, but you're almost always working around a strut or a wing. The old photojournalists say "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough"; the FAA says that airplanes can't fly lower than 1000' above congested areas or 500' from any person, structure, or vessel. Airplanes cannot be flown slowly. A typical four-seat airplane is unsafe to operate below about 80 mph.

What are the best airplanes for photographic missions? Traditionally, high-wing Cessnas are favored for their slow speeds and wide windows that open. The Cessna 177RG Cardinal is probably the best of this species, because it lacks a wing strut and the landing gear retracts out of the way. [You can buy a nice one for $80,000.]

With a helicopter, you can fly with your door removed. You now have almost complete freedom to use your camera as you would in any other situation. A helicopter can legally be flown at any altitude, as long as there is an open area of some sort to which the helicopter could autorotate in the event of engine failure and not create a hazard to persons or property on the surface. In practice, this means that helicopters may be flown very low indeed. The most efficient speed for a helicopter is usually around 60 mph and, if necessary, the machine may be slowed down to a mid-air hover or even flown backwards over the ground.

Aren't Helicopters Unsafe?

Modern helicopters are extremely reliable and you are very unlikely to crash due to a mechanical failure. The fatal accident rate in light helicopters is about 1 in every 100,000 flight hours, with most accidents being related to bad weather or a pilot attempting a challenging maneuver, such as landing in his friend's backyard and not noticing the trees or powerlines.

If you are flying solely for the purpose of taking pictures, it is unlikely that you would depart into hazardous weather; the kinds of weather that make flying dangerous are generally those that make photography impossible. You're taking off and landing at an airport, a huge open area. What are the main risks then? Helicopters are subject to a phenomenon known as "settling with power." If a helicopter is brought to a mid-air hover and then slowly descends, it will eventually come into contact with its own disturbed air. Sinking into sinking air results in an alarmingly rapid descent rate. We do this all of the time in training students, and they always manage to get out of it by pushing forward to increase the helicopter's speed, but we start 3000' above the ground, not 300'. Ask your pilot to circle the spot that you want to photograph, not to park the helicopter in mid-air. If you must ask for a mid-air hover, make sure that you are pointing into the wind. If the pilot is a fresh-faced flight instructor, don't ask for anything too fancy. Contrary to what you'd expect, it is typically the youngest and least experienced pilots who are teaching the raw beginners.

Helicopter pilots sit on the right seat of the aircraft. You will probably sit on the left side. Anything that comes out of your pocket will tend to blow back into the tail rotor. The best that you can hope for in this situation is an expensive dent in the tail rotor. The worst is tail rotor failure, which an alert and proficient pilot can handle by entering an autorotation, but really it is better to remember to take everything out of your pockets and put them under the seat. Do not get in or out of the helicopter while the blades are spinning. People tend to walk back into the tail rotor, which spins so fast that is hard to see. If you must get out, crouch a bit and keep eye contact with the pilot. If you can see the pilot, you can't be back with the tail rotor.

Where to get a helicopter

Most major cities have "helicopter charter" companies who will be happy to take you up in their $1000/hour jet-powered helicopters. If that doesn't suit your budget, look for a "helicopter flight school". Typically these will operate piston-engine Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters. The two-seat R22 is the most economical, at typical prices of $225-275 per hour, including the pilot. The quarters are extremely cramped in the R22; you'll be elbowing the pilot if you lean back a little bit to keep a telephoto lens out of the slipstream. The R22 also cannot be operated legally with more than about 400 lbs. of pilot, passenger, and luggage. If you're not compact and slender, it is probably best to fly in an R44, which is more stable and has the added convenience of a back seat in which to place an assistant or equipment that you're not using. The R44 typically rents for $325-475 per hour with pilot.

Best time of day

Contrary to theories put forward by some scientists, the Earth is actually quite flat. Aerial photos taken under midday conditions when the sun is high look very flat indeed. It is best to fly in the first or last hour of the day, when the sun's angle will produce shadows that enable viewers to understand the shapes of the hills and structures in a photo.

Film or digital?

As the aircraft circles the subject, you will be capturing an exposure every second or two. From every 10 to 50 images captured, you'll be selecting one to present or display. This is a great time to use a digital camera with the largest memory card you can afford. Fill up the memory card and sort through the results on the ground.

Another advantage of digital is the preview capability. People aren't usually at their sharpest in the unfamiliar environment of an aircraft. If you're going to make a mistake in your photographic life, this is the most likely time and place. The ability to verify that your images are reasonably well exposed and focussed is very welcome.

If you're using a professional-style digital camera, set the file format to "RAW" so that you can fine-tune the exposure on your home computer. When up in the air, concentrate on getting the framing and focus right.

Vibration and Motion-blur

The sharpest pictures are taken with the camera on a tripod, using the self-timer or a cable release to ensure that the touch of the photographer's fingers don't jostle the camera. How, then, is it possible to get a sharp photo from a rapidly moving aircraft that is simultaneously being vibrated by the engine?

The factors that influence motion-blur are the following:

  • shutter speed; faster is better
  • ISO setting; higher enables faster shutter speeds in less than brilliant sunshine
  • wide/telephoto lens setting; if you zoom in to a telephoto perspective, you're magnifying the subject but also magnifying motion
  • aircraft speed; slower is better
  • in-camera or in-lens image stabilization; turn it on to cancel the effects of vibration
  • gyro mounts; these are what the professionals use and are essential for video

The easiest and best way to freeze motion is by using a fast shutter speed. Somewhere between 1/500th or 1/750th of a second freezes most blur with lenses up to 100mm in length on a full-frame camera. On a digital SLR, set the exposure mode to "S" for "shutter priority" or "Tv" for "time-value priority". Use the main control dial to select "500", "640", or "750" and the camera's internal meter will determine a corresponding lens aperture for correct exposure given the lighting. On nearly every compact digital camera, you can do the same thing but it requires wading down into the menus. (An explanation of aperture, shutter speed, and exposure may be found in the Exposure chapter of Making Photographs.)

If it is a sunny day, you're probably in great shape now, with an aperture of f/5.6 and pictures coming out looking good in the preview window. What if the camera's aperture display is flashing "f/2.8" and the preview pictures are too dark? It is probably late in the afternoon on a cloudy day and the lens won't open up wide enough to admit sufficient light at the short shutter speed. You can increase the camera's sensitivity to light by adjusting the ISO, which typically defaults to 100, up to 400 or 800. Most point and shoot cameras don't perform well at high ISO, one reason why people buy digital SLRs. The bigger the sensor, the better the performance in low light, which is what makes Canon EOS 5D, (buy from Amazon) (review) worth renting if you have an aerial project to pursue in the mornings and late afternoons.

One advantage of using a helicopter is that you seldom need a lens longer than 100mm to isolate a landmark. If you're flying high in an airplane and taking pictures of ordinary-sized buildings, you'll need to use telephoto lenses of 200mm and longer, which will require higher shutter speeds to freeze camera shake.

If your camera or lens has an image stabilizer, by all means turn it on. When that isn't sufficient, as it never will be for video, the standard solution is to mount the camera on a handheld gyro stabilizer. Kenyon Laboratories builds, rents, and sells these items, which resist any kind of motion. The lunch is not quite free, however, as the Kenyon gyro is heavy and while it is fighting the helicopter's attitude deviations in turbulence, your arms will be fighting with the gyro/camera combination. Spend a few months in the gym before planning to use one of these for longer than 15 minutes.

Don't brace yourself against the aircraft; you'll only pick up vibration. Try to sit quietly and not touch your arms or the camera against any part of the helicopter or airplane.

Appropriate lenses

Use the focal length calculator in the Lens chapter of Making Photographs before getting into the aircraft. Plan on being 1000' above the subject in an airplane or 300' in a helicopter. If the project is to photograph a house on a quarter-acre lot (100' square) with a small-sensor digital SLR, for example, the required lens is 225mm from an airplane or 70mm from a helicopter.

In attempting to capture the experience of flying, true wide-angle focal lengths between 16 and 28mm (full frame) are the most useful. The wide lens will inevitably include parts of the aircraft in the image, but that was part of your experience. When including the interior of the aircraft, e.g., the pilot or a passenger, experiment with using an on-camera flash to balance the comparatively dim light inside the airplane with the bright scene outside.

When you've got all day to take the perfect photo, you get the best quality with a bag of prime (non-zoom) lenses, moving the tripod a few feet every 10 minutes to try out different perspectives. When the jet-powered helicopter is sucking down fuel at the rate of $1000/hour, it is better to sacrifice a little bit of quality for the convenience of a zoom lens. As an added bonus, many of today's better quality zoom lenses include built-in image stabilizers.

Good aerial photography starter outfits include the following:


hilltop mansion in Malibu Showing this mansion in Malibu and the surrounding rugged terrain required zooming out to 21mm (Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, (buy from Amazon)). ISO 100 and 1/500th at f/2.8. Circling low and slow in a Robinson R22.
University of California, Berkeley, aerial Boring mid-day light and a boring 35mm focal length (slightly wide) makes for a boring photo of University of California, Berkeley. (Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, (buy from Amazon) (review)). ISO 200 and 1/800th at f/7.1.
Downtown Chicago and the river Downtown Chicago. Same boring mid-day light and 35mm focal length, but a more interesting subject and angle. (Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (review)). ISO 200 and 1/1000th at f/5.
building in downtown San Francisco If you owned the building, you might enjoy this photo, taken at a 50mm (normal) focal length. (Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, (buy from Amazon) (review)). ISO 200 and 1/800th at f/6.3.
Zooming from 40 to 105mm with the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM, (buy from Amazon) (review) enables us to see how the Stata Center, a Frank Gehry design on the MIT campus, is hopelessly penned in by other buildings and can therefore never be appreciated as sculpture in the way that the Gehry art museums and concert halls can be. (The office building for computer programmers can be appreciated as a demonstration of the awesome wealth of America's universities; it cost $300 million when completed in 2004.)
It tends to be dark at night, a situation that calls for a Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. ISO bumped up to 800, aperture opened wide to f/1.4, and shutter speed of 1/100th of a second.
McMansion under construction in Weston, Massachusetts A McMansion going up in Weston, Massachusetts. 140mm zoom setting. Click to enlarge and you'll see a bit of motion blur. A cloudy day forced a shutter speed of 1/250th at f/5, even with the ISO bumped up slightly to 200. The stabilizer on the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, (buy from Amazon) (review) enabled an acceptable photo despite the higher magnification at 140mm. Canon EOS 5D.

Don't forget to look down... Straight down

As the angle gets progressively steeper, the photo gets progressively less conventional...

Helicopters can be easily banked to 60 degrees and more. There is no risk of stalling the wing. Ask your pilot to make a "steep turn" and just lean over slightly to point the camera nearly straight down.

Don't forget to look around... it may be your last chance

One of the best reasons to take up aerial photography as a hobby is that it is the only way to see those portions of the United States that are fenced-off or at the end of private drives.

Henry David Thoreau saw our modern confinement coming in his June 1862 Atlantic magazine essay, Walking:

... most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. ... I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since ... the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, ... but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. ...

Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveler asked Wordsworth's servant to show him her master's study, she answered, "Here is his library, but his study is out of doors." ...

When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? ...

There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all--I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape...

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only--when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God's earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman's grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.

Are Thoreau's "evil days" here? For the ground-bound, certainly, but it is possible to fly almost anywhere in the United States one wishes for the simple pleasures of looking and photographing.

About the Author

The author is the founder and Editor in Chief of photo.net, as well as holder of an Airline Transport Pilot certificate from the FAA. He is a flight instructor for both airplanes and helicopters and has flown two Robinson helicopters from the factory in Los Angeles to his home base in the Boston area.


Text and pictures copyright 2005-2007 Philip Greenspun

Article created February 2007

Readers' Comments

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John Meyer , February 13, 2007; 12:46 A.M.

Glad to see this addition to Photo.net. I fly Cessna 172's and have used aerial photography to fund my flying habit. Rental is about $80/hour including fuel. Quite cheep compared to helicopters.

I recommend lenses with image stabilization if possible. We don't have one yet, but I have ordered one.

Slow and low flight is possible, but not preferable, if you get the plane dirty (flaps down). The plane will buffet at slow speeds and it can make it very hard to stabilize the camera. The strut and wheels make the shot window very small. However we solved that issue. I usually put the plane in a slip, which will drop one wing and give my partner Terry a larger window w/o, the obstructions. Performing a slip while dirty however, is dangerous. The tail can stall. Only perform a slip if you know what you are doing.

If you are renting a plane, learn some aviation terms so you can convey to the pilot what you want him to do. It can be very frustrating otherwise. Explain what you want before you take off so he will have an idea what you?re going to ask him to do. My partner Terry and I have learned to communicate, and it makes our flying and photography habit/hobby so much more pleasing.

I find 1500 feet above ground level AGL sufficient for city shots. We usually hit several targets each pass. Depth of field is not an issue, so we set for fast shutter speeds. Early morning or evening light is favorable for some effects, however I prefer overcast at midday favorable. You get soft lighting, great color, and no shadows. High humidity and high barometric pressure is bad for taking pictures. It may look like a nice day on the ground, but once you get up, the haze will limit what you can shot if anything at all. Try to go up the day after a storm when the air pressure is low and the air is clear. Contact your local flight service to check weather and visibility. 10 miles + is a minimum.

John Meyer Fly by Shooting Aerial Photography, Inc. Combining the two greatest past times.

ben strawbridge , February 13, 2007; 04:52 P.M.

What about UAV's? My friend has a business flying remote control helicopters w/ high end digital camera's attached. He uses a remote moniter to view what he is photographing from the ground.

John Valenti , February 15, 2007; 12:35 P.M.

Are there any limitations on commercial photography for a pilot? I've gotten the impression that you would need a commercial pilot's license to sell aerial photos, but it also seems like most people ignore this, if it is a requirement. (what about for the sport pilot license?)

Al Kaplan - Miami, FL , February 25, 2007; 12:50 A.M.

It's been at least 30 years since I had a couple of clients (land developers) who had me shooting out of helicopters nearly every week. Back then I was shooting film in my Leica M's. I still am but the nearby heliport is long gone.

Philip Greenspun , April 07, 2007; 12:11 A.M.

John: You need a Commercial certificate to charge people money for flying them around (and you need a Part 135 certificate for the airplane, maintenance schedule, training program, etc., if you want to charge people for flying them somewhere other than back to the same airport where you took off). If a Private-rated pilot flew the helicopter while simultaneously taking the pictures and happened to sell them after he or she landed, I don't think that would violate any FAA regulation. Of course, someone who tried to do this without at least a Commercial level of skill (not very high) would probably be dead...

Sport Pilot? http://www.sportpilot.org/learn/final_rule_synopsis.html says "Does not allow flights in furtherance of business". A Private pilot is able to go to a business meeting or, presumably, take a friend up to snap a photo of his or her real estate project. It sounds as though a Sport Pilot could not do this.

Photo missions sound easy to fly, but they are not. My last one was in the helicopter. It was gusting 30 knots. Having flown a morning photo flight, when the winds were a little lighter, and getting kicked around enough that a passenger was sick, I wanted to cancel. However, the photographer had driven from two hours away, had 6000 hours of helicopter (passenger) time, and an iron stomach. He wanted to circle a building, getting down as low as 150' above the ground, not much higher than a nearby ridge and a nearby cell phone tower. The wind was strong enough that our track over the ground bore little relationship to where the nose was pointed. The turbulence was strong enough that we couldn't fly faster than 60 knots to/from the airport.

A Sport Pilot certificate means that the FAA thinks you are unlikely to kill one friend and yourself on a clear day, without straying too far from your home airport and shutting down well before sunset. A Private certificate means that the FAA thinks you might be able to get from airport to airport in good weather without killing yourself and two or three friends. You can be safe with just a Sport or Private certificate, but you need to have very good judgement about what kinds of missions are within your capabilities.

Stig P , April 12, 2007; 02:39 P.M.

├śresund bridge-Denmark-Sweden

In europe JAA leaves up to each country to include in national law regulations for aerial photography, as an example in Norway the pilot needs 500 hours of experience to conduct commercial aerial photography. Other european countries may have similar regulations.

Alain Girard , April 13, 2007; 05:04 A.M.

There are other means (at least in Europe or France) to shoot aerial photography. The cheapest aircraft is a paraglider. It flies slowly (30 km/h), has no windows, and the pilot can relase the commands to shoot as this aircraft is self stable. You can fly quite low but you use thermal updrafts to "power" your flight, inducing some limitations.

Flying early or late is not easy with a paraglider but some use an engine (not me). You can see beautiful examples on this site (it is not mine, I just find it excellent):

Many time, haze is a hassle in aerial photography, but digital processing allows to correct for it quite easily playing with curves in PS. As it often ends up in streching the histogram, it is mandatory to shoot RAW.

Image Attachment: DSC_1685_DxO_raw copie.jpg

Petrana Batik , April 15, 2007; 01:20 P.M.

"Good aerial photography starter outfits include the following..."

I know this site gives a big nod to Canon, but I still believe these recommendations are very much biased. Other brands have systems perfectly capable of Aerial photography.

Evan Petty , April 28, 2007; 10:20 P.M.

High density filters are worth investing in as well. Very useful when shooting about 60 degrees to the sun. Especially our high altitudes here in Reno and Lake Tahoe we are about 4500 ft altitude to start. -Evan

Bart Thielges , May 09, 2007; 04:04 P.M.

Hi Phil - Thanks for the nice article.

It might be worthwhile to extend this article to include advice for the masses who cannot "easily borrow an airplane" or justify the expense of a charter. I'm thinking of those who the best opportunity for aerial photography will be grabbing seat 8A on flight 522.

Some of your big budget advice applies well to the small budget shooter : the tips on the time of day to shoot and reduce motion blur. There are other tips that will help the casual airline passenger shooter including :

- seat booking : get a window seat (duh !) that is *not* over the wing. The ideal location is in front of the wing's leading edge. This will keep distortion from the engine exhaust from messing with the photo quality. If you must sit behind the wing, get as far back as possible. Also pay attention to the side of the aircraft where your seat is on. Try to be on the opposite side from the sun. This means to the left in the morning, right in the evening. In the northern hemisphere you will generally have better light on the north side of the aircraft. Many online booking sites include seating diagrams that will show where each sit is located relative to the flight direction and sometimes even the wings.

- equipment : antishake is good. On digital cameras, a tilting viewfinder and/or LCD makes it easier to shoot awkward angles. Long tele lens may be helpful.

- window glare : one of the biggest enemies of shooting are those 2 or 3 panes of plexiglass between you and the outside world. Minimum glare is when your lens axis is perpendicular to the glass though most if the interesting subjects are found downwards. Minimize glare by throwing a blanket or jacket over your head and "light sealing" that against the inner wall of the cabin above the window. Think old timey large format photographers peering into the ground glass :-)

- subjects : since you're going to be 10,000 meters above the earth for most jet flights, you'll likely want to be a the long telephoto end of your lens range. Even so you're not going to get a clear shot of any single building. Think whole cities, huge geographical features, and other large expansive subjects. Takeoff and landing are the exceptions so be sure you and your camera are ready during those fleeting opportunities.

Regards, Bart

Bart Thielges , May 09, 2007; 04:29 P.M.

A correction to my comment above : you want to be on the left side of the aircraft in the morning and the right side in the evening for northbound flights. Reverse those L/R seats for southbound flights.

Also Adobe's Photoshop evangelist Julieanne Kost has written a book about shooting from the window seat : http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com/2006/02/22/featured.html. Anyone skeptical that high quality images can be shot from a passenger airliner should take a look at her work.

Gavin Gee , May 11, 2007; 03:07 P.M.

If jumping in a helicopter is a little expensive and you arent aware Kite Aeriel photography can provide some relatively inexpensive different perspectives. Search for KAP

J. Harrington USA (Massachusetts) , May 13, 2007; 08:40 P.M.

I've hired an airplane twice for aerial photography so I have a few tips I can share.

If your shooting over an area where there's deciduous trees, early Spring can be the best time of year since it's warm enough to open a window but the leaves have not bloomed on the trees yet. Trees often block the view of buildings on the ground, your house for example.

Early moring can be the best time of day, before haze has formed and winds are likely to be more calm.

I flew in a Cessna, which allowed the widow to be opened. This particular window was held up by the airstream. As the window is opened in flight, it must be held onto so it does not slam the underside of the wing.

While leaning out an airplane window with the camera, a couple of things should be noted.

First, the wind will likely cause your eyes to water unless your wearing some type of glasses which you can look through your viewfinder with. Even with glasses your eyes will probably water anyway, getting the glasses dirty.

If your pilot wants to communicate with you and your wearing a headset with mic, sticking the headset mic into the wind of the open window will cause your pilot to get a solid blast of noise from the mic. I found that I had to put the headset on my knees whilst my head was in the wind, but the pilot had to tap me on the shoulder when he needed to communicate.

I also suggest that while doing aerial photography, don't be afraid to include some of the wing, struts or other airplane parts in the photos. When these are shown in the image, it can give the viewer of the photo a sense of being in the aircraft. Some shots of the cockpit and pilot won't hurt either.

My aerial photography flight over Saugus, MA, was cut short when a Logan controller made us leave the airspace because their traffic pattern had changed.

J. B. Ellis , May 18, 2007; 03:24 P.M.

I'm adding a couple of my shots, as they seem a little different than the others. I like being close enough to something to add foreground interest. That's easy in the mountains where one peak can be a foreground for more distance mountains. These shot were taken for a Cessna 182, through the window. Too cold to open it. Only one would upload, I'l try the other one later.

Paul Gentry , May 30, 2007; 12:31 P.M.

I was wondering if anyone here has experience trying to shoot large format aerial photography? Philip? I tried a bit from a commercial helicopter tour, but had to shoot through the window (since it was a multi-person 'tour'). All the shots were a bit blurred by the window. So, I was considering a Cessna since heli rentals are too expensive. Also, I'm shooting city stuff, specifically New York City. It's an interesting challenge since you can basically only choose one (prime) lens, and your shooting rate is relatively low. Thoughts anyone?

p.s. Nice shot J.B.

Daniel Cytron , May 30, 2007; 05:08 P.M.

Skydiving operations often have Cessna 182's and similar airplanes that they will operate either with the door off or (more often) a door that can be operated in flight. During the week, they are usually sitting idle and not making any money, so they can be a good buy. Sometimes you could even split the cost with some skydivers and get a flight (mostly climbing over the airport and general vicinity) $30 or so.

philippe giboulot , June 08, 2007; 06:05 P.M.

For those who do not have the cash, you do not need to climb yourself higher, only the camera... I am taking pictures from a kite, with the camera hanging from the kite. Quite decent pictures, no vibrations.

Alex Lemire , June 14, 2007; 06:19 P.M.

philippe giboulot, would it be possible to see your setup with the kit. I'm very intrigued on how you are setuped.


Joshua Thompson , June 15, 2007; 04:24 A.M.

Phil, I enjoyed the article about aerial photography and was able to take away a little from it, but I have still be very unsuccessful in finding anything on air to air photography. I'd love to learn how to take photos like those in "Ghosts" or other airplane picture books where the planes are popping out of the clouds with the wing tip vorticies curling behind low over a mountainous background... the fantastic prop blur and every little rivit and detail is perfectly lit. Perhaps I can recommend that you write a Part II that covers not so much air to ground but more air to air. Thanks for the great articles by the way.


Tim Stahl , July 02, 2007; 02:56 A.M.

For large format photography, it depends on if you want to shoot more artistic oblique or verticle survey type shots. If you are looking for the standard 4x5 large format and will be shooting pretty pictures, then you could go with a Linhof Aero Technika. It is purpose built for the job, including four different lens cones ranging from 90mm to 250mm. These cones are rigid, as opposed to flexible bellows which can cause vibrations. There is also a vacuum back which will hold the film flat and more importantly, still. These cameras are expensive new, but do come up from time to time on the auction site. If you are doing survey work, making ortho images, etc... you will be looking at something like the Leica RC30 or Zeiss RMK or LMK systems. These systems require a hole be cut in the belly of the aircraft (get an STC, don't just cut a hole with a saws all), and mounting the camera in the hole either directly, or using a gyroscopically stabilized mount. This type of camera system uses 9.5" roll film, has a moving vacuum platen, and can cost in the $300,000 to $500,000 range. Generally speaking it is mounted into a twin engine aircraft that costs half what the camera does. Though these cameras are designed for land surveying, they can also be used for pretty pictures if you ask the pilot to do a steep bank.

Image through an RC30 viewfinder over Philadelphia:

Colony Galcier, Alaska:

Kannan Raghunathan , October 22, 2007; 02:37 P.M.

I'm a newbie to aerial photography, recent PP/ASEL. I fly the 172 a lot and pop the window down, but I'm having a lot of trouble with exposure, how do you people shoot?

The article is good, but it basically tells you to think unconventionally and to use a higher shutter speed, but not as much in the way of technique i.e how not to screw up.

I'd appreciate people looking through my "aerial" portfolio and commenting.

Image Attachment: 5421191-lg.jpg

Tim Mullston , November 03, 2007; 10:17 A.M.

Excellent information. Thanks for posting. I've been spending the last four months researching how to turn my aerial photography into a business. I've hooked up with a couple flight schools locally whose pilots are pretty eager to get flight time and it allows me the opportunity to get some good shots at a reasonable cost. Heard this interview with Richard Eller (aerial photography author) last night about how to become an aerial photographer on a professional basis. Believe it or not, he still uses film! I thought film was dead. I thought his choice of camera was interesting, too. To P.G.: I've had P&A's Guide To Web Publishing for almost 10 years and STILL reference it! :-)

Thakur Dalip Singh , November 03, 2007; 12:08 P.M.

Tractor in fields

Phil! thanks for excellent article with tons of information. I am in India. I have a special question to you and all photo.net users. How useful are Gyro-copters ( gyroplanes, gyrocopters, or rotaplanes. Autogiro )and Powered Para-gliders or powered-ParaTrikes in aerial photography? Has any one tried them seriously for aerial photography?What I read on Net is = Powered Para-gliders or powered-ParaTrikes ,they can fly slow, at 20 knots and as low as 100 ft minimum height.As parachute is used in place of wings due to that chance of stall is almost nil even at slow speeds.These are big advantages above all other type aircrafts because less height and less speed means better sharp picture. but they are not used by aerial photographers, why? The pilot needs no license and even they are damn cheap for owning (4000/$ for used one)also. I want to buy one Powered Paratrike please advise me if it can be used for serious aerial photography. If not then why? Pl help. one can visit these sites toknow what these machines are? http://www.paratrike.com/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autogyro

John Meyer , November 10, 2007; 09:45 P.M.

We looked into the issue of aerial photography and a commercial pilot rating. The FAA does not regulate aerial photography. It is true that a private pilot can not charge people to fly them around w/o a commercial rating. However a private pilot can earn a profit aslong as it is not related to the flight itself. ie: photography.

Terry Foster , November 19, 2007; 03:12 P.M.

Here's my first atempt at airial photography, it was quite windy, making it hard to hold the camera still, also my elbows were up against my chest, and the camera (D200 Sigma 24-70 f2.8 lens) squashed between meand the window

Terry Foster , November 19, 2007; 03:12 P.M.


Philip Greenspun , November 19, 2007; 08:14 P.M.

THAKURDALIP: How useful are gyrocopters and paragliders for aerial photography? Well, they get you up in the air! I think the movie Winged Migration was filmed primarily with ultralights. The fact that these aircraft are experimental and/or entirely unregulated by the FAA is good and bad. It is bad in that you can't rent them commercially. It is good in that you can attach cameras and weird mounts to them without obtaining approval from any authority.

Why aren't they used more by professional aerial photographers? Most photographers want to be the photographer, not the pilot, which means that you need a two-seat aircraft at a minimum. Most ultralights are single-seat. Then there is the simple question of availability for rental, which is nil.

Matthew McManamey , November 25, 2007; 12:10 A.M.

While there is some good information here, I agree with Petrana Batik. You could get a Pentax K100D Super and a 50-200mm zoom for less than $550 after rebates. The lens may be 2 stops slower but you would still have a stabilized imaging system. For the coin you would drop on the 'Cheeper' package you could buy a K10 body, and an f/2.8 zoom (at the prices they were in 2/07 when the article was posted).

Even cheaper than that: A used Lumix FZ20 off eBay for less than $200. f/2.8 stabilized Leica glass and a 35mm film equivalent of 36-432mm zoom.

Save a little cash on your starter rig to pay for some practice time in the air. You don't want to sell yourself as an aerial photographer and figure out you suck on your first paying job. Plus, getting some sample shots in your portfolio will help you get that first gig.

Andrzej Szewczyk , February 18, 2008; 03:25 A.M.

From above

Kite aerial photography is a cheaper way of doing aerial photographs... and the same different perspective:
Thanks for the article

Steve Sole , March 21, 2008; 07:33 P.M.

Also there is aerial photography close up and personal from 50 feet to 500 feet with our helium balloon or mast.

SHELLEY RODGERS , March 22, 2008; 01:23 P.M.

Great, Great article!!! Pertaining to Matthew MaMahaney's comments....I've been trying to decide between Pentax K20 or Lumix FZ18. Seems Matthew is or similar thinking to myself, but I am an amateur for 40 years, Last 5 years included aerial photography...strictly hobby to compliment husbands hobby of flying(he earned his pilot lisence at 49yo) I am now well aquainted with the limitatations of aerial photography, while having a huge "canvass" open up before you....where to shoot??? below,or thatmagnificent horizon and need to decide quickly AND have a camera that will likewise.Need weatherproof and Live View (camera is out window..not my head) We have been twice to glaciers of Yukon, flight seeing icebergs off NFLD & Labrador now with 900hrs flight seeing(I have 3 camera windows on our Cessena 172)...but I need a better camera "I think". I've used Olympus and Canon..now have Canon IS3...Dynamic range is poor......My 8x10s for the wall are lacking detail... any words of wisdom would be appreciated ???? Also...passengers welcome...it is quite a ride!!! Many Thanks

Adam Hankey , March 26, 2008; 12:29 P.M.

Another alternative that people are doing now for real estate
properties is using aerial photography "brokers" or headhunters
that will find photographers in any area that is needed.

A. Aboud Dweck , May 16, 2008; 09:38 A.M.

Thanks for a useful article. I wished I had seen in before I went to St Michaels MD last week. I had an opportunity to shoot the Wade's Point Inn from the air. Unfortunately, our esteemed Vice President - a sharpshooter in the Elmer Fudd tradition, owns a house nearby and airspace nearby is restricted to a 1500' minimum. I had to shoot with a 135MM on the 1Ds Mk III pushed out of the window of the aircraft. There is a minor amount of vibration softness (even though I was shooting at 1/500) but the image holds up reasonably well.

Image Attachment: Aerial-point.jpg

TJ Rohyans , June 02, 2008; 07:56 P.M.

Very interesting article. I fly Remote Control Airplanes as one of my hobbies, and Aerial Photography is a rapidly expanding aspect of that hobby. I believe most professionals are using R/C Helicopters for their work, but a few are using fixed wing aircraft and small PAS Digital cameras with electric power sources to minimise vibration versus internal combustion. I'd like to see someone write an article addressing the use of Digital SLR's with large R/C's and IC engines.

Joel Scholz , June 21, 2008; 12:07 A.M.

Photo from the Hawkeye Camera Plane

I have been developing a radio controlled Flying Wing for use in aerial photography. I call it the Hawkeye. It is portable enough to pack in a small suitcase and is capable of flying up to an 8 oz. payload for 15 to 20 minutes on 1 battery charge. It is so stable that even if radio signal is lost the plane will land your camera gently. I fly a Canon SD800 IS on it for both photo and video. You do not need to be an RC pilot to fly it.

Roger Desilets , August 04, 2008; 03:58 P.M.

Great article Phil, especially on the helicopters. As a photographer with over 3,000 hours in helicopters, I would just like to add a few comments. Yes keep your shutter speed up! I recommend at least 1/500th, but most often shoot at 1/640th. You can shoot slower if you have to, ( I've shot as slow as 1/250 with good results ), but before you do that, make sure you use a higher ISO and wider lens opening to gain as much shutter speed as possible. The other thing is the Robinson R-22 will not generally hover as larger (R44) will. The R-22 is more of a "shoot-on-the-fly" style of rotorcraft so don't expect your pilot to pull to a hover at 250' above the ground! It aint gonna happen! Also, if you are going to fly with a pilot don't hesitate to ask how many hours they have under their belt. A couple of thousand would be nice. My pilot has about 15,000.....


John Trada , October 29, 2008; 05:01 P.M.

Great article and good tips on photograpy.
I have a date with my friend this weekend to go capture some Aerial shots!


Anthony Mann , January 01, 2009; 04:00 P.M.

Just a couple suggestions from my experience with aerial pics:

If the weather and your working flight altitude allows, rent a plane or heli that the pilot is willing to take the door or window off for you.

Piper cubs, ultralights and other slow flying aircraft are great for low level pics.

Wear a jacket and leave the hat in your car!

Andrew Prokos , February 07, 2009; 11:08 A.M.

Film is most definitely not dead Tim! It depends on what you are shooting...editorial work or fine art? Fine art photographers need to be able to blow up their work to large sizes as that's what the art market demands these days. You can't do that with digital. I suppose you could take a series of exposures and try to stitch them together but that's very difficult with aerial work and qould require so much time in the studio. Sometimes it's just easier to shoot film.

Jim Wilson , February 24, 2009; 05:15 P.M.

Lot's of great insight into the the process of aerial photography! There are people all over the world shooting aerials with varied levels of success and quality. Some shooters are merely trying to justify their addiction to flying, so if they can make a few hundred bucks flying a rented Cessna something around for an hour, they do it. Others are essentially ground based photographers whose clients requested an aerial perspective of something. Prices and quality are all over the map. While I shoot a great deal of air to ground work, many times my subjects are right up there with me. That adds a whole new set of challenges to the mix, but what fun and what an opportunity for stirring imagery!

Image Attachment: fileShYon1.jpg

Jim Wilson , February 24, 2009; 05:48 P.M.

Mustang Air to Air

Sorry, the image was too big! Let's try this.....

Greg Peterson , June 19, 2009; 06:48 P.M.

All "strutted" Cessnas are certified for filght with the door removed, though it may not be easy to talk someone into removing the door!

I find that on most Cessnas it's easy to release the little retaining bar that keeps the window from opening more than a few inches.  Doing that lets the window open fully, and sthe slipstream will keep it wide open in flight.

I did lots of aerial work in the 70's, shooting Kodachrome on a Nikon F from a doorless Cessna 150.

Today I shoot a Nikon D3 with an 80-200 zoom.  I also let others do the flying, and I use a small helicoper whenever I can.

There's a small protfolio of my aerial stuff at http://gregpetersonphoto.com/Aerial/index.html -- Greg

Image Attachment: fileujIUSI.jpg

isaac alongi , August 11, 2009; 02:33 A.M.

Wow, thats some really great stuff from some amazing aerial photographers, its seems you have to go some pretty great places to get amazing aerial photos, I live in kansas city and have taken a few of downtown kansas city and the kc skyline mostly from a helicopter, but nothing like what these guys are doing!


Jeannette Snip , August 26, 2009; 06:31 P.M.

Now THIS is a great shot! Talk about WOW factor. I am in the real estate industry and have a pasion for fotography and aviation. We had some aerial shots taken by a professional a few years ago but I would love to give it a go myself. I own a Canon 40d. Do you think a full frame would give a better image? Obviously sharpness is very important and I need to take a whole area or villas in the picture, with the sea and beach. I hope you do not mind me asking all this but I would value your opinion as I admire your work.

Thakur Dalip Singh , September 07, 2009; 01:47 P.M.

any post explaining details of pole aerial photography

Greg Peterson , September 17, 2009; 03:23 P.M.

>> any post explaining details of pole aerial photography

See: http://photographyforrealestate.net/2007/08/26/inexpensive-pole-aerial-photography-pap/

-- Greg

Dillon Carney , August 13, 2010; 07:42 P.M.

Hi I recently got access to a nice plane with wings on the top, and it is legal to fly with no doors! the pilot is eager to take me up to start something. I was reading there is some legal issues with this, but to me it looks like it will work.


My question is how would I go about trying to sell my services? Is it ok for me to contact real-estate companies directly?




Max Modigliani , December 05, 2011; 04:27 A.M.

For aerial photography the best instrument is the FLYING ART LEICA by Flying Concepts. It is the most sexy and incredible thing I've seen. It's a unique piece coming out in auction at Artcurial in Paris. Have a look it's insanely beautiful I think the artist who imagined that is called Stephane Breuer, here is the link http://www.flyingconcepts.com/#2358672/FLYING-ART-LEICA

Mark Anderson , December 30, 2011; 03:50 P.M.

I am a private pilot, preparing to start a part-time aerial photography business.  I did some web research on the question of private vs. commercial pilot license.

In July 2010, the FAA wrote a letter clarifying that anyone flying aerial photography missions must have a commercial pilot license. See the FAA letter at http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/agc/pol_adjudication/agc200/interpretations/data/interps/2010/Perry.pdf

The bad news is I need to get the commercial rating.  The good news is it's now a barrier to competitors who don't have one.


Patrick Kelly , January 05, 2012; 05:56 P.M.

This was very informative and interesting.  I would like to see more on aerial photography.  

J. Harrington USA (Massachusetts) , June 01, 2014; 02:51 P.M.

Aerial Photography - Radio Control

I've been doing aerial photography using a radio controlled multi-rotor helicopter.  It's working out well.

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